Teacher's books on desk
James V. Shuls

As a 19-year old college student studying to be an elementary school teacher, I was given a heavy dose of fear. Not the kind of fear that challenges you to think about whether you have chosen the right career path. Nor the kind that challenges you to rise to the occasion. No. I was given the kind of fear that says you must join a union.

I was, after all, a male entering elementary school teaching. There was a chance that I’d give a child a hug or have them sit on my lap and someone would leap to the wrong conclusion. Before I knew it, I’d be falsely charged with some crime. Or, heaven forbid, a student would get hurt while under my supervision and I’d be sued for negligence. Still more likely was that I could be discriminated against, harassed, or targeted by a reckless administrator. Whatever the situation, the message was clear—I needed to join a union for the protection it offered. A union, I was told, would watch out for my interests; it would have my back.

My professors, whom I believe were well intentioned and likely just following the advice they had received, prodded and pushed me to join a student chapter. So, I did. Having spoken with many teachers over the years, I’m fairly confident this is the number one recruitment strategy of teachers’ unions in the state. If I was ever told that a union would help me grow professionally or become a better teacher, it was only an afterthought.

When I began teaching first grade in southwest Missouri, I went from student membership to a full-fledged membership. Over the next two years, however, I began to realize that my beliefs were not in line with the union’s agenda. I supported limited government, individual responsibility, and free-markets. The union, I discovered, did not.

At the same time, I also began to realize that the fear that led me to join a union was based on erroneous information. Lawsuits against teachers are not that common. In a 2009 article in the Journal of School Leadership, Diane Holben, Perry Zirkel, and Grace Caskie noted, “Empirical research on school litigation frequency suggests a decreasing, rather than increasing, basis for fear of litigation, contrary to the common conception.” The likelihood of a teacher getting sued independent of the school is miniscule, and the school district wins these cases nearly 90 percent of the time. Even if I was worried about lawsuits, I found I could get liability insurance through other means. The union wasn’t the only option for watching my back.

Fortunately, I was a public-school teacher in Missouri, where I had the right to work without joining a union. This meant I could not be compelled to join the union or forced to pay dues to support collective bargaining. It also meant that I did not have to financially support causes that violated my conscience. All workers should be so lucky.

About the Author

James Shuls
James Shuls
Distinguished Fellow of Education Policy

James V. Shuls is an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and Distinguished Fellow in Education Policy at the Show-Me Institute.