Monday, February 16, 2009

Teaching in the Trenches Without a Contract

"We must want for others, not ourselves alone."
Eleanor Roosevelt

In these harsh and uncertain economic times, it is difficult to stay positive. Times are tough and this is especially so in the field of education. As a native Western New Yorker from historic Niagara Falls, Governor Patterson's message of doom and gloom concerning school budget cuts has us all a bit running scared. To complicate this matter, there are many school districts in my region that are also experiencing teacher contract negotiations. These two issues combined have created an atmosphere of toxicity in schools across our area. Teachers are tense, disgruntled, and feeling under appreciated. This combination defines an atmosphere of trepidation, fear, and antagonism. How do we, as school leaders, work through such toxic situations?

We look for opportunities to showcase teachers and their techniques. We provide opportunities for teachers to work together and share their expertise. We inspire teachers to get excited about teaching and learning through meaningful professional development opportunities. We take the time to tell teachers in unique ways how much we appreciate all that they do for the children of our district. And we quell rumors that run amuck.

Although my immediate focus is the quality of curriculum and instruction and securing motivational and innovative professional development for all teachers in the district, I am also the direct supervisor of the UPK (universal pre-K) and ALT (alternative high school) programs that are in the building for which I serve as principal. Although the teachers in my building are experiencing the same strain of working without a contract for the second year in a row, I am thankful that they are still positive about the profession and continue to work hard for their kids. Sadly, I cannot say this for all the other buildings in my district. Some buildings are worse than others, mind you, and a few remain just as positive as mine.

I have years 13 years of experience as a middle school and high school English teacher and as a department chair as well. I know full well what it feels like to be in "the trenches" and be without a fair teacher's contract. Two different times in those 13 years we worked a year or more without a contract and I was on the negotiations team for one of those contracts. It was not an easy place to be; and, yes, I was angry at times, but I never, and I mean NEVER, let my professionalism come in to question. Unfortunately, this is not the case in my current district. Below are some things currently taking place as a result of this toxic atmosphere:

  • Teachers are talking to students about how unfair it is to be working without a contract both inside and outside of their classrooms. In fact, some teachers have taken time out of instruction to do so. This is happening to the extent that teachers are actually telling high school students that prom will probably be cancelled because there will be no teachers willing to chaperon without a contract. That is just awful, not to mention wrong.
  • Teachers have gone to a "work to rule" stance, refusing to perform any ancillary tasks above and beyond their contracted work day regardless of whether they have performed such tasks in the past. As a result, kids are suffering. Teachers are not staying after school to provide extra help for kids who need it. Teachers are not chaperoning events that help to motivate kids or further connect them to their school. Teachers are entering and leaving the building en masse, at exactly the start and end of their contracted day, period.
  • Teachers are bullying other teachers, even those who are non-tenured, to be sure that all are following this work to rule stance. Teachers have been hollered at by colleagues and even followed out to their cars while being berated about taking work home with them.
  • Teachers are bad-mouthing the district in the press. Just see this post by a friend to understand what I'm talking about. Not only do I find it unwise to bite the hand that feeds you, so to speak, I am also deeply saddened and offended by such tactics.

Times are tough for everyone these days, but that is no excuse to behave unprofessionally. As a former teacher, I would never have thought to behave in ways that sully the profession and take away from kids. No matter how hard it is sometimes, we must always remember to remain professional; we must always remember that this profession is about kids and not ourselves. We have to remain positive for the kids and provide them with the best possible education we can because they deserve it.


Angela said...

I remember working with you when you worked without a contract, and I was most impressed by the way that you AND your colleagues conducted yourselves during that difficult time. Kids weren't shortchanged in the process, and you're right--ensuring that remains our largest responsibility.

eduguy101 said...

Being without a contract at this time must be awful. There is so much uncertainty to begin with, the idea of "without a contract" makes matters so much worse.

I too have been in the trenches with Buffalo Schools, and have been with a contract for extended periods of time. I do remember, and I do understand what is going through the minds of the teachers who have dedicated themselves to our most valuable commodity--children. I worked for an amazing principal for just 1 year who understood our stance as teachers without a contract and supported the things we did outside of the classroom (both in action and in word), but he made it clear that the children were not to be impacted.

Something to remember: Teachers serve a higher purpose and represent idealism and optimism, not to forget being a role model. It is hard to keep it up at times, but showing our children the higher road while in the classroom is critical. They are help form the ideals and opinions for the future. How they treat each other, as professionals and peers, show students (and the community)valuable life lessons on resiliency and dealing with difficult issues.

There are ways to show your concerns and anxiety to those who have a direct impact without using students as sounding boards or educational hostages.