The Internet is split over whether liberals/progressives should support the Chicago teachers’ strike. The pro-strike side has the more obvious case – you know, labor organizing. But the anti- has a clear-enough-seeming case as well: teachers in Chicago make on average over $70k, while their students come from poor or working-class families, and it’s those very students – Think of the Children! – who suffer when there’s no school. A lot seems to come down to whether you view teachers as entitled members of a cushy profession, or as underpaid-considering-their-education do-gooders who know better than our nation’s best-looking mayor what’s best for our schools.
To weigh in on this issue, one is expected to provide one’s own biographical position with respect to education. So: my father’s mother and mother’s father were both NYC public-school teachers. I myself have been known to teach a class from time to time, but as a grad-student adjunct, which both does and doesn’t tell me what it’s like for teacher-teachers. The public high school I went to was on the one hand an exaggerated version of a teacher-tenure disaster (teachers arrived, as I recall, based on seniority, so we got the very old, who were not always the very competent. What they’d won was, in effect, a chance to teach kids without discipline issues), and on the other, a place where it hardly mattered that the AP economics teacher conducted class by copying the textbook word for word onto the board. Most students would go to college – many to top ones – regardless. There were some great teachers, but no one was under the impression that what made the school special was overall teacher quality. Maybe that's since changed, maybe I'm far off, maybe the other economics teacher wasn't so hopeless, but that's how I remember it. Oh, and I was at private school for nine years, but my memory of 5-13 is spotty, and focused more on social interactions with peers than Miss or Mrs. Whomever.
With that out of the way, why "a feminist case for teachers' unions"? Teaching, as I've said before, and as Nicholas Kristof gives me reason to say again, is a profession with certain... particularities, ones specific, I think, to primary and secondary ed, and that dwindle once we're talking about educating the 18-and-up. For one, we consider it unacceptable that any child - remember to think of them, those children - would be in a classroom with any teacher not in the top X% of teachers. Logically, it ought to be clear why, no matter which reforms are enacted, some teachers will always be the worst, within each school, within each school system, but never mind that - it's truly horrible that there would be children - sweet, innocent children - forced to contend with less than the best.
For another, our (popularly-accepted, not talking social science) scale for measuring good and bad teachers is matched only, I think, by how we assess open-heart surgeons. As in, mediocrity is tragedy. So on the one hand, we talk of the "bad" teachers who are just bad, who conduct class as an exercise in autobiographical monologue, who offer a final course grade of "B+" without any explanation of where that came from (no feedback throughout the semester), or, of course, who break whichever of the legal and ethical rules governing the job, and get written up in the Daily Mail Online accordingly.
For yet another - and these are all connected - we imagine that teachers do what they do out of love. Love not of the material, or conveying the material, but of The Children. That teaching - and this really doesn't carry over to university teaching - is a thin, ambiguous line away from parenting. The study Kristof likes to cite, about how a bad teacher means that students are more likely to get pregnant during high school, to not earn much at 28 (does grad school count???), etc., reinforces this notion that a teacher is more than a teacher, but basically a parent. And "parent" is a commonly-used euphemism for "mother." A bad teacher, a mediocre teacher, is, in some primal sense, a mother who's failed.
Teachers' unions - separate from the pros and cons of unionization in general - exist to remind us that teaching is a job. Without this reminder, the feminine, nurturing image of the work (which presumably impacts male teachers as well) would allow it to readily slip into that nebulous world of tasks for which it would be greedy to expect something so crude as monetary compensation. And this is a real danger especially in this day and age, when increasingly everything is an unpaid internship. If no structure were in place to make sure teaching didn't go that route, who's to say that wouldn't happen? What, you want rent money? That must mean you don't care about children, you cold-hearted you-get-the-idea.
A reminder that teaching is a job is also a reminder that as with any other job, there will be top performers, weak ones, average ones, incompetent ones, and so on. It's great, I think, to have a conversation about job security, about whether the incompetent have too much of it, and about whether a so-so teacher ought to be fired or retrained. But unionization helps us remember that this is a job done by real human beings, and that however selective the profession becomes, there will always be some teachers who are not Robin Williams in "Dead Poets Society" crossed with the sweetest mom that ever there was. That rather than thinking only of the children, we should think of the teachers as well.