Professor Lesley Lavery

Lesley Lavery, Political Science

We’ll be the first to know what teachers are experiencing with a return to school, whatever that looks like.

I’ve seen that teachers unions’ voices are often not heard. There was a unionization movement in spring of 2018 with teacher strikes in Oklahoma and Kentucky. And teachers’ perspectives were elevated in that moment, but we don’t really know what teachers unions do between contracts and between strikes.

Over the summer, we decided to sample 12 states with a variety of COVID rates and a lot of variance on partisanship and union strength, and then looked at 10 to 15 districts within each of those states and talked to union leaders.

Our first series of questions asked about what the union feels their role has been at different stages of the pandemic. In the spring, when districts suddenly pivoted to distance learning, which for some meant online learning and for others meant school was essentially closed or optional for students, what was the teacher’s role in that? What was the union’s role in that? What sort of concerns did they raise? What were their priorities? We also wanted to know how unions think they might respond to budget cuts. We anticipate huge budget cuts and schools are likely not going to be immune from those.

Our protocols changed mid-study when George Floyd was killed. We realized that we also needed to ask whether and how union leaders were thinking about greater acknowledgement of systemic racism. 

Our final question to them was, what are we not asking you? The whole point of this research was to make sure that unions have a voice in all the research that’s coming out. 

Based on the interviews we conducted, I wrote a blog post for Temple University Press. In October, we’ll be re-interviewing 30 union leaders and continue to expand our sample to include those who we didn’t connect with this summer. We’re also hoping to begin work on a journal article or book chapter next summer.

Students were involved in every stage of the research project, which is a rare opportunity. Students Lizzy Burton, Jess Brown, Emma Curchin and Adri Arquin (a St. Paul Public Schools student) helped amass contact information for union leaders which was almost a project in and of itself given varying union rates and access to resources across the country. They transcribed interviews and also helped conduct background research on all districts included in the sample—information about unionization rates, COVID cases, teacher experience, student demographics, etc. Two students will stay on through work-study or course credit this fall as we jump into another wave of outreach.

We’ll be the first to know what teachers are experiencing with a return to school, whatever that looks like.  And we won’t be relying on single teachers. We’ll rely on the organizations designed to institutionalize teacher voice.

October 19 2020

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