An educator reflects on challenges she has faced as a teacher and union member
Apr 27, 2022
Krajacic, who is a two-time board certified teacher and served a six-year term as an executive committee member in the National Education Association, doesn’t plan to stop teaching. However, Krajacic knows first-hand the toll teaching takes, noting how Wisconsin legislation surrounding everything from labor unions and employee benefits to COVID safety and public education funding has impacted her profession. EBN spoke with Krajacic to gain further insight into her experience as an educator and union member. How did your journey into teaching and union work start? I began teaching in 1998, and back then membership in the union was automatic. I started getting actively involved in my local [union] in my second year of teaching when I started asking questions about our retirement plans. I’m also a third-generation, Wisconsin public school teacher on both sides of my family. My father negotiated one of the first comprehensive collective bargaining agreements in the state of Wisconsin, and my godmother had been vice president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council. I was out of the womb an active union member. What inspired you to run for the National Education Association executive committee? Act 10 was probably the biggest reason why I did decide to run for the national office. Act 10 was passed in 2011, and it changed the way union membership works in Wisconsin. Prior to Act 10, by getting hired, you were already part of a represented bargaining unit. You were automatically a dues-paying member of that unit. But this changed the way unions are recognized, and required you to vote annually to recertify the bargaining unit. It also changed the scope of collective bargaining. Technically, collective bargaining is still legal in Wisconsin, but it’s limited. For example, by law, the union would be required to be part of a conversation on health insurance carriers. Now there's no requirement that the union is involved. There's no requirement that educators in any shape or form are involved at all in any of the conversations about benefits. The bill also mandated that teachers had to pay a minimum percentage of their health insurance. Even if we had negotiated that the district paid a hundred percent of your insurance, we now had to pay 15%. It also changed the required contribution to our retirement. In one fell swoop, as a single woman in my 13th year of teaching as a national board-certified teacher with a master's degree, I took an $8,000 pay cut. It gets very easy to focus on Act 10 as a series of union attacks, but it also drastically reduced funding for public education. I am someone who is always looking for the opportunity to give to public education and to continue to challenge myself as an educator. Why do you feel unions are crucial to not only teachers, but workers at large? The single greatest time of economic growth in this country was the 1950s, and CEOs didn’t make 300 times what their employees made. It's also the time when we had the highest rate of unionism in this country. If the CEO can afford to buy his own space shuttle, he can afford to pay his employees at the minimum, a living wage. And this is about more than what you get paid — it’s about having the respect of your workplace without feeling alone. I wouldn’t want to work in a profession where I wasn’t part of a union. And places like Starbucks or Amazon, who claim to be supportive of their employees, should be at the forefront of encouraging unionism, because it is the way to bring balance to our nation. What challenges do you currently face as an educator due to COVID? The biggest challenge is understanding how to teach in a pandemic. It's important to understand that most schools remained open and in-person across the entire country, and across Wisconsin. Even though the five largest school districts in Wisconsin did switch to virtual, the rest did not. On top of that, we had to face a lot of loss in certain communities. Last week, I had a student who suddenly lost an uncle to COVID. Students are dealing with trauma at different levels, whether it’s because they are not able to see friends or because they’re losing family members. The students do not know how to talk to each other — it’s like they have forgotten how to make friends. In this bizarre set of circumstances, we are having to rewind and re-teach kids how to be a student. Educator burnout is the worst I have ever seen — and I saw Act 10 take out a whole lot of people. The federal government did pass three tiers of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funding. But in Wisconsin, for example, the legislature passed their budget with a significant cut to the investment in public education because of this money from the federal government. But this negates the entire point of emergency funding because they eliminated a standard level of support. So now anything that was needed for supplemental services — like the hiring of additional counselors and mental health providers — is essentially eliminated. That is what the state chose to do. Are there any challenges you see educators dealing with outside of COVID? You've got the distraction of the critical race theory conversation, which is not a real thing. I didn't know what critical race theory was until I was getting my doctorate. It’s just not taught in elementary or secondary schools. But there’s legislation in Wisconsin on critical race theory, and the language of the bill is incredibly broad. It basically says you can't have conversations about equity. You can't have conversations that make people feel uncomfortable based on their race. I teach books — people are going to be uncomfortable because of a whole set of different circumstances at the end of the day. It just seems like something people are creating so they can ignore talking about the actual needs of the school.