By AFFT Member Cheri Gensel
From a young age, there were things I knew for sure, and one thing I didn’t. It was the second thing that came back to bite me.
I’ve known since the 4th grade that I wanted to be a teacher because of the quality of teachers I’d had myself in Northeastern Pennsylvania. I had an inner desire to help others learn and succeed in the academic realm. After I earned my bachelor’s degree in social studies education, I knew I first wanted to concentrate on being a wife and mother, and then I wanted to teach in North Pocono School District, which had a local reputation for excellent education, sports, and music programs. I began working full-time there in 2005, and now teach high school World History and AP Economics.
I love my district and community. They are an awesome place to work and align with my personal belief that the students are the main reason we are there and that helping them succeed is the goal.
The thing I wasn’t so sure about was union membership. Politically and religiously, as a conservative Christian, there was much I opposed with the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) and National Education Association (NEA) agenda. On my first day, my union rep handed me a membership packet and simply told me to sign the last page and return it to her. In our area, joining the union was simply what you did—only one or two teachers in the whole district were not members. So, even with my doubts, I thought it was better to join than not join.
After that, I never really thought about the union—until they micro-managed some things and some of their deceptive tactics surfaced. It took two watershed issues to make me resign. The first was when the North Pocono Education Association called a strike in 2014. I have never agreed with teachers striking—I feel that striking hurts students and doesn’t bring about anything positive. It was also my son’s senior year at North Pocono, so besides strikes going against my principles, this strike might have affected my own family.
What’s more, the strike revealed the particular intransigence of the union. I suggested offering concessions like smaller class sizes rather than demanding higher pay only at the bargaining table, but the union president said they couldn’t bargain over issues like that. What that proved to me is that the union is not really about students and they’re not really about members—they’re about an agenda pushed by the PSEA. In the end, the strike lasted only a few hours. I was tasked only with making a doughnut run and wasn’t required to walk any picket lines or publicly stand against the very community that had been supporting us so faithfully over the years.
I decided to stay in the union a little longer.
The second watershed issue that turned me against the PSEA was the election of Gov. Tom Wolf in 2014. I received two letters. One told me to vote for Wolf in the primary—and therefore change my political affiliation. The second letter was addressed to my husband, telling him to join me in voting for Wolf as governor. These missives were infuriating—such electioneering basically told me my teaching ability was dependent on who I voted for.
I was determined to leave the union at this point, but could not get out due to a “maintenance of membership clause” in my contract stating I had a narrow window around contract time when I could leave. Since our latest contract was negotiated quickly, I missed that window.
At that point, even our local union was not being run well. They were nit-picking every detail of the contract, creating bad blood among administrators and teachers. Most of the job protections we have as teachers come from state and federal laws, and the national, bloated teachers unions are living on borrowed time. We need to tear down the huge PSEA infrastructure to get down to the grassroots. That’s how we can give regular teachers a voice.
I decided not to wait any longer. I handed in my resignation. My position on teachers’ unions is one I wish I’d been firm on years ago. I wasn’t sure then. But I am now.