Schneider: Either or, but not both – exploring a new teacher compact

Editor’s note: This op-ed was originally posted in ConnectedVermont, a blog for discussion of education, with an emphasis on school board-related issues hosted by the author. Rama Schneider lives in Williamstown and is a member of the Williamstown School Board.

Smartest comment I’ve heard to date regarding teacher compensation: “They’re either salaried professionals or hourly paid employees.” In today’s world of education we really need our teachers to be the professionals — there is too much happening and too much flexibility is required.

I believe we need to rethink the foundations of our schools’ current staffing agreements. I say we explore a compact that binds staff and administration and board members together in agreement of purpose to replace the contract that all too often leave us on opposite sides of the table.

Modern communications has ensured education can be found just as easily during a summer evening at home as during an autumn day in a school building, but teachers, administrators and boards are all stuck with contracts that deal in specifically defined time frames describing the start, length and end. Our students need teachers who are educators, mentors and models of behavior, but we have contracts that define duties in such granular specificity that practically every moment of a teacher’s day is mapped out.

In reality this means a lot of teachers willingly violate the contracts negotiated by their union — most teachers readily admit the absurdity of not helping a student because a block of time was set aside for planning or lunch or the contracted ending hour has been reached. The truth as far as I can discern it is that our teachers really want to educate our kids — in general the teachers have chosen their profession because they enjoy it and find in it an important way to earn a living and serve a greater good.

Am I suggesting we do away with teacher unions? No. But I am suggesting that teachers take back their power to bargain and come to the table in place of their unions.

But unfortunately contract negotiations don’t occur between teachers and administrators and boards: contract negotiations occur between UNIONS and administrators and boards. These contracts tend to end up dealing with compensation and hours and workplace rules while leaving out the one thing that teachers, administrators and boards all agree should be the focus — the students.

Am I suggesting we do away with teacher unions? No. But I am suggesting that teachers take back their power to bargain and come to the table in place of their unions. There is much to be said for unions and professional associations — but flexibility and fast-paced change does not appear to be in the Vermont NEA’s box of tools.

It isn’t just the unions that present obstacles to much needed change in our staffing agreements. The current state of labor law hovers like a Sword of Damocles threatening legal repercussion for any attempt by school boards to discuss with the staff day-to-day policy and the possibilities of a different way. To try to do such invites claims of illegal contract negotiations.

The rigid top-down administrative pyramid defined in Vermont’s Title 16 gives superintendents and principals concern that ongoing and in-depth board/staff communications will violate chains of command and authority and responsibility — whether the superintendents and principals agree with these chains or not!

Another part of this is ending closed-door negotiations. Everybody needs to feel comfortable with end results and the means that were used to achieve them: school boards, administration, staff, students and the general public — everybody. Secrecy all too often veils obstinacy and allows for obdurate delay in compromise or even substitution and change.

So I suggest several things to start: A change in wording to use “compact” instead of “contract” so we verbally acknowledge we are talking about substantial difference; changes to statute that assure school boards have full unfettered access to staff so the necessary conversations instead of being board to administration to staff and reverse are instead a great big bubbling stew of all three groups (yeah – we need to get students in there too, but we need to change our staffing agreements first); and a requirement that all school negotiations be held in public – not with public participation, but so the public can provide the ultimate oversight.

The delivery of education is changing. Let’s change the agreements that define how that delivery can best change for the students.

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  • Michael Bayer

    So,we should get rid of unions as the bargaining agent for teachers and essentialy allow administrators and Boards to take on teachers one by one. That is one reason unions were formed in the first place. Teachers who do not act collectively, that is what a union is (union officers are teachers who have ben elected by their peers to represent their interests), THEY ARE NOT OUTSIDERS.

    As for negotiating in public is concerned, get real. We all have people who run for school Boards to cut taxes, not educate children. Can you imagine other Board members publically standing up to such people, to put serious Board members who are looking for answers to difficult questions in the position of standing up to local demagogues whose ambition is to become mini Grover Norquists. How has that worked in Washington?

    There may very well be the need for new ways to focus more on children’s needs than is typical of most contract negotiations, but getting rid of contracts which actually protect children by ensuring job security for teachers who want to teach, goes in the opposite direction.

    By the way, I am a parent who has raised three children in the public schools, but not a teacher.

  • Karl Riemer

    Rama Schneider’s points are well taken (except for the “compact/contract” distinction – semantics can be transformative but rarely predictably – artificial semantic distinctions as often signal an absence of substance as reflect real change, we all know that) but this is a hugely complicated hornet’s nest and Michael Bayer has put his finger on at least a couple of hornets.
    It’s true that the NEA has consistently, duplicitously argued both horns of the wage-labor/professional-respect dilemma. Unqualified support for unionization doesn’t make all unions honorable and the NEA, or perhaps only some Vermont locals, have certainly behaved dishonorably. They would learn some manners from public negotiations. On the other hand, almost every public gathering where policy is discussed attracts people for whom the only acceptable policy is anarchy, who oppose community governance on principle and believe that principle righteous. Inviting their slings and barbs, allowing participants to play to that audience, contributes nothing useful.

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