Joel Dillard

Representing Mississippi Workers

Martyrs & Professionals: the perspective of a teacher on union influence.

Today’s guest post is by James Dillard, a talented calculus teacher and observer of institutions.

One of the things that drew me to teaching was the flexibility it afforded to live and work in many parts of the country. Coming out of college I was eager to see what our country had to offer. I have taught in California, Wyoming, Virginia, and the state of Washington. While I knew each region would have its cultural quirks, I was not expecting the difference a union makes in the school.

Martyr: the mindset and experience of the non-union teacher

During what I would call my formative years as a teacher, I worked at a non-union high school in the densely populated DC suburb of Woodbridge, Virginia. When I first arrived at the school, I was starting my third year as a math teacher and was just beginning to get comfortable with my teaching style.

It was 2011 and the economic recovery was in full swing, yet teachers had not received a raise or a step increase since at least 2008. As a result, teachers who came in from elsewhere were sometimes paid more than those that had dedicated their careers to the school. The only way around this was to leave the district and come back a different year. This was very hard to do, though, because all of the neighboring school districts had noncompete agreements and would not release teachers from their contracts.

The 2011-12 school year was the first year that teachers in Prince William County Schools received a raise, and it was only a small cost-of-living adjustment to account for inflation. I believe I only received one step increase in five years of teaching.

The staff was very dedicated, and freely gave of their time to help students learn. Teachers were expected to stay at least once a week for two hours after school for tutoring, and as a member of the math department, I was encouraged to stay twice. This was structurally enforced because there were dedicated buses that stayed late on Tuesdays and Thursdays specifically to take students home who had stayed for tutoring. Students were required to be in a classroom if they took the late buses home and were not allowed to ride them without a pass from a teacher verifying that they were receiving tutoring or participating in a club.

Those teachers who did not stay to tutor were regularly reminded that they should and that teaching was about doing what was best for students. As a young teacher, I did not think twice about the idea of staying to tutor my students; my job was to help them succeed.

I was also the boy's junior varsity soccer coach. During soccer season, practice was everyday after school for two hours and games twice a week that often kept me from home until 10 or later at night. Because I was coaching JV, my job title was as an assistant coach and there was no dedicated funding for assistant coaches. As such, the head coach had to decide how much of his pay he would allocate to me and his varsity assistant coach. This ended up being about $1500 for the season. I coached because I enjoyed it, not because of the pay.

This school, as with schools everywhere, had trouble with finding enough substitutes. This was especially true on Mondays and Fridays. To discourage us from taking Monday or Friday off, the principal refused to look for subs on those days. When teachers were out, it was up to their department to figure out how to get the classes covered. This meant we had a rotating schedule of IOU’s based on who had lost their planning period to cover for another teacher. We were not happy about this, but there was nothing we could do.

Teachers are expected to attend graduation without compensation. Teachers are expected to take the time to remove all decorations and personal teaching supplies from the classroom at the end of each school year and return them at the beginning of the following year, without compensation for their time. Teachers must supervise, take tickets, or chaperone a minimum of two sporting events or dances each year without compensation.

Still, when I moved from Virginia to Washington, it was a very sad time. I loved the people and school where I was working and had invested a lot of time and energy into making it the best school I could.

Professional: the mindset and experience of the union teacher.

I now teach at a high school in an Olympia, Washinton suburb. The district has an active union and the switch from a non-union to a union job was quite a culture shock. I have now taught here for four years and each year I have received a full step increase along with an additional COLA. This fact alone is a culture shock. In Virginia, any step increase was a miracle. In Washington, annual step increases are a minimum expectation.

At first glance, the teaching atmosphere didn’t seem that different, but as the school year got going, little things became apparent. At the beginning of the year, a sign-up sheet was passed out to determine when people were going to stay after school to tutor. Being a new teacher, at the school, I wanted to make sure that I was contributing, so when there were spaces left blank, I made sure that I signed up so that tutoring would be covered. It wasn’t until I was actually tutoring that I learned that I would be compensated for my extra time at the standard teacher hourly wage. This was a shock. Between my wife and I, we did not need the extra pay, and I was hoping to spend more time at home with my kids, so from then on, I have decided to leave the after-school tutoring for those that need the extra compensation. I still volunteer to tutor before and after school, but only during my contract hours.

When I was asked to coach JV soccer, I found out that there was an actual salary schedule that dictated my pay based on my experience. If I agreed to coach, I would have made more as a JV soccer coach in Washington than I would have if I was the head soccer coach in Virginia and didn’t share my pay with assistant coaches. Not only that, but my compensations would have increased with each year I coached. Even with the additional pay, I turned down the coaching position so I could have more family time.

If I take tickets at a sporting event, I am compensated. Graduation attendance is not compensated, but it is also not mandatory. I am not asked to remove all of my decorations at the end of each year, and if I am told that I must change classrooms that I teach in, there is additional pay to compensate me for the added time required to move. If there aren’t enough substitutes available, and I have to cover for a teacher during my planning period, I am given extra compensation for the time that I lost.

All of these little things create a very different relationship between the teacher and the school where they work. Teachers think of themselves as professionals who must be compensated for any professional work that they do. Teaching in the school is much more transactional. Any time there is an additional task required of a teacher, the expectation is that it is compensated. The idea that teachers must go the extra mile because we care about students and if we don’t do it for free we are not good compassionate teachers is just not a discussion. Even after teaching here for four years, it is still a shock.

I should also mention the added freedom teachers have to speak their minds to the administration. There is a lot less fear here: teachers know they can stand on their rights and will not be pushed around.

Occasionally there are tasks that the district or school asks us to participate in that require more work, but no additional compensation. The district finds it very hard to get volunteers for these tasks. For instance, the district is going through a new math curriculum adoption. The district agreed that any meetings required outside of the bargained professional development days would be compensated, but that the additional work required to learn and implement the pilot curriculum would be done on the teacher's own time. Because of this, I was the only math teacher at my school willing to participate in the textbook adoption process. Unions bring a culture to a school that says we are professionals and our time is valuable. If you wish to use my time to improve the school, I expect to be compensated. With this mindset, if the district really does need volunteers, they almost always must look to the outside community. Teachers are professionals, not volunteers, and they will happily let the administration know this.

The Union Difference

From my experience, districts that do not have a union encourage teachers to be martyrs for their school. They shift the burden of providing for students from the administration to the poorly compensated classroom teacher. The message is, you care about your students, so you do what must be done to make the school better. Teachers are reminded regularly that teaching is a calling, and that we chose this profession, not because of pay, but because we care about children.

In a unionized school, the teachers remind the district that we are professionals and that if they want the most for the students in their district, they must pay for it. The burden of who is responsible for offering things to students shifts back to the administration.


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