Last week, before the weather became the big news in the Portland area, one of the big stories in our local news was the ominous foreshadowing of what would be the first local strike among teachers in the history of the Portland School District. The fact that the strike vote was sold, almost unanimous , despite long negotiations, suggests a major difference between the two sides in the contract negotiations between the school district and the teacher’s union. Although my father was once an officer for his local bus driver’s union , aside from my own very slight and tangential involvement in the Teamster’s as a UPS seasonal helper in late 2012, I myself have no experience with how unions operate from an insider’s perspective myself, and try to avoid any kind of extreme hostility towards them, especially given that I haven’t had any reasons over life to be very sanguine about how school districts operate from my own life experience.
In seeking to gather how both sides view the impasse between the school district and teachers, I listened to one of our local radio stations that plays music that I usually enjoy (it is an Adult Alternative radio station, after all, and that is a genre very much within my own personal tastes) that also offers occasional and thoughtful interviews about political subjects. This particular station had a representative from the school board who claimed that the teachers were mostly concerned about money and that the school district was trying to be responsible in not hiring more teachers than it could keep from year to year, and the station also had a special education teacher who talked about a few essential issues that the teachers and school district disagreed on. He mentioned salaries, but said they were not a major difference given that the numbers were not far off. What was far off were three issues in particular: class size, teacher burden of work related to common core and other paperwork, and number of teachers hired.
Hearing a teacher complain about ‘common core’ was a bit interesting to me. After all, most of the complaints about the common core I have heard about have related to its political concerns. Not surprisingly, those seeking to endorse common core standards have focused on the way that it seeks to help students understand the underlying principles behind mathematics  but whose standards relating to English and language arts are rather rudimentary at best dealing with rather basic literacy . Truth be told, these standards are not very impressive and largely appear to be copying the approach of other countries. What appears to be at the heart of the complaint about common standards appears to be a reduction in freedom and an increase in burdensome regulatory and paperwork burdens. It would also appear as if school districts have been outsourcing those paperwork burdens to teachers, which keeps teachers from the lesson planning that they would much rather prefer to do. Teachers (like doctors and engineers and any other professionals appear far more interested in teaching than in dealing with paperwork. It would appear as if the mood of our time towards paperwork and bureaucracy is greatly upsetting professionals, and that the way that government is seeking to use certain professionals (in the education and medical professions among them) as agents of corruption in the guise of social change is also causing a great deal of discontent within those professions.
It would appear as if the main takeaway I have with news about this likely impending strike is that the teachers of Portland, who have never struck before in their history, are discontented about the change in the way they do work, dealing with heavier burdens than they wish in areas where they have little interest. It is, in a way, refreshing to see people who are ordinary considered to be foot soldiers in our society’s march towards decadence and irrelevance resisting that sort of social change. That is not to say that this is a march that will be arrested, but at least it is good to know that the teachers of Portland care more about wanting to do a good job about teachers than being the unthinking foot soldiers in social decay. For all of the areas where our local culture gets a great deal of (often well-deserved) criticism for its political climate, this is at least some area where praise is due, even if no one really wants there to be conflict that hinders the education of our young people.