Schools and Bureaucracy and Some Politics: Empower Your People; Chrysler Does — Part D

Summary: Referring back to last week’s post, a plan to provide study time in our school served as a promising example of the incremental changes needed to further reform in schools. The story is here continued.

On what seemed to be the eve of implementation, in fact with a new study time schedule published, it arose that the details of the study time violated the current teacher union contract. Now wait! Stifle those moans.

The truth was that the program as designed meant a small but meaningful increase in staff work load. Teachers would have modestly less time to cover material mandated they teach, and all would have to retool, without compensated time, either to create systems through which math and science teachers could effectively “tutor” the twenty-five to thirty students for which each would be responsible, or for the study time supervisors of the rest of the student body to enforce quiet individual study time. In my own already overloaded bailiwick as a counselor, I would have one hour less a week to complete my already highly prioritized and impossible agenda. So the proposal was not without a price to pay for the staff involved.

Long story short, a waiver of the union contract was required for the program to proceed. A vote was held, the result was roughly a draw for and against the waiver, so the study time proposal fell into the waste bin, because a two thirds majority was required to pass the waiver. Ouch. What happened to the happy ending?

In post mortem, while it was encouraging that approximately half the staff voted in favor, despite the down side of the proposal, questions obviously arise as to why the other half of the staff voted against. Were they simply too vested in their own insularity to be open to the positive qualities of the experiment, or to the potential benefit to less fortunate students? Were they too stuck to be willing to put energy into the new systems, because change does require extra start up energy?

Probably some of that. Though we have a reasonably competent and hard working staff for the greater part, the sum is not perfect.

However, if I were to guess, I think our history as an overly hierarchical school and school district entered into the equation, and hence the vote. Given a specific chance to voice that displeasure, half the certificated staff voted to “stick it to the man”, in part the principal, in part the district and superintendents past and present, and even the state and legislature, which seems unable to provide adequate funding for schools, despite its clear constitutional duty to do so. Bottom line, cost of living increases for teachers, mandated by the voters, and increases to the salary scale for at least ten years have languished badly, yet here teachers are asked yet again, in the guise of the new study time proposal, to pull still harder in their traces.

The system is broken; some teachers with reason say I am doing my part as much as I can, my back is breaking. Enough. Even those of us who voted in favor understand that point of view.

My message to our principal is to not despair, though he has fired some retribution at our retreating backs. Despite the setback, the enhanced communication and exchange of ideas is without question in my mind on the right track, and he is to be commended for that. Now is not the time to retrench, but to understand the meaning of the vote, even to empathize (for he is not so long from being a teacher himself, but oh so quickly do we all forget), and to continue in the communicative, collegial vein he has begun, because only in that vein will he bring our school to the achievement he clearly desires.

Finally, a couple of big picture observations from this microcosm. It is a truth that teachers and teachers’ unions will be players, whether for the good, or for the bad, whether as contributors to the change we seek, or as obstacles to revamped approaches. In our own state, I wonder how effective the frontal approach of certain public figures will be in lambasting teachers’ unions without at the same time attempting to understand the legitimate concerns of those in the trenches, and then address them. Note that theme in the story I have just concluded; a house divided will at best half-heartedly address the enormous challenges we face in the schoolhouse. A passive aggressive response on teachers’ parts to unsympathetic attack will hardly catalyze the kinds of changes needed when these are the very same players that will necessarily carry out the envisioned reforms on the grass roots level.

Political pressure applied is one thing, and can be useful, as I think No Child Left Behind has managed to do, despite its flaws, but to demonize a critical player, as political contributors many places removed from the real action have been doing of late toward teachers and their unions in our state, simply serves to create armed camps, while the real prize for both sides, education reform, gets trampled upon the warring turf.

Perhaps all parties need to repair to the schools of New Haven, Connecticut, and an example of cooperation and apparent trust between unions and school district management that has apparently produced the kind of reform currently under siege in Washington State, and which I will take a look at in next week’s post.

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