Why I left the teachers union

Lee Carlson, a teacher and coach in Windom, pictured here in 2019. Courtesy photo.

My name is Lee Carlson, and I am beginning my 32nd year as a teacher, coach and advisor. 

I was advocating for teachers before I became one, and volunteered to fill an official role within the teachers’ union, where I held membership and later served on the Education Minnesota Governing Board from 2003-2019.

My motivation was to find ways to help my students, and I believe strongly in the value of a union as a way to support teachers and students and ultimately the community that supports the school. It involved a lot of time, travel and thought, and I appreciated the many opportunities the experience afforded me. 

That is why it saddened me to submit my letter opting out of the union this year.

I struggled for months trying to find a strong reason not to.  

I believe in holding true to what I believe, regardless of where the majority might stand.

Respecting the differences and efforts of others is important. Teamwork is important. 

Being there for my students is paramount.

Education Minnesota’s current political agenda places little value on what is important to me, so I think it is time to go.

When you submit a letter to opt out and get a form letter response two business days later that shows they didn’t even read the letter, it obviously was time to go.

The union’s focus appears to be using the legitimate health concerns of members and Minnesotans to scare up more education money from the Legislature

In the process, they are eroding trust in school districts, administrators and — I would contend  — teachers themselves. 

To be sure, there are serious COVID-19 risks across the state, but not every situation is the same. There are members who feel safe joining students in their classrooms, communities that support the extra effort needed to meet safety guidelines, and places where labor and management are working hand in hand — six feet apart when possible. The result of these efforts: mutual appreciation.

From what I gather having talked to teachers and read about other communities, districts outside the metro are having an easier time working together to safely return to school. 

Unfortunately, I feel these efforts are being denigrated by those in charge of my former union. 

Working in many small schools over my career, from the Canadian to the Iowa border, I deeply appreciate the ways I have seen those school districts do more with less, without fanfare, awards or a bonus. We might not do it the same out here but that doesn’t mean we don’t know what we are doing.

We are 152 miles away from the Capitol neighborhood in St. Paul, so we fall outside the aforementioned reach, especially during a panic. I get that it would take extra effort to support us out here. I don’t think that is the issue. Having a story about things working well enough to have all the students back in school falls 152 miles outside the framework of the union’s current political agenda.

I support Gov. Tim Walz’s decisions. Along the highway I travel to work in Windom, there aren’t many who agree with me. Yet, within my classroom I have had rewarding conversations with students outfitted in Trump socks, shirts or stickers. We feel differently about things, but I try to understand the reasons they share, and they are willing to listen to my perspective respectfully.

Walls surround my classroom, but none exist within.

I don’t believe another school our size has committed the time, energy and funding to provide an opportunity for every student to be in school every day. Interruptions may occur, but my best opportunity to help students learn will only happen if I am in my classroom.

I don’t take that duty — or the risk —lightly. 

My immune system no longer exists. Long story, check out my TED Talk for details. 

Last December I was on a ventilator after suffering a cardiac arrest. Mask discomfort? Try puking with a ventilator tube strapped to your face.

Likewise, staying home when I can be with my students is something I just can’t stomach.

My wife and son are teachers and a dozen other nieces, nephews and in-laws, too. 

I love teaching and I refuse to let politics lessen that passion and joy.

That’s what gnawed at me these past several months.

I’ve been a high school English teacher since 1988, so I can quickly and accurately recognize flippant dismissals and being patronized. Working with my high schoolers, it is rare but not unheard of. I did not expect that to happen with my union. 

Dismissing questions and differences of opinion with the energy I have witnessed will not create a more perfect union. Speaking up this summer convinced me that my union did not want to hear from me. Whether it was because I teach far outside the metro or because I placed an emphasis on finding solutions instead of stalemates regarding teaching in my classroom doesn’t matter. Those positions hold a far lesser value within the current political agenda. 

I was trying to get back into my classroom with my students, not drive a political agenda.

When you are no longer valued, it is time to go.

When you can’t come up with a good reason to stay, it is time to go.

When you are excited to get back in the classroom, but your union is set on a message of fear for that classroom, it is time to go.

Opening our school to all students every day required open minds, hard work and dedication. If I can teach well enough to attain those same ingredients from my students, it is going to be the best year ever.

I know not every union member shares the same optimism, trust in administration or the unique and incredible relationships I have with my students.

I sincerely hope they all can find that sooner than later.

At Windom Middle/High School my classroom is ready and waiting.

I am ready too.