Few local leaders can claim the kind of triumphs over innovation that teachers’ union head Erick Huth boasts. His passionate defense of status quo ideology is, in fact, extraordinary, marked by recent successes in defeating such tested concepts as more charter schools and merit pay for teachers.
Captivated by his achievement vanquishing new ideas and the willingness of his constituents to follow a leader so adept at walking in place, The City Paper caught up with Huth, if only in our dreams, relishing the chance to tap a personality so distinguished by its absence of enterprise.
Can you share with us where your passion for counterrevolution began?
(Pauses to answer his early-model Nokia cell phone.) I remember being very young and hearing about this thing called Xerox. It was coming in to replace the Ditto machine, whose smell of wet ink made me simply intoxicated as a little boy. There was just nothing like paper with blue smudged type. I led the protest movement in our kindergarten to keep out the new technology, something the administrators claimed would make things more efficient.
I lost that fight, but I haven’t lost many since. You know, I still miss those Ditto copies. Maybe I’ll write an action plan for our union to bring them back. Teachers would benefit from that extra time away from their classrooms cranking copies and sniffing chemical solvents.
Was there a teacher in particular who affected you and the way you approach union activities and education policy?
(Starts and ends a conversational tangent bragging about his investments in GM and publicly traded newspaper companies.) I had a high school teacher who was lazy and didn’t give a damn about any of us. She was the exception, of course, and all the other teachers had to sort of cover for her and clean up her mess, but I thought it was interesting that she was able to get away with it.
So part of her legacy, at least in my life, is that I’m very circumspect about public policy — like merit, or performance, pay — that treats teachers as individuals and rewards them for their work. I try to represent the collective spirit, because even bad teachers need a place to go.
I’ve been pretty good at it so far. There was a donor a few years ago who wanted to give teachers and even janitorial staff $2 million as part of a pilot merit pay program at two Metro schools. We stopped that. Unfortunately, that issue has momentum again.
You told The City Paper recently that you opposed charter schools because they’re able to “cherry-pick” students and parents to achieve their results. But charter school students are overwhelmingly poor and black, and begin their charter school careers academically far behind. Can you explain what you mean?
(Turns down his favorite Spin Doctors CD and signs off his AOL account.) Charter school educators will tell you that some of their kids literally go home to their public housing apartments and find people shooting up in the living room. Many of them are children of single mothers, part of dysfunctional families, who get no intellectual stimulation early in life.
Things are bad at home for a number of these students. So their drive to succeed, that hustle to go to school and pull themselves up with the help of extraordinary teachers willing to work long hours, gives them more incentive than other students. It’s just not fair to the more fortunate kids. That’s what I mean by cherry-picking.
What ideas are you most enthusiastic about advocating? What motivates you in your professional life?
(Puts on his Members Only jacket) Bargaining. You know, contract negotiations.
Is that all?
Well, I also like to dicker for more teacher vacation days.
I’d like to figure out a way to get more teachers to join the Metro Nashville Education Association. Only about half are members of our union.
Why do you think that is?
I don’t know, but I’m going to start talking up the Ditto machine campaign. Maybe that will get them excited.