Gifts for the Teacher

Teachers occasionally receive gifts from students and/or their parents. Some are useful; some are just bizarre. A coffee cup (of which I received several dozen over the decades) is useful; a scented candle — just bizarre (at least, for me).

I still have a number of unused Starbucks cards — which I keep in my car, just in case.

A friend of mine teaches elementary school in a nearby district and receives many such gifts each year.

This last Christmas one of her young ladies, Sara, brought her a basket of organic fruit — her father manages the produce section of a local market.

Timmy’s father owns a florist shop and he brought a marvelous bouquet of white roses and red carnations.

Sean, whose father and mother own and operate a wine bar frequented by my friend and her colleagues on “in-service” days, brought her a rather large and heavy box.

My friend lifted it up and noticed that it was leaking a little bit. She touched a drop of the liquid with her finger and tasted it. “Is it wine?” she guessed.

“No,” Sean replied.

She tasted another drop and asked, “Champagne?”

“No,” said Sean . . .



“It’s a puppy!”



Teachers — Drought, Unions and Agency Fees

Our local papers, the LA Times and the OC Register have had several articles (news, ed and op-ed) about teachers and unions the last couple of days:

  • Orange County’s Teacher Drought — OC Register – 1.9.16
  • High-stakes showdown for union-backed Democrats — OC Register – 1.10.16
  • Mandatory union dues trample First Amendment — OC Register – 1.10.16
  • Interests seek to silence teachers — OC Register – 1.10.16
  • They’re not in the union, but pay anyway — LA Times – 1.11.16
  • Teachers union case goes before the Supreme Court — OC Register – 1.11.16

The above list excludes articles on the LAUSD search for a new superintendent and anything dealing with charter schools.


Like most people I am biased in my feelings about unions, dues and agency fees — I do not like them, but I believe they are necessary. The individual working man or woman has no power — as an individual. The only way for them to have an impact on an employer is as a member of a group. Call it an association, an organization or a union, the name, except as an emotional button to push, does not matter.

My father was a printer for most of his life; he worked at the LA Examiner and the LA Herald-Examiner. The paper was unionized and the union served to protect the workers. But even a good local union cannot protect against the financial might of a major national corporation. The 1960s strike against the Hearst Corp. destroyed my father’s union.

The last few years before that strike, he had been working a second job as a parimutuel clerk at Southern California race tracks, living out of his pick-up truck/camper in their parking lots five days a week — an eighty-hour-plus work week. When his union was broken, he had just accumulated enough seniority to begin working the tracks full-time, or we’d have been in real financial straits. He supported that union too — I even walked picket lines with him when they went on strike.


Historically, the individual worker, be he free or slave, has never had any power. Accept what is offered or move on. A boss, be he (or she) an individual, an organization or a government will always try to get the most for the least. Anything else is seen to go against their own economic self-interest.

Organizations of workers, farmers and slaves who have sought to re-dress their grievances have been put down by private guard forces and government troops. It happened in ancient Rome, medieval Europe and in nineteenth and twentieth century America.

Those who have to deal with unions (as opponents) detest them, or grudgingly accept their presence and would prefer to deal with individual workers rather than a group of them.

Have you ever told your child, “No, or “Because I said so,” when asked a question? Can you imagine your boss’s response to questions involving hours, salary, health benefits and time off without a contract or labor laws?

Employers and corporations, and their associations do not exist to benefit the worker.

Teachers and Unions

Our teachers are intelligent, hard-working and well-educated. Yet, no matter how intelligent, how hard-working or how well-educated an individual teacher is, he or she is still a single worker, on a par with a janitor or clerk, as far as a school district employer is concerned.

Many Orange County school districts employ more than a thousand teachers. Imagine you are an individual teacher working for a district without a teachers’ union or union contract. Imagine negotiating your own individual contract, salary schedule, work load, etc. Imagine enforcing that individual contract should your employer do something you believe is not in accordance with what you thought you negotiated. Who has the final say, you or the district?

Are you prepared to go to court as an individual against an employer of thousands or, maybe, just quit your job?

Teachers, and other workers, need unions to protect their interests. An individual worker, no matter how intelligent, hard-working or well-educated, has little or no power to bring pressure on an employer, especially an employer of thousands.

Are you a teacher? Think of life without a union contract:

  • Five new students are added to your second period English class — it now stands at forty-three and is the smallest of your six classes. “But when you hired me, you said none of my class would have more than thirty students.”
  • Remedial classes are needed on Saturday — you’re selected to teach two of them.
  • Parents complain that you grade too harshly and are not “fair” to their children.
  • You have a disagreement with the principal and she, or he, terminates you.
  • You want a raise.


“Nature,” taken as a whole, does not care about the individual. An ant, a bee, a gnu, a person means nothing. Colonies, hives, herds and species do matter. An individual clerk at Target or Wal-Mart means “nothing” to the corporation (despite their lip-service to the worker’s rights and value) as long as the work gets done and the profits roll in.

An individual janitor, clerk or teacher means nothing to a large school district as long as the classrooms get cleaned, documents are filed and children taught.

Contracts, Dues and Agency Fees

A contract is an enforceable legal document. It is not enforceable by an employee as an individual. It takes, unfortunately perhaps, legal experts, lawyers, judges, hearings and trials. Individuals and organizations, both those for and against you, must be paid. If your organization, union, does not do so, the burden falls to you alone.

Union dues and agency fees pay for these services. If no one pays for these services, these services do not exist.

Can you as an individual afford the time and money to both negotiate and enforce a contract with your employer — your school district? Think about it.

If you believe yourself to be an exception, that you shouldn’t have to pay an agency fee to your union, do you also believe that the union should not have to enforce its contract with the school district in regards to you? If the union has to enforce the contract in regards to you without your dues or agency fee, that means that other school district employees, the other teachers at your school (your friends and colleagues?), and at the other district schools, are carrying you on their backs and paying for your representation — you’re accepting their charity.

Think about labor laws, OSHA, the five-day work week, the eight-hour day. Do you believe they arose out of the goodness of the government’s heart, or perhaps, those of the robber-barons and mega-corporations? No, they came out of the political pressure exerted by workers and their unions and were financed by the dues of union members.


What about my rights to only belong to groups, associations, that I desire. Why should I be forced to join a union? I don’t believe in them.

Do you really believe this to be to your advantage? Think about things realistically.

It is to the advantage of bosses, employers and owners to belong to voluntary associations to further their ambitions. What are their ambitions? To keep and enhance their discretionary power over employees and customers and to increase their profits. They do this through their “contributions” to advertising budgets and politicians.

Advertising to convince you that they have your best interests at heart. Do you believe that the health care industry really cares for you? Have you had to deal with them as an individual? Contest a charge? Get an expensive, non-covered prescription? An out-of-network doctor? Five, ten or fifteen percent increases in coverage costs year after year?

They are profit driven like every other corporation.

But, they’re supposed to be non-profit. Yeah, have you seen the salaries and perks of those who run them?

All of these organizations, corporations and associations hire lobbyists and contribute to politicians. Do you think they do so to further the interests of their workers and customers? No, they do it to increase their power and profits.

An individual worker cannot do this by himself or herself. Workers need to band together to accumulate the money and voting power to contest the economic and political power of those currently in control. They aren’t going to help you because you are a good person and deserve it — that would cut into their profits, and do you really believe that is going to happen?

A “right-to-work” state is one in which an individual is free to deal with government entities and corporations as an individual and not as a group.

A “right-to-work” law is one which guarantees that government entities and corporations do not have to deal with workers as powerful groups but as nearly powerless individuals.

Belief in “right-to-work” laws and their attendant advertising (propaganda?) merely cements the control of mega-corporations and the ultra-rich over the government and, hence, the individual.

Individuals, working as individuals, are never going to be able to accumulate the money necessary to contest in the political arena with the rich and the corporations.

To believe otherwise is to confess to a naiveté that is simultaneously based in fantasy and ultimately suicidal — in both an economic and a political sense.


No, you are not going to agree with everything your union does. (I certainly didn’t.) Your union is not, and will not, be perfect — no organization composed of fallible types like us human beings ever will be.

But, remember this, the union is not some far off entity that exists outside of you — you are the union. The more you participate, the more the union reflects you and what you believe. Get involved. Use the dues and agency fees your union collects to enforce your contract and pursue the kind of life you want for yourself, your family and your students.

PS: I was going to concentrate on the “Teacher Drought” article. Ah, well, maybe next time.

Accountability in Education


In the Opinion section of yesterday’s OC Register Aaron Smith laments the lack of substance in the emerging educational accountability standards for the state of California and its local school districts. If the instances he cites are an accurate Orange County Registerrepresentative sample of those standards, I would have to agree with him that the standards don’t hit the point when we consider what we really want our children to be taught and learn in our schools.

We want them to be able to read, write and “do” math. We want them to know their history and science and, through these, how our society and world function and their place in it. We want them to be able to work alone and in cooperative and competitive groups.

We want them to emerge from our families and educational institutions as hard-working and honest people of whom we can proudly say: “He is my son.” “She is my daughter.” “They were my students.”

However, our emphasis on standards (be they local or national) and testing, rules and regulations is not the answer. If our children are not learning what we want them to learn, we must fix things where the learning occurs, or is supposed to occur. And you cannot do this in the state legislature or in a meeting of a board of education.

The first place learning occurs is in the home. Neither educational institutions nor individual teachers have any control of the educational process at home.

A well-educated and economically well off family with parents who both actively participate in the raising of the child (children) are going to send to school a student markedly different from that of a poor single parent working multiple jobs with only a grade school education and a limited acquaintance with the English language. There are, of course, an almost infinite number of permutations of the above situations, and schools and individual teachers are supposed to deal with them all successfully.

It just isn’t possible and isn’t going to happen in your lifetime or mine.

Students also learn out in the “real” world, away from family and school. They learn from their friends and acquaintances and their families. They learn from the people they encounter everyday: the cop on the beat (or in the patrol car), the polite (or rude) clerk at the market, the old lady walking on the sidewalk, the neighbor with the aggressive dog. They learn from television, the movies, their video games, their sports’ teams and coaches.

Schools and teachers cannot compete with all of these, and other, influences, positive and negative. All of this teaches your children more than he or she could ever learn at school.

What schools and teachers can do, however, is to help show your child how these individual interactions contribute to and shape our society as a whole. And, in the later grades how our society fits into a much wider and diverse world.

They also “give” your child the individual tools: the ability to read and write, the ability to do simple arithmetic for the needs of daily life, an introduction to the higher maths necessary for more skilled jobs and functioning of our increasingly complex society.

While learning these skills, hopefully, they also learn how to think logically and use their intuition when necessary.

We expect our schools and teachers to do all of this and more. We need to hold them accountable; we need to make sure that they are doing a good job; and, if they aren’t, we need to get rid of them and replace them with someone who will.

There is something that is usually forgotten in this discussion, however: tools and conditions.

Carpenters cannot build homes without hammers and nails (or nailguns) and saws. A good carpenter cannot build a house that will last without good dry wood.

A painter cannot paint the outside of your house during a rainstorm. The paint will not last, no matter the skill of the painter, if the paint is of low quality.

Most, if not all teachers these days, are well-educated. They have subject matter degrees and credentials that show they have been taught how to teach and have actually done so–under the supervision of an experienced teacher.

They also like kids and want those children to succeed.

Ideally, these people will succeed and our children will all learn and none of them will be left behind. But, you know as well as I do, in the real world it isn’t going to happen no matter how the deluded individual hiding and ranting from the bushes feels about it.

In education, as in many other things, demographics is, quite often, destiny. Richer areas are going to have better roads, houses and schools than are poorer areas–redistribution of wealth and tax dollars by governments notwithstanding.

Children of educated and economically well off parents are going to be better prepared for school than others.

Classrooms, books and other tools and facilities are going to be more up-to-date and in better condition in well off areas than in poor areas.

Yet, we expect our teachers to teach–successfully–all of our children, all that we want them to know, no matter the child’s background and preparedness, the condition of the facilities or the tools the teachers have.

This is laughable, or would be if it were not so tragic.

We expect each teacher to treat our child as an individual, in a class full of individuals (usually forty of them in California these days). We seem to forget that the terms individual and class are synonymous only when the class contains but a single individual.

But if the teacher fails with our child, (and, remember, in our system today neither the child nor the parent bears any fault or responsibility) we want that teacher fired.

Let’s see: thirty-nine successes and one failure in a classroom. That’s a .975 batting average. Ted Williams hit .406 only one year. Zack Greinke will get about one million dollars per start, win or lose, for the next six years. We accept high failure rates in many occupations and pay extraordinary salaries, but we expect our teachers to be perfect.

Oh, yeah, I almost forgot. In the upper grades teachers have five or six classes of forty students with the same expectations, and in physical education that can be fifty students per class.

Just think about successfully interacting with and teaching two hundred forty to three hundred teenagers per day–and none of them really want to be there. (Think about it. Did you really want to sit through your English classes learning about independent and subordinate clauses and verb-noun agreement? How about Algebra? The differences between capitalism, socialism and communism? Did you really enjoy running laps and doing jumping jacks? Well, neither do your kids.)

We give teachers all of the responsibility, all of the blame and none of the power.

Teachers cannot: force a student to study, to pay attention, to do homework, to show up to class on time, to be respectful. (A student can even tell a teacher to F-off in front of class without fear of punishment or suspension today.)

Parents? What can a teacher do about a parent(s) who does not do his or her part in preparing a child for school? Nothing, except, maybe, cuss at the phone after another useless conversation.

I believe that some (many?) parents’ attitudes are best captured by that office supply commercial of several years ago. You remember it. A parent joyfully taking two glum and frowning children on a shopping expedition for school supplies–“the most wonderful time of the year.” Glad I didn’t have either of those two kids in one of my classes and very happy about not having to deal with that parent.

But enough ranting and raving, it’s a beautiful day outside and it needs to be enjoyed.

Yes, hold teachers accountable for doing their jobs–teaching. Don’t hold them accountable for the interference and failures of society or the conditions in which they teach that they have no control over.

Supply your carpenter with good tools and good wood; you’ll get a well-built house that will last for decades.

Supply your painter with high-quality paint and your house will look good for years.

Give your teachers well-equipped and maintained classrooms; provide them with the books and other tools they need; prepare your children to be good people and good students. Then the teachers will be able to do their jobs and your children will receive an education they, and you, and all of us can be proud of.

Retired and out of the classroom.
Retired and out of the classroom.