Tennessee and Memphis teachers unions are fighting — each other

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
MSCEA president Keith Williams addresses an assistant state commissioner during a June meeting about TCAP scores.

A turf war brewing between the state and Memphis teachers unions spilled over into local educators’ inboxes Wednesday.

In an unexpected move, the Tennessee Education Association told Memphis-area union members in an email that it had created a new chapter for them on Wednesday. The TEA did so after the local teachers union moved to break from the state and national unions — a decision that has left educators confused about who represents them.

“I think everyone’s got to be puzzled about what’s going on,” said Ken Foster, the former head of the local union. “I don’t know if the average teacher in the classroom knows what is going on, but I guess they would have some questions.”

The conflict stems from a series of changes — including Foster’s departure — at the local union, the Memphis and Shelby County Education Association, that appear to have provoked the state union. At issue is whether the local chapter can make its own decisions about its staff and policies, or whether it falls under the state union’s oversight.

Recently, the local union — which represents about 4,500 teachers, or about half of local educators — has taken advantage of its autonomy to make a slew of leadership changes. Most notably, Keith Williams, the five-year union president whose term ended in July and who is now running for City Council, returned as executive director in August. He replaced Foster, who had held the executive director position for 15 years.

Williams has used his new position to wage a battle against the state union, which he said had failed to serve local members. He said the local affiliate handles all grievances filed by its members, but when they choose to turn court cases over to state union officials they are ignored.

“They haven’t done one thing for members in Memphis and Shelby County,” Williams said.

So he retained Memphis attorney Michael Floyd to inform state union officials that the local chapter was seceding.

“Effective immediately my client has elected not to be affiliated with either the NEA or the TEA,” Floyd wrote to TEA President Barbara Gray on Wednesday.

That led to the letter that landed in educators’ inboxes this week, saying the state union has created the new “TEA West” to represent Memphis members.

Exactly what the decisions mean, and whether the local union’s secession can stand, is unclear. The TEA’s letter to educators suggested that union members would have to approve a split. Williams said the local chapter’s board had voted to disaffiliate, but members had not yet been asked to vote on the move.

Gray said understanding how the decision to disaffiliate was made would matter going forward. “The governance document of MSCEA requires certain procedures to be followed, and we don’t know if any of these procedures were followed or not,” Gray said. “But we do know that we’ll be working with the membership of MSCEA to make sure that their voices are heard in attempts to rectify the situation.”

For now, the state union is telling local educators that their membership to TEA and the national affiliate still stand, and they are still entitled to legal representation and other services. Its email to local educators signaled that the dustup was likely to be resolved, although there are “serious questions that need to addressed.”

Williams suggested that he was open to resolution but willing to engage in a prolonged battle against the state union if it does not continue to let the local choose its own staff.

“If there cannot be a resolution, it looks like this may be a fight,” Williams said. “They have said we do not have right to retain the local option, and we believe that we do.”

You can view the letter and email here:

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”