National Education Association union has 99 problems, but a pitch ain’t one

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WASHINGTON, D.C. – In front of me is an internal National Education Association document detailing the compiled results of a brainstorming session of the union’s state affiliate leaders and representatives.

These folks were split into groups and given a handful of tasks, the most interesting of which was to list those things preventing NEA from being more successful. They came up with 101, but we’ll subtract two in honor of Jay-Z.

99 problemsThough they used different vocabulary, the participants repeated three broad themes they believed were the biggest problems with the organization: money, rigidity and communication.

Money. In various forms, NEA activists worried that shrinking membership numbers and correspondingly shrinking budgets were affecting their ability to think long-term and strategically. Less money meant less time to spend on things other than putting out fires.

Rigidity. Many activists complained that NEA was in a rut, doing things according to its traditions, enforcing top-down decisions and intimidating those who disagreed. They cited territorial battling, a lack of trust, and insecurity coupled with a fear of conflict.

Communication. The activists addressed this both in the public relations sense (bad press, weak media coverage) and in the human relations sense (being in the dark, misunderstandings, slow response). Poor communication was the national union’s largest hurdle to overcome, according to the discussion participants.

There is nothing unique about these sorts of organizational difficulties. However, certain characteristics of teachers’ unions might tend to exacerbate them.

These problems didn’t spring into being along with the 2008 recession. They were there during the fat years, but as long as the organization was thriving financially they didn’t seem to hurt anything. What is now seen as rigidity and fear of conflict was celebrated as democratically derived consensus. Organizations devoted to solidarity prize internal support very highly. Internal dissension is acknowledged and tolerated only to the extent it doesn’t interfere with the union’s message. For NEA, there is world of difference between saying “this is what teachers want” and saying “this is what many teachers want.”

This brings us to communication. It is a failing of many advocacy groups to believe of their audience “If only they understood, they would support us.” Or, to put it more harshly, “If only those idiots would just listen!” A large number of NEA activists believe that the union is simply failing to gets its message across, and if it were more successful communicating NEA’s virtues to both the public and the membership, all else would be manageable.

The public doesn’t know what good we do. The younger members don’t know our history of accomplishments. The teachers don’t realize how hard we work for them every day. All of this might even be empirically based and entirely defensible, but it is also awfully convenient. It eliminates contemplating the possibility that your audience hears you fine, and is rejecting your message.

As I mentioned when reporting about the age gap between NEA activists and the rank-and-file, meaningful participation by a new group of members necessarily means relinquishing some power. Teachers most of all should know that communication is a two-way activity. Otherwise it’s a lecture.

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