At the time of his death, Tom Mooney and I and a handful of teacher unionists were building the Institute for Teacher Union Leadership (ITUL), to nurture leadership skills for progressive teacher unionism. The ITUL planning team was to meet the following Saturday in Washington, D.C., to map our next steps. Instead, we traveled to Cincinnati to attend the memorial to Tom's life, cut short.
While planning the ITUL gathering, Tom had emailed me to make sure the group would have a celebratory dinner together Friday night. What made Tom so irresistible is how hard he worked during the day and how hard he played at night. He had close friendships across the country and throughout the world, from Australia to Europe, South America, and Africa.
Tom's vision integrated the urgency of improving teaching and learning with the often-unrealized power of unions to speak for the best professional practice of teachers. He did not believe that unions had to choose between a traditional "bread and butter" emphasis and professional concerns about the quality of teaching. Tom taught us that advocating solutions that improve student learning earn unions credibility and better pay. Progressive union leadership means mastering economic and professional agendas, while maintaining a broad social justice vision. Tom showed us that it also required mastering the nitty-gritty details of school budgets, funding sources, and alternative compensation proposals so that the union president is the smartest one in the room.
I'd known Tom since our time together at Antioch College. We traveled the same path into teaching and union leadership and championing rather than fighting education reform. I stole his ideas with sincere flattery, and he used me as a sounding board. He was the best of generals and a fine street fighter.
Most important, he had a vision of schooling centered on quality, professional teaching. He looked to history and to other countries to teach us that knee-jerk industrial unionism made less sense than a vision that drew from craft unions and the professions. Why shouldn't teachers and their organization be the guardians of quality? Why shouldn't the best teachers be paid more? Why shouldn't the union champion meaningful accountability?