In a divided town, remembering the “Why” matters…

In a political situation where multiple variables are involved, those with the clearest message generally succeed. Clear messages are easily understood, and tend to generate empathy with the cause if not actual alignment. The problem with this truism is that those who succeed aren’t always right.

This is the issue that unions, especially those involving educators, are facing across the country in a post-Janus world. The decision by the Supreme Court halted the era of charging agency fees for those educators who benefitted from union representation but didn’t want to pay union dues.

Unions in various states have adopted different approaches to the issue. For those of us in Texas, not much changed, as Texas was already a “right-to-work” state where collective bargaining is illegal for all but a handful of groups like first responders. We have always had to defend who we are and why we do what we do.

For other states, who had become accustomed to relying on Collective Bargaining Agreements, or CBA’s, lessons long-lost have had to be rediscovered. Unionism in education in those states has had to hearken back to its roots, and relearn the adage that success for children is best accomplished through proper support and expectations of educators and administrators, and not just through the mechanisms of a CBA. As expected, some states and local units have had more success than others to this point.

I have a unique perspective on this process, having viewed it on both sides. I am a third-generation teacher. My mother and grandmother were both teachers in the State of Maine. Before moving to Texas in 2011 as a result of the personnel cuts in education that swept the nation I taught for eight years in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, a strong collective-bargaining state.

With that said, one fairly universal approach taken by unions in both “types” of states was to increase active participation by educators in local and state politics, especially in states heretofore dominated by conservative legislatures. The #RedForEd movement sparked shifts in several states, including Texas. Some of these changes involved elections and organizing at the local level. A good thing, right?

Not always.

The danger in this lies in the “Why” of its happening. The “Why”, just like a budget, reveals the truth behind the motivations of a movement, and whether or not it is to be trusted.

Trust matters.

As author, consultant, and TED presenter Simon Sinek puts it, “Trust is maintained when values and beliefs are actively managed. If companies do not actively work to keep clarity, discipline and consistency in balance, then trust starts to break down.”

I would submit to all that trust has pretty emphatically broken down in the South Kingstown School Department and the town in general. An online view of SK reveals two very entrenched sides, and little of the wonderful town that my wife and I had the joy of visiting last holiday season.

Before I go any further, you (or y’all, since I now live in Texas) should know that one of my most important truisms is, “Wrong is wrong.” It’s important to me because it eliminates the personal, leaving only the truth as the decider. If a person does wrong, even if for the “right” reasons, it’s still wrong. To me, it’s what allows for trust to be built, and has the best chance of avoiding human behaviors of “Us vs. Them”.

Keeping all this in mind, how is this major trust fault in a small Rhode Island town going to be fixed? To me, it’s a solution that is deceptively simple in concept, and one that can be easily applied in SK regardless of PTT, PAT, buildings, cut lists, ethics concerns, or whatever other variable one may wish to toss into the mix:

Remember the “Why”, and apply it to all involved equally. Because wrong is wrong.

Speaking for myself, as a teacher, a parent, and a union member, union organizer, and union official my “Why” is and always has been supporting those kids I have been charged to educate. It’s simple, clear, and offers a path through the tangled, emotionally charged tangle of fishing line that so often exemplifies social media.

This is how I apply it: In my experience, those who are placing children first and foremost in their goals and priorities will speak almost exclusively of how their arguments will benefit students. Those who focus on other people do not. If I see, hear, or read of anyone speaking more of issues with adults than of the kids, it’s a pretty safe bet that those people aren’t really thinking about the kids, and I will discard or not take seriously what that person(s) says until they do.

It doesn’t mean that I forever dismiss that person. That is stereotyping, which solves nothing and perpetuates conflict. But to me it does mean that at that particular point in time, that person is not properly focused on the true goal of educating the children. Until they can drop their personal issues with whomever, they are not showing objectivity in their discussions and arguments, and their arguments are not to be trusted.

If you apply this filter and look back on the vast amount of social media posts, actions and words of candidates and public officials a lot becomes very clear very quickly. Those who are working for the kids will be evident, as will those who aren’t. If someone is one of those guilty of personalizing their issues through other people, I highly encourage them to acknowledge that wrong is wrong, and reframe their approach through the “Why”. If someone isn’t one of those with a personalization problem, be supportive of those making an effort to reframe.

If everyone does this, if everyone faithfully commits to this standard and effort, EVERYONE in South Kingstown- union and non-union, Republican and Democrat, Why Wakefield and closing Wakefield- ALL of them- will truly be able to come together to work in the best interests of the children. It will also be readily apparent who has chosen not to.

From the SK School District website: “The mission of the South Kingstown School Department, in partnership with families and the entire educational community, is to educate ALL of our students in the knowledge and skills necessary to ensure readiness and success in college and career.”

Partnership. Not imposing political will. Not dismissing and deriding.


In the end, that’s what this needs to be about.

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