Power Concedes Nothing Without a Demand: Why Teachers Like Me Support Teacher Unions - Dissent Magazine (2023)

Power Concedes Nothing Without a Demand: Why Teachers Like Me Support Teacher Unions

Leo Casey: Why Teachers Like Me Support Teacher Unions

Power Concedes Nothing Without a Demand: Why Teachers Like Me Support Teacher Unions - Dissent Magazine (1)

The following post is my contribution to EDUSolidarity, a net-roots campaign of American teachers on why we support teacher unions. Hundreds of similar testimonials are being published today and can be accessed via the EDUSolidarity homepage.

The great American abolitionist Frederick Douglass once captured an essential truth about our efforts to make the world in which we live and teach a better place. “If there is no struggle,” Douglass wrote, “there is no progress. . . . Power concedes nothing without a demand.”

Teacher unions provide teachers like me with the voice to make demands on power. This is the story of my first years as a teacher, when the need to make demands on power led me to participate in my teacher union.

Like many teachers, I did not originally plan on a career in K to 12 education. I came from a family of teachers—both of my parents taught in New York City public schools, and four of my five siblings are educators—but my passions were politics and the life of the mind. As I approached thirty, I was working on a doctorate in political philosophy at the University of Toronto. Early in the 1980s, I interrupted my dissertation writing and returned to New York to do political organizing on the democratic Left, on the soon-to-be-proven-wrong premise that the radical programs of the Reagan administration would create a massive popular movement of opposition. My political hopes dashed, I needed to find a way to support myself until I could complete my dissertation, and teaching seemed a natural choice. In September 1984, I went to work as a social studies teacher at an inner-city high school in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn.

My plan was to complete my dissertation and to find a job in political philosophy at the university level. But somewhere in that first year of teaching, after I had gotten over the shock of just how hard this work was and how much skill it required, I began to fall in love with educating and caring for my students. My students won my heart and gave my life a fuller and deeper purpose; I knew that the work I was doing was meaningful and important, for it could change for the better the lives of young people that had been abandoned by the larger society because they were youth of color, mostly poor, mostly female, and largely recent immigrants. I still worked on my dissertation during the summer vacations, finishing it four years later, but by then the die were cast. Teaching high school students became my life’s vocation: I was now a teacher of kids that others had given up on before they even had a chance to prove themselves.

The year I began teaching, the New York City Board of Education began a renovation of the school building in which I worked. They gave a group of fly-by-night construction companies the free run of the place. The construction workers worked through the school day, when they were not “chatting up” the female students, and disrupted classes without warning with drilling and hammering. (I still remember the “gotcha sequences” of my eighth period American history class that first year: when I prepared a normal lesson, the workers would let loose with jackhammers outside my classroom window; when I prepared a lesson students could do silently in their seats, you could hear the birds chirping in the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens across the street.) The school was constantly filled with dust and debris of a then-unknown nature, and there were days that it was so thick, one could barely see down the first floor hallway. Staff and students began to suffer respiratory problems and allergic and asthmatic attacks.

By the end of my second year of teaching, everyone who worked in the school, from the principal to the stock man, had had enough. Since I had more political experience and organizing skills than others in the school, I ended up leading efforts to get this problem under control. When the school and its classrooms were completely filled with debris on the eve of the start of my third year, we went to the White Lung Association, an occupational health and safety organization founded for workers harmed by exposure to asbestos. With their help, we reached out to a politically connected law firm (former Congressman Herman Badillo was one of the lead partners), and within hours we had a court order (from a soon to be retired judge who could do the right thing without fear of retribution) closing down the school. When the other schools opened for the first day of school the next morning, our doors were closed.

When the court-ordered tests of the school building were done, the results came back positive for high levels of loose (the technical term is friable) asbestos fibers in the dust and debris, in a form in which it could be easily breathed in and ingested. Some combination of the construction companies and the Board’s Division of School Buildings had submitted falsified tests, claiming that there was no asbestos in ceilings and walls that were full of it. Work was then done in those areas without any of the required precautions and procedures. To give you just one example of what that meant for those of us teaching and learning in the school, an entire section of the asbestos containing ceiling in the cafeteria had been removed while students and teachers sat there eating lunch.

(Two years later, a citywide scandal broke the news that the tests for asbestos required by the federal Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act had been falsified throughout the city, and a number of officials in the Board’s Division of School Buildings eventually went to jail for the forgeries. Not, unfortunately, the top rogue, who let his underlings take the fall. I remember him well, because in the interval between the initial court order and the actual performance of the court-ordered tests, he brought a group of non-English speaking janitorial workers into the building, without any protective equipment, to “dry sweep up” all the asbestos dust and debris. Court order in hand, I called the police on the Board of Education and had the building emptied and closed, while this official fumed, cursing and threatening me. Few moments in my many years of teaching and union work in New York City schools have provided me more satisfaction.)

For three months of what we called, tongue in cheek, our “diaspora,” our school building was closed down under court order for a complete asbestos abatement cleaning. Our staff and students were temporarily assigned to other sites around the city. In November, we returned to our now clean and safe school building.

My local union, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), had not anticipated this development. Not surprisingly, it had had the idea that issues like occupational health and safety and asbestos were the concerns of miners and assembly-line factory workers, not teachers. But once the problem at our school forced the issue to the fore, the union quickly grasped what was at stake and moved into action. Randi Weingarten, then the UFT’s counsel, negotiated a protocol with the Board of Education to cover the resumption and completion of the renovation work at our school, starting with the novel idea that work should be done when classes were not in session; this protocol became the basis for a set of regulations that govern construction work in any school to this day. The union hired experienced industrial hygienists and developed a Health and Safety Committee in each borough, with staff trained to respond immediately to a whole series of potential health hazards in schools. It negotiated health and safety language into the collective bargaining agreement.

Was this a “cure all” that sent us forth into a health and safety utopia? Not at all. The New York City Department of Education being the New York City Department of Education—the second biggest bureaucracy in the United States after the Pentagon—the UFT’s Health and Safety Program is never short of work. But now we have a set of regulations, and a system of checks and balances, which allows the UFT to act in an expeditious way when a hazard is identified in a school, and to resolve that problem quickly. And both the staff and the students in New York City public schools are far better off for it.

There are some lessons that I drew from this formative experience, lessons that define my understanding of what it means to be a teacher unionist.

First, our interests as teachers are inextricably linked to the interests of the students we teach. It is hard to imagine a tale of such criminal malfeasance taking place in an American school serving a well-to-do student population. Since we urban teachers take on the task of educating and caring for those on whom society has placed very little premium, we find ourselves sharing in some of the conditions of their lives. The story of asbestos is only one of many examples that could be provided here: I tell it because it is my story, and the story of teachers with whom I worked.

I think about this reality often when I read of corporate-style reformers declaring that we public school teachers and teacher unions care only about ourselves, and not about our students. It is easy to make such sweeping moral judgments from a safe distance in comfortable surroundings, when you haven’t stood in the front of an inner-city classroom day after day. From the standpoint of teachers who have given over our adult professional lives to serving the students most in need, such self-righteous moralizing rings awfully hollow. Walk the walk like we walk the walk, and then teachers might be prepared to listen to your talk that you put children first.

Second, this struggle reinforced for me a truth I had always known. If I was going to make teaching and urban education my life’s work, there was a limit to what one teacher could do alone, especially in a place as vast as New York City. Teachers had to be organized, for the good of our students as much as for our own common good, and I needed to be part of that organization. Our hopes for our future lay in collective action. With this episode behind me, I ran for the union chapter leader in my school and began my many years of involvement in the UFT, where I now serve as a leader.

A moral vision of a better world is worth little if we cannot realize it in practice. Teachers bring such a moral vision to our work with the young people we educate, but good intentions are not enough. We must have a means for making the world in which our students learn a better place, a step at a time. Teacher organization and teacher power provided by teacher unions are the means to that better world. Like the old man said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.”


What does power concedes nothing without a demand mean? ›

Interpreting by definitions of the words he spoke, I arrive with suggestion he meant-Power yields/gives nothing unless there is a motivation or compulsion that would generate it's use or need.

What are teachers not allowed to say? ›

It prohibits them from discussing "nontraditional gender identities" and in many cases forbid[s] teachers from discussing controversial events that would presumably include, in many cases, ones like gay marriage or LGBTQ rights.

What is the most challenging aspect of being a teacher? ›

10 Challenges Of Teaching & How To Overcome Them
  1. Understanding the different learning challenges amongst students. ...
  2. Student family problems & bullying. ...
  3. Lack of funding. ...
  4. Lack of effective communication. ...
  5. Being encouraging and motivating under challenging times. ...
  6. Disciplining students. ...
  7. Endless paperwork & extended working hours.

What is the most difficult situation that you experience in teaching? ›

Designing Learning Outcomes that mean something and are an effective way to measure student potential and success is a big challenge. Meeting those learning outcomes and having solid indicators to prove this, all the while easing the paperwork and the excel sheets of the teachers have become unthinkable.

When did Frederick Douglass say Power concedes nothing without a demand it never did and it never will? ›

Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” -Frederick Douglass, 1857.

Who said power concedes nothing without a struggle? ›

"Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. If there is no struggle, there is no progress." Frederick Douglass.

Can you plead the 5th in school? ›

' Consistent with Barnette, a public school student clearly does not forfeit the protection of the fifth amendment merely because he or she enters a public school; 0 the more difficult issue concerns how to apply the privilege against self-incrimination to students accused of wrongdoing in the public schools.

What can get you fired as a teacher? ›

Some causes for dismissal include the following:
  • Immoral conduct.
  • Incompetence.
  • Neglect of duty.
  • Substantial noncompliance with school laws.
  • Conviction of a crime.
  • Insubordination.
  • Fraud or misrepresentation.

What causes the most stress for teachers? ›

The Causes Of Teacher Stress

Teachers work longer hours than many other positions, which often leads to burnout and stress. Some of the many contributing factors are lack of resources, work-life balance and political issues.

What is the biggest challenge facing education today? ›

Challenges in the Education Industry: The Post-COVID Reality

The primary challenge is the imbalance between the efficiency, the pace of learning, quality, and overall learning experience in offline and online classes. There is a huge demand for lifelong learning to cope with social and technological changes.

What qualities make a great teacher? ›

Some qualities of a good teacher include skills in communication, listening, collaboration, adaptability, empathy and patience. Other characteristics of effective teaching include an engaging classroom presence, value in real-world learning, exchange of best practices and a lifelong love of learning.

What do you think is the biggest challenge faced by teachers today what are the best possible solutions? ›

Overscheduling. The modern education system requires teachers to do much more than just cover the syllabus and grade tests. They need to constantly innovate on teaching methods and prepare for various club activities and presentations to ensure that each student in the class is learning and engaged.

Why teaching is difficult today? ›

Disruptive Environment

These external obstacles are often difficult and sometimes nearly impossible to ignore and overcome. Internally, issues such as student discipline problems, student assemblies, extra-curricular activities, and even announcements interrupt the flow of the school day.

How do you overcome challenges as a teacher? ›

Practical Ways to Overcome New Teacher Challenges
  1. Make alliances. ...
  2. “Need to Knows” ...
  3. You're a teacher, not a professional decorator. ...
  4. Set boundaries. ...
  5. Prioritize family partnerships. ...
  6. Systematize your instructional planning. ...
  7. When in doubt, play a game. ...
  8. Manage your expectations.
Jan 21, 2022

What was the purpose of Frederick Douglass speech? ›

In this Independence Day oration, Douglass sought to persuade those people to embrace what was then considered the extreme position of abolition. He also sought to change minds about the abilities and intelligence of African Americans.

What was Frederick Douglass main message? ›

Frederick Douglass--Abolitionist Leader

Douglass's goals were to "abolish slavery in all its forms and aspects, promote the moral and intellectual improvement of the COLORED PEOPLE, and hasten the day of FREEDOM to the Three Millions of our enslaved fellow countrymen." How else did Douglass promote freedom?

What does Frederick Douglass say about power? ›

Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. — Frederick Douglass.

What is Frederick Douglass most famous quote? ›

#1 “If there is no struggle, there is no progress."

What is struggle Frederick Douglass quotes? ›

My favorite Douglass quote is, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.

What is the quote about absolute power? ›

Notable quotations

Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

What makes a poor teacher? ›

Having great communication skills and professionalism is essential to being a good teacher. A lack of skills and experience in this area can lead to poor teacher performance and less student engagement. Teachers who don't challenge their students do a massive disservice to their pupils.

What is a toxic teacher? ›

A toxic teacher may be notorious for degrading or publicly humiliating students. They may make some students feel that they're not good enough by doing things like shaming them during a presentation or calling them out for their grades in the middle of class.

Can teachers forcefully take your phone? ›

If you violated school policy governing cell phone usage during school hours, then your school can probably temporarily confiscate your phone. However, the school is generally not allowed to access the personal information on your phone even if they lawfully confiscate it.

Can pleading the Fifth be denied? ›

It is up to the defendant whether or not they choose to testify in their own defense. A defendant can choose not to testify and is under no obligation to provide a reason or explanation. Additionally, the jury in a criminal case may not make any inference from a person's refusal to testify.

Are you guilty if you plead the fifth? ›

Taking the fifth is a colloquial term, not a legal one. Often when a person takes the fifth, they actually say something to the effect of: "I refuse to answer on the grounds that it may incriminate me." While this sounds like an admission of guilt, it isn't one, at least not legally.

What does I plead the 8th mean? ›

By Micah Schwartzbach, Attorney. The Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits the infliction of "cruel and unusual punishments." Virtually every state constitution also has its own prohibition against such penalties.

Why teachers Cannot fired? ›

Teacher tenure is a policy that restricts the ability to fire teachers, requiring a "just cause" rationale for firing. The individual states each have established their own tenure systems. Tenure provides teachers with protections by making it difficult to fire teachers who earn tenure.

Can you just quit being a teacher? ›

Possible ramifications. If you have signed a contract to teach for a designated academic year, leaving mid-year could be considered a breach of contract, and technically, legal action could be taken. Your teaching license may be revoked or suspended.

What can teachers do after they quit? ›

  • Educational sales representative.
  • Realtor.
  • Educational consultant.
  • Grant writer.
  • Standardized test developer.
  • Human resources (HR) manager.
  • Learning specialist.
  • Curriculum developer.

Why teachers are quitting? ›

This data also suggests that spiking stress levels, student behavior challenges, and a harsh political spotlight have all taken their toll on many American teachers. “Education had changed so dramatically since COVID.

What causes teacher anxiety? ›

Perfectionism: Teachers are often perfectionists, which can lead to anxiety. If you're constantly worried about making mistakes or not being good enough, it can be difficult to relax and enjoy your job. Fear of failure: This is similar to the fear of making mistakes, but it can be even more crippling.

What stresses teachers the most? ›

Other major contributors to teacher stress include managing student behavior, taking on extra work due to staffing shortages, supporting students' mental health and well-being, and very low salaries. “I think the key takeaway there is that teachers are super concerned about their students,” Steiner said.

What is the biggest problem with education in America? ›

1. Deficits in government funding for schools. Funding is always an issue for schools and is, in fact, one of the biggest issues facing the American public education system today. For more than 90% of K-12 schools, funding comes from state and local governments, largely generated by sales and income taxes.

What are the top 5 problems faced by schools today? ›

10 Major Challenges Facing Public Schools
  • Classroom Size.
  • Poverty.
  • Family Factors.
  • Technology.
  • Bullying.
  • Student Attitudes and Behaviors.
  • No Child Left Behind.
  • Parent Involvement.
May 18, 2022

What is most important for a teacher? ›

What is the most important for a teacher?
  • To maintain strict discipline in class.
  • To be punctual in class.
  • To remove difficulties of the students.
  • To be a good orator.

What are the values of a teacher? ›

Tirri's (2010) recent research on teacher values that inform professional ethics and relationship identifies caring and respect, professionalism and commitment, and cooperation. For Tirri (2010, 156), caring and respect are the most 'evident emotional expressions' apparent in meeting the needs of individual students.

What are the 2 biggest challenges facing teachers today? ›

10 Challenges Of Teaching & How To Overcome Them
  • Understanding the different learning challenges amongst students. ...
  • Student family problems & bullying. ...
  • Lack of funding. ...
  • Lack of effective communication. ...
  • Being encouraging and motivating under challenging times. ...
  • Disciplining students. ...
  • Endless paperwork & extended working hours.

What do teachers struggle with the most? ›

Teacher interview: Top classroom challenges for teachers in 2022
  • Parental support. ...
  • Behavior management. ...
  • Lack of effective communication. ...
  • Too much administrative work. ...
  • Balancing different learning styles. ...
  • Changing in educational trends and technology.
Jul 19, 2022

What are the challenges and problems faced by teachers today? ›

In this blog, we are going to talk about the seven most common problems faced by teachers in India.
  • Professional Status. ...
  • Lack of Planning Time. ...
  • Non-Teaching Tasks. ...
  • Inefficient Professional Training. ...
  • Challenges in The Classroom. ...
  • Work-Life Balance. ...
  • Lack of clarity about career growth.
Aug 18, 2022

Why are so many teachers quitting the classroom? ›

The tension and responsibility that educators like Gillum faced during the pandemic — combined with long-standing issues plaguing the profession, plus the coarsening of debates about classroom control, teacher pay and respect — have caused many to make the tough choice to leave the classroom.

Is it harder to be a teacher now? ›

Teaching is a valuable and rewarding profession, but it can also be tiring and exhausting. Teaching is arguably more difficult now than it has ever been for a variety of reasons, including learner behavior, fast-changing technology, and poor compensation.

Why do some people not like teaching? ›

Lack of Respect

Teaching can sometimes feel like a thankless job, especially when dealing with difficult students or family members. In addition to dealing with difficult students or family members, some teachers also feel micromanaged by administrators.

What is the best way to overcome challenges? ›

10 Ways to Overcome Challenges in Life
  1. 1. Make A Plan. While you don't know what is going to happen in the future, you can always plan ahead. ...
  2. Know You're Not Alone. Every person in this world has their low points. ...
  3. Ask For Help. ...
  4. Feel Your Feelings. ...
  5. Accept Support. ...
  6. Help Others. ...
  7. Think Big. ...
  8. Positive Mindset.

What are the 5 challenges that hinders the teacher from effectively managing the classroom? ›

Here are some common mistakes teachers make early on that can lead to trouble down the road.
  • Not Communicating Expectations Clearly. ...
  • Being Inconsistent. ...
  • Not Creating an Action Plan. ...
  • Waiting Too Long to Intervene. ...
  • Going Big Too Quickly. ...
  • Not Following Through. ...
  • Failing to Triage an Issue. ...
  • Not Establishing Relationships.

How do you overcome school challenges? ›

This article is about the challenges in school and tips for overcoming them.
  1. Be a good time manager.
  2. Make wise choices when choosing friends.
  3. Consider your constantly changing relationships.
  4. Report bullying and threats to someone.
  5. Eliminate distractions.
  6. Maintain a positive attitude.
  7. Be prepared.
  8. Be honest with your family.
Jul 28, 2022

What is considered disrespectful to a teacher? ›

A student will behave in a respectful manner toward teachers/staff/administrators and other students. Examples of disrespectful behavior are walking away, talking back, refusing to identify self properly, rude behavior, spitting, and challenging authority.

What is unacceptable teacher Behaviour? ›

It was found that "behaving towards the students aggressively" was the most pointed out negative teacher behavior. "Speaking fast" in teaching, "threatening the students with low grades" and" making discrimination among the students" were the more often expressed negative teacher behaviors by the students. **********

What can teachers not make you do? ›

A teacher can't force you to do anything in a classroom. Your actions may result in the instructor removing you from the class or punishing you for your refusal, but the teacher, school and district don't have the authority to make you do something you don't want to do.

What makes a horrible teacher? ›

Having great communication skills and professionalism is essential to being a good teacher. A lack of skills and experience in this area can lead to poor teacher performance and less student engagement. Teachers who don't challenge their students do a massive disservice to their pupils.

What are teachers afraid of? ›

The most common worries teachers have are: The fear that your students may know more than you do. Your student's welfare. Your teaching quality.

How do you deal with a nasty teacher? ›

5 Ways to Deal with Negative Teachers
  1. Address the Behavior with the Teacher. ...
  2. Get Administration Involved. ...
  3. Learn to Properly Express Your Own Feelings. ...
  4. Remove Yourself from the Situation. ...
  5. Don't Let Go of Your Own Positivity.

What are three qualities of an ineffective teacher? ›

They reported that there are five characteristics of ineffective teachers, which are as follows: partial in treating students, disorganized, less resourceful, discourage students from asking questions, and authoritarian in class.

What is unbecoming a teacher? ›

A charge of unbecoming conduct requires only evidence of inappropriate conduct by teaching professionals. It focuses on the morale, efficiency, and public perception of an entity, and how those concerns are harmed by allowing teachers to behave inappropriately while holding public employment.

What is unprofessional conduct in teaching? ›

“Unprofessional conduct” is defined by Law Insider as “one or more acts of misconduct; one or more acts of immorality, moral turpitude or inappropriate behavior involving a minor; or commission of a crime involving a minor.

Can teachers be toxic? ›

A toxic teacher may be notorious for degrading or publicly humiliating students. They may make some students feel that they're not good enough by doing things like shaming them during a presentation or calling them out for their grades in the middle of class.


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