Teachers' Union Head Randi Weingarten's "Balancing Act" Teachers' Union Head Randi Weingarten's "Balancing Act"

Teachers' Union Head Randi Weingarten's "Balancing Act"

by Nikhil Swaminathan

September 11, 2010

The fermenting education reform movement has several fascinating figures: There's the Dumbledore-like sage of the sometimes controversial Harlem Children's Zone, Geoffrey Canada. There's Michelle Rhee, who seems to be starring in a humorless version of Blazing Saddles in Washington, D.C., with real victims (namely, children being left behind). And, perhaps most intriguing, there is Randi Weingarten, the head of the American Federation of Teachers, who, in the past, I've described as a robotic slave to her own talking points.

Reformers heap the majority of the blame for our failing public schools on the backs of teachers' unions. And the national face of the unions, for all intents and purposes, is Weingarten. In something akin to the pain one experiences watching Ben Stiller's character perpetually being crapped on in Meet the Parents, I found it impossible not to feel something in the vein of sympathy for the position she found herself in. After all, she defends teachers—a profession that, at its heart, is as noble as any in our society.

But, it took John Heilemann, best known for his coauthoring of Game Change, the gossipy romp about the underbelly of the 2008 presidential election, to properly crystallize Weingarten's character. In his New York magazine feature about the upcoming Davis Guggenheim documentary Waiting for Superman, Heilemann elegantly explains Weingarten's difficult role in the reform movement, as both its quiet facilitator and seemingly vociferous antagonist. It's the most charitable—and, I believe, accurate—description I've read of her in the last year, and it provides a metaphor for how complex the work of changing an entire country's education system really is.

I encourage you to read the whole section of the Heilemann's piece, but here's an emblematic snippet:

What explains Weingarten’s apparent schizophrenia is the balancing act she is forced to pull off by a membership split between moderates and militants. (Asked by Politico, Proust-questionnaire style, to name her favorite body part, she said, “Legs—because I have to walk a tightrope most of the time.”) In her stint at the UFT in New York, she honed a signature style whereby her substantive compromises were coupled with rhetorical ferocity. Now, on a grander stage, she is doing the same thing again, attacking reformers and Superman, and even distancing herself from her own achievements, to maintain her authority with her people while at the same time giving herself space to move in the direction of reform.

Weingarten is Waiting for Superman's the de facto antagonist. (In one scene, she's portrayed as an almost cultish leader at a union meeting that was almost as disturbing as parts of the movie Jesus Camp.) Guggenheim disputes the impression that unions are the film's primary villains. And I believe it wasn't his intention for them to be. But, it would take a significant chunk of the movie's run time to portray effectively the nuances of Weingarten's positions. He likely didn't have the capacity to do so. 

Luckily, Heilemann did.

Photo (cc) via Flickr user House Committee on Education and Labor.

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Teachers' Union Head Randi Weingarten's "Balancing Act"