Expert Commentary

6 tips for journalists covering teachers unions

We offer reporters tips on covering teachers unions, including developing union sources and understanding public school teachers' pay systems.

U.S. postage stamp honoring the National Education Association.
U.S. postage stamp honoring the National Education Association. (Wikimedia Commons/Lvova Anastasiya)

Over the past year, public school teachers in different parts of the country have held strikes to increase salaries and push for other changes. Such protests often mark a breakdown in negotiations between the school district and local teachers union.

Unions play a key role in many school districts and within education policy broadly. The Journalist’s Resource’s managing editor, Denise-Marie Ordway, an education journalist for two decades, offers six tips to help reporters understand and write about these influential organizations.

A big thanks to journalists Samantha Hernandez and Dana Goldstein as well as Joshua Cowen, a professor of education policy at Michigan State University, and Staci Maiers, a senior press officer with the National Education Association, for their help creating this tip sheet.


1. Remember that not all teachers are union members.

Many public school teachers don’t join unions. In fact, the proportion of teachers who are members of a union or another employee association is dropping. Less than 70 percent of public school teachers were members in 2015-16, the most recent year for which the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) has data. That’s down from 76.4 percent in 2007-08 and 79.1 percent in 1999-2000.

Interesting fact: The teachers most likely to join unions, according to the USDOE, are middle school teachers and those working at schools in the wealthiest communities.

2. Get to know people in various levels of union leadership.

Develop relationships with people in leadership positions within the local teachers union as well as the statewide teachers union and national union. They can help you understand different perspectives on the same issue. For example, if you’re covering teacher salary negotiations in a local school district, local union leaders can talk about problems within the district, the changes they’d like to see and how smoothly contract negotiations are moving forward. They can also help you arrange interviews with local teachers. Meanwhile, someone in leadership at the state level can offer a broad view of how contract negotiations are going statewide and how the local union’s experiences compare to other districts.

Be aware that union leaders at the state and national level tend to receive more media training. They might be more responsive to reporters’ around-the-clock questions and have information ready before a reporter asks for it. But they also can be quite savvy about using the news media to promote a certain message or cause.

3. Familiarize yourself with teacher pay systems.

Teachers unions spend a lot of time and energy negotiating compensation. It’s important for reporters to understand how teachers make money so they can put union demands and the negotiation process into perspective. Reporters also need to understand key terms so they can differentiate between, for example, a “step increase” and an “across the board” salary increase.

Generally, teachers receive an annual base salary, but school districts also offer educators other opportunities to earn money. Depending on the district, teachers can receive raises — increases to their base salary — in multiple ways. A district can boost salaries, of course. This is sometimes called an “across the board” increase because it usually results in higher salaries for teachers at various experience levels. Districts also typically allow teachers, whose salaries are based on years of experience, to move up one rung of the salary schedule to recognize the completion of an additional year of service to the district. This increase in salary is a “step increase.” A third way a teacher can earn a higher base salary is by completing an advanced degree such as a master’s or doctoral degree.

In addition to raises, some districts offer teachers extra money if they earn optional certifications, including certification from the prestigious National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Some districts give more money to teachers who agree to take on additional roles and responsibilities. Some districts give performance-based bonuses. Often, districts also offer what’s referred to as “supplemental” pay to educators who coach a team sport or sponsor a student organization.

4. Find out if your state prohibits teachers from striking or puts limits on their ability to bargain with their school districts.

In most states, it’s illegal for public school teachers to strike. Alaska, California, Colorado and Ohio are among the states that allow it.

Some states prohibit public school teachers from bargaining with their employers. As of last year, six of them — Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia — prohibited all public employees from bargaining with employers, according to the National Education Association. Meanwhile, 34 states and Washington DC have adopted laws that either allow or require school districts to engage in collective bargaining with their teachers.

5. Pay attention to how teachers unions wield political influence.

Teachers unions contribute to political candidates and spend a lot of money lobbying issues related to students, the teaching field and educator employment. Reporters should monitor how much their local teachers unions donate and spend on lobbying.

Teachers unions — especially the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers — have “steadily amped up their political involvement,” according to the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political spending and received the Society of Professional Journalists’ award for Public Service in Online Journalism in 2013. It reports that the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers “are consistently among the organizations that contribute the most money to candidates and political groups,” with donations totaling about $32 million in 2016.

6. Investigate the policies that govern teacher discipline, dismissal and tenure.

Make sure you understand what kinds of behavior can get a teacher disciplined or fired in your community, and how the rules may differ for inexperienced teachers, teachers who are new to the school district and veteran educators who have earned tenure. It’s also important to understand how the disciplinary process works, what role teachers unions play and which records and other documents are open to the public.

Check to see which, if any, government agencies post investigative reports and related records online. For example, the Florida Department of Education maintains a searchable, public database of records connected to actions the state has taken against a teacher’s professional license, including letters of reprimand, fines and permanent revocation.

Cowen, the researcher at Michigan State, says it’s also important for journalists to think about which parts of a teacher’s job are a direct result of union bargaining and priorities and which ones are shaped by state law. People tend to think of teacher tenure, for example, as being tied to union contracts, he says. But tenure is usually governed by state law.

If you’re reporting on teachers unions in the U.S., you might also be interested in our roundup of research, “How Teachers Unions Affect School District Spending, Student achievement.” We’ve also gathered research on how teacher salaries impact the types of educators working in local schools.

About The Author