I started working in FE nine years ago. Up to that point, I had never had a job where a union was either organised or publicised and so I had no concept of what it was or what it meant to be a member of one. I am the first to admit that I am a people-pleaser - and so, as a new staff member, I decided to try and please my new colleagues and join the union – EIS-FELA, which represents lecturers in Scotland – following some gentle coercion.
A year later, I was encouraged by those same colleagues that the union needed new, younger reps, and who better than a twenty-something, part-time temporary lecturer? Once again, my desire to please others won and I accepted. It was a decision that I had no idea would change my life – but not as you might expect.
Background: Which teachers’ union?
Most of what I read about joining a union talked about the main benefits being things such as pay, terms and conditions, dignity at work, benefits, safety at work and job security. Whilst I would accept that these remain at the forefront of the work of the union – I have indeed benefited as much as anyone across my career from these aspects – one of the key elements that I believe is often missing from the lists or certainly not promoted enough is activism.
It is easy to perceive membership of your union as somewhat of an insurance policy. Let’s face it, you pay your monthly fees and often you won’t engage with it meaningfully until water starts pouring through your ceiling. I believe, however, that we can reframe what activism actually is. Activism for me doesn’t need to be about becoming a target for management or being staunchly militant.
For me it is more about using your membership of a large body of professional colleagues to effect change in your workplace or, more importantly, change in society and let’s face it, now seems as good time as any for radical change.
Through my activism in the union, I have learned more about the workings of my college than I could ever have hoped to have known. And when you know how it operates you are best placed to affect it and change it. It has taught me more about the wider role of FE in society and its importance than I could have ever hoped to have learned from any teaching qualification or CPD day.
And, most of all, I have learned from colleagues who between them know more about the real world of education and its potential to impact the world than you are likely to learn from any book. People I am lucky to consider friends for life, people who inspire me and many others.
Union power in colleges
Yet above all, activism has awoken a wider sense of being for me. Nine years ago, I worked for me and my own and, whilst I enjoyed my job, it was exactly that: a job. I never considered or questioned my wider role in society and hoped like many others to just get by, day to day.
I had never read any political party manifesto and voted simply because I knew I had to. Activism has stirred a social and political consciousness in me that had been dormant my entire life. It is not about right or left or, indeed, right or wrong, but about a willingness to challenge the world in front of me and having the courage to share my opinions in an informed and peaceful way. I now see the world in a completely different way, becoming aware of things in society every day that previously I may have chosen not to see.
Activism in my union has given me a real purpose in my life beyond my role in FE. I seek ways to challenge injustice and unfairness in all its forms. We are in the midst of deeply unsettling times and I often consider the impact of that uncertainty on my life now but more so on that of my children going forward. Change can only be effected by the many, and not the few, and so I see my role as sharing that message and trying to awaken a wider sense of social consciousness among people I come across in whatever form that might be.
I believe that, as educators in FE, we have the ability to "make tiny changes to earth" (to quote Frightened Rabbit singer Scott Hutchison ) way beyond our curriculum and specialism, so perhaps we should think more about what we do and not just what we say. We are consistently being told by policymakers that change is coming in education and we need to re-frame what and how we deliver. I would agree with these assertions. However, what I believe is that it should be the educators on the ground that should be leading and informing that change rather than having idealistic change thrust upon us.
The best way for us to influence this is by having a voice and a movement to shape it, and becoming active within the union is arguably the best platform to do just that. So what are you waiting for? You wouldn’t insure your car and leave it sitting in the drive so get behind the wheel and go on a journey.
Philip Storrier is a curriculum manager and vice convener for the EIS-FELA union at Glasgow Kelvin College