WHEATON, Ill. — Parent-teacher conference days are usually long and exhausting for Erica Bray-Parker, a high school social studies teacher in the well-off Chicago suburb of Glen Ellyn. But Nov. 5 was especially brutal. The day before, voters chose as their next governor an avowed foe of the teachers union she helps lead, millionaire businessman Bruce Rauner.

“It was draining, in and of itself, but it was also defeating,” Bray-Parker remembers, sitting after work in her cozy Wheaton bungalow. Spending four hours talking with parents about helping students, it was hard to forget how the public often views teachers unions. “There’s a lot of people who say, ‘I like my son’s teacher, but oh, teachers, they shouldn’t have tenure; it’s impossible to fire teachers,’ which isn’t true.”

Teachers at her school, who belong to Illinois’ chapter of the National Education Association, had done more than ever before to try to get their own members out to vote on Election Day. They had held a postcard-writing party after school. They had gone to the union headquarters to call prospective voters — from a room bannered with talking points on how Rauner had said that unions are a “financial tumor” and how his “draconian budget” would cut education spending by $2 billion.

The union had sent fliers to members comparing Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn’s statements about education to Rauner’s, and eight-minute videos describing what happened in Wisconsin after Republican Gov. Scott Walker — an ideological ally of Rauner’s — effectively eliminated collective bargaining.

Ultimately, though, teacher votes themselves weren’t enough — and Bray-Parker is now at a loss for how to reach the public, when the widespread image of teachers unions is about as toxic as it’s ever been. As attacks on teacher tenure have mounted, pushes for charter schools and vouchers have intensified, and new testing and curriculum mandates have made her job more challenging than ever before, Bray-Parker has found herself squarely in a dilemma: How to fight for job security and the freedom to teach kids without the constraints of testing, when politicians and the public don’t trust the institutions bearing the message?

The question took on added urgency in the 2014 election cycle, with the victories of several Republican governors whom the teachers unions had pledged to defeat. Rick Snyder in Michigan, Paul LePage in Maine and Rick Scott in Florida all support policies — various combinations of school vouchers, charter schools, and merit-based pay — that the unions oppose. Nationwide, the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers spent $60 million on state, local and federal races to push its agenda but had little success. Their biggest victory was a state superintendent’s race in California.

There is one strategy teachers unions feel still could make them more effective: evolve into more of a “professional” union, respected for its expertise in the field, as much a part of shaping policy as the politicians — but also an advocate for its members. Both the NEA and the other major teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers, have taken stabs at collaboration over the last decade. But so far, that hasn’t done much to improve their public image or political standing.

“We’re trying very hard to be more of a professional union, not the ‘gimme my benefits, gimme my pension’ union anymore,” Bray-Parker says. “We’ve been trying that for a few years, and the message isn’t coming across.”

Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT, adds that “it’s simply common sense to listen to educators; they are closest to the classroom and they know what’s needed for all kids to succeed. That’s what research also says, what teachers want and why we have been working for decades to have educators’ voices included in decision-making from the schoolhouse to the statehouse.”

As a parallel, Bray-Parker thinks of the doctors’ lobby, the American Medical Association, which wields tremendous clout in everything from Medicare reimbursement rates to the implementation of the Affordable Care Act and tends to be regarded as more of an impartial guardian of public health. There’s even a joke in the teacher world: No Dentist Left Behind, riffing off the 2001 law that built in corrective actions for school districts whose students didn’t meet certain standards, regardless of circumstance. As in, would you take away a dentist’s license if she worked in a low-income area and her patients kept coming in with cavities? No, of course you wouldn’t; it’s not her fault.

That’s why, despite the slow progress, teachers unions are keeping at it.

“Given how they are being construed in a lot of the popular media, there is a strong push to prove that unions are there to improve public education, and that teachers are the experts,and shouldn’t be considered the enemy,” says Katharine Strunk, an associate professor at the University of Southern California School of Education who studies teachers unions. “So I think we’re seeing local unions across the country trying to make this case for themselves, rather than being construed as working against what’s good for kids.”

If the NEA did pull off a shift toward “trust us, we’re experts” unionism, it would only be a return to its roots.

Founded in Philadelphia in the 1850s as a courtly men’s club, which came up with policy ideas such as a national Department of Education and tried to standardize spellings of words, the group remained more of a think tank and benevolent association, fighting against child labor and for the quality of teaching for minorities. Only in the 1950s, with the rise of the American Federation of Teachers and the spread of collective bargaining, did the NEA shift into more of a labor union as we know it today, advocating on behalf of its members’ pay, benefits and terms of employment.

In 1983, the Reagan administration published “A Nation at Risk,” a report finding widespread failure in the public education system. The document touched off a frenzy of efforts to infuse education with standards and metrics, which teachers felt undermined their  autonomy in the classroom. Unions resisted those changes but rarely won. To get a seat at the table, NEA leadership in 1997 proposed an approach called “new unionism,” under which unions were supposed to collaborate with school districts on curriculum development, scheduling, testing standards, evaluations — rather than simply saying no.

That idea met with mixed reviews. Some local union leaders thought that even participating in the discussion was a capitulation to state leaders, and they preferred to stick with their adversarial tactics. During the 2000s, a number of reform-minded union presidents were elected in cities, only to later lose their seats to more militant challengers. The local nature of labor power means that national leadership can say one thing, but chapters do the opposite, and that can lead to some pretty big battles at the local level — the now-famous war between the Chicago Teachers Union and Mayor Rahm Emanuel being exhibit A.

Still, as the administration of President George W. Bush continued, and as his signature education law, the No Child Left Behind Act, which required stringent testing, began to take effect, the need to get involved in policymaking seemed more urgent than ever.

“The big shift happened when Bush came in and there was no communication,” says Thomas Tully, the NEA representative for Bray-Parker’s district. “That was really done to us. We just had to accept the consequences. Things are much more successful when we are at the table negotiating, shaping, legislation that affects all educational workers, support personnel, bus drivers, you name it.”

Out of the national spotlight, local unions have been working with districts to give teachers exactly that kind of role. Susan Moore Johnson, a research professor at Harvard’s graduate school of education, cites Baltimore and Montgomery County, Md., as examples of places where union contracts cover a broad range of issues and major decisions are made jointly. Supported by groups such as the Teachers Union Reform Network, and even grants from and research in cooperation with the national unions themselves, they’ve come up with new avenues for collaboration, notably recruitment and professional development. “The reality is that there are a lot of local unions that are doing very professional things that people outside of education would be surprised about,” she says.

Paul Gamboa, a former fifth-grade teacher who became a local union president a few districts over from Bray-Parker, saw an evolution at least in the NEA’s attitude just over the past few years. “I remember actively trying to avoid them at the new teacher luncheon. My impression was that they protected bad people,” he remembers. His suspicions were borne out at his first couple of NEA meetings, where, he recalled, the most vocal people harped on protecting their jobs rather than bettering education. Gradually, that started to shift, as legislative bombs dropped with little teacher participation.

“When you look at things that unions stood for in the past, they were not exactly the forefront of education reform,” Gamboa says. “That is drastically changing now, but we are playing catch-up now to change that perception.”

Part of the problem may be that the public is still pretty far apart from teachers unions on some of the issues. Take teacher tenure, for example. According to this year’s Education Next survey, only 32 percent of the public supported it, compared to 60 percent of teachers. The split is even wider on whether districts should pay teachers on the basis of their students’ performance. Overall, 41 percent of those interviewed thought teacher unions had a negative effect on education, while 34 percent thought they had a positive effect.

“When you look at things that unions stood for in the past, they were not exactly the forefront of education reform,” Gamboa says. “That is drastically changing now, but we are playing catch-up now to change that perception.”

And ultimately, teachers unions may be facing a national mood that’s just not disposed in their favor.

“I didn’t think it could get worse, but right now I think it’s just as bad as it’s ever been. People don’t want to believe that the unions are constructive, just generally,” says Harvard’s Moore Johnson. “I used to think that more explanation would make a difference, but I think there’s a big political shift in the country, both about unions and about public education, whether it will or should survive, and that is making it very hard to inform anyone.”

For teachers, the everyday consequences of not having a role in policy decisions are very real. Bray-Parker says that in the last four years, she’s had to deal with the implementation of the Common Core standards, the introduction of new technology, and a complete change in evaluation procedures. Meanwhile, more students with special needs are being thrown in with everyone else, and everybody’s expected to take AP classes. That adds up to the most overwhelming of any period during her 21-year career. “Taken individually, it’s all good stuff,” she says. “But when it explodes at one time, it’s too much.”

That feeling is national: According to the annual MetLife survey of the American teacher, job satisfaction took a huge dive after 2008, from 62 percent to 39 percent in 2012. Bray-Parker says she knows a few veteran teachers who just decided not to come back from maternity leave, since the job’s become so challenging. Others are seeing whether they might have the option to retire early, fearful of what might be ahead.

While the teachers in Illinois prepare for battle with Rauner next year, they are also looking to have a hand in the curriculum and testing that they’ll have to implement down the line. Focused on making the union a positive presence outside contract negotiations, Bray-Parker’s chapter has done more outreach to local reporters, sponsored a charity race, joined the local chamber of commerce, supported the student newspaper and the PTA.

Sometimes, it feels like introducing an entirely different side of the teachers that parents have already gotten to know.

“It’s almost like we have to get our union name out there, like, ‘look at this great stuff we’re doing as a union,’” she says. “It’s making relationships with the community, as a union. ‘We are teachers, and oh by the way, we’re a union.’ Instead of, ‘we’re a union of teachers.’”