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"I bargained to stay in the middle class"

5/28/2015
Retired science teacher and IFT leader Jane Russell delivered the following testimony in Senate Executive Committee, describing the critical importance of collective bargaining via her personal experience. Her testimony was submitted for consideration on Senate Bill 1046, SA 1.



Even though I am a science teacher, I would like to give you a little history, a little background so you have a better idea of why I have come here today.
 
I graduated from Northern IL University with a B.S. in Chemistry, minoring in mathematics and completed my teaching credentials for a certificate to teach grades 6—12. Staying the extra semester to complete my student teaching was one of the better decisions I have made in my life. And here’s why.

In one of my first job interviews through the N.I.U. placement office, I interviewed for a research position in a water quality company. I found out very quickly that the male student also interviewing for the same position would have made several thousand more dollars a year doing exactly the same job. My immediate response was to look for a position where I was valued as much as a male worker in my field.
 
When I began looking for a teaching position, I soon found that the districts near the community where I grew up had collective bargaining agreements and equity in their salary schedules. The male chemistry teacher who taught in the classroom next to mine who taught the same curriculum and gave the same tests to his students also made the same salary. And thus my lifelong career was launched.
 
The longer I taught in the district the more enhancements there were to the collective bargaining agreement. By the time I was pregnant with my twins, I could use accumulated sick leave days and keep my health insurance. I was considered a high risk pregnancy and was on maternity leave for an entire semester. My twins were born in May and I was back in school in September because I still had a job to which I could return. This had not been the case when I first started teaching, as women who became pregnant did not have their position held for them when they were able to return to work.
 
My spouse was a high school science teacher also, but he began to lose his hearing when he was in his 40’s. He left teaching because he became deaf in one ear and had a 40% hearing loss in the other. After leaving teaching he had several part time, seasonal jobs and became “Mr. Dad.”  I became the breadwinner for the family. My family and I were able to have health insurance from my district. We could raise our family and stay in the middle class neighborhood we loved.
 
While this is part of my story, it’s one that has played out over and over for hundreds of thousands of Illinois teachers and professionals who like me have bargained to stay in the middle class.
 
In the district Board of Education’s meeting room, a sign hung at the back of the room. In large wooden letters could be seen from any vantage point in the room, “What’s best for the kids?” The collective bargaining we engaged in always circled back to that question, “What’s best for the kids?”
 
Collective bargaining is not collective begging. Sure sometimes we talked AT one another, but we always had to end up talking TO each other to come to agreement.
 
Teachers in my district were instrumental in making working conditions for teachers and staff better so that learning conditions for our students could also be better.
 
Here are three examples:

  • Class Size, Classroom Conditions
    We negotiated maximum class sizes for all departments. Multiple studies have shown that keeping class sizes low helps student learning. In my case, there was a safety issue also as the chem labs had 24 stations. That meant if there were more than 24 students in my lab, the chance of possible accidents increased considerably. 

  • Professional Development
    It’s critical that educators continue professional growth and development to remain current on the latest curriculum and classroom techniques- to not only relate to a changing student population, but also to improve student achievement. The student population changed considerably in the 35 years I taught in the district. In the 80’s and early 90’s with all of the fighting/religious tensions in the eastern European countries, the district had a huge influx of Polish and Bosnian students. Training in cooperative learning was extensive and we employed it in our classrooms with amazing results. The kids didn’t know that when they worked together in their cooperative groups, they had different religious backgrounds and/or were on different sides of the “wars”. It was a revelation that they could work together!

  • A Voice in Curriculum Development
    We had several committees listed in our collective bargaining agreement. All of the committees had a majority of teachers. We worked on the SIP Committee (school improvement planning), we worked in professional learning communities within and between departments, we planned all of our teacher institute days to make sure what we learned was going to benefit what occurred in our classrooms.

And so, I ask you when you consider your vote on this legislation and to paraphrase the question, “What’s best for the students, the teachers, the districts and ultimately the communities we serve?"
 
This legislation impairs the freedom of educators to negotiate with school districts, many of which have positive relationships with unions. If teachers or school districts want something in (or out) of a collective bargaining agreement, they can negotiate it. They do not need the legislation impairing their ability to enter in to a mutually agreed contract with each other.
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