The Hawaii State Teachers Association recently held its annual convention, where elected representatives discussed what issues they want to board of the union to consider for the following year.

Subjects ranged from covering long-term substitutes under bargaining rights to advocating for using the ACT as the statewide standardized test for 11th-graders.

It was a democratic opportunity that few organizations offer, where almost any member of the union may speak up on issues that matter most to them — a chance to have them addressed by the collective power of all the teachers, librarians, counselors, and other non-classroom teachers in Hawaii, some 35,000 people.

Teachers rallied at the Capitol last month to raise support of their union's proposed legislation.

Teachers rallied at the Capitol in February in an attempt to generate support of their union’s proposed legislation.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

But few teachers were aware of the proceeding, and even fewer attended.

Why are teachers so uninvolved in their union?

The easiest explanation would be that people are upset with the leadership and decisions that have been made.

In some cases that is true; I recall a former colleague telling me that she would never help the union again after the strike in 2001. She felt she had hurt her students, and that the union had betrayed her for making her do that.

How can we motivate a group of introverts to abandon their valued independence and collectively act?

But if anger against the leadership was so poignant, why was voter turnout in last year’s union election so low? Only 3,149 ballots were collected in a hotly contested race for union president.

There must be other reasons teachers do not get involved. To find them, we have to dig deeper into the psyche of teachers and the details of the job.

First, teachers tend to be introverted. This seems contradictory, since we spend our whole day in front of a crowd. But upon further analysis, teaching is a perfect career for introverts.

Teaching requires working in a classroom independently, relatively few meetings with coworkers and other peers, instead mostly interacting with children who present less social pressure. If you attend a school faculty meeting, watch all the teachers sitting by themselves or with very few people.

So how can we motivate a group of introverts to abandon their valued independence and collectively act?

Secondly, consider the demographics of the job. Teaching has one of the highest turnover rates of any profession. On top of the retiring Baby Boomer generation, a phenomenon soon to hit all areas of the job market, up to 17 percent of teachers leave the profession in the first five years.

We are constantly losing more experienced teachers. Teaching is one of the few professions that has an instituted “field trip experience” through programs like Teach For America, which pulls recent college grads and inserts them into high-needs schools for a two-year tenure.

We are even looking at bringing in teachers from the continent to fill the 1,600 vacancies the Department of Education is expected to have in the fall. With teachers constantly quitting, how can we gain the necessary seniority and leadership infrastructure to truly have a political system?

No Time To Worry About Bigger Picture

Finally, teaching is a very involved profession. Most teachers arrive at their school at least an hour before the first bell rings, and many stay at least an hour after the students leave.

HSTA Rally Capitol teachers education. 5 feb 2016 . photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Between developing lesson plans, grading papers, attending parent-teacher conferences, learning new content standards and curriculum, worrying about upcoming standardized tests, and working a second job (as most Hawaii teachers do), is it really any wonder that most teachers do not have the time to worry about the larger scope of their political situation?

In a way, it is the perfect model for why Hawaii as a whole does not become more politically involved; when you are completely tied up in just trying to get by, you physically cannot allocate the time or energy to engage in a highly complicated and involved process like union organizing or advocacy.

Ultimately, the burden of further engaging our membership must fall on union leaders. They are the ones who must create further motivation for our members to get into the fray.

In the current political climate, this is critical. The Supreme Court just released its split decision in the case of Friedrichs vs. the California Teachers Association, which means the case will be retried.

If the plaintiff is successful, all the non-members of HSTA paying fair-share dues will no longer pay them. In a profession where most of us are scraping by paycheck to paycheck, like most of the state, union dues will look like an unnecessary expense, and the union budget will be significantly cut.

Even with the union at full financial strength, a strong-willed governor was able force a bad contract on us.

Will we be able to truly collectively bargain if we are not a collective?

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