Learning Leadership column, Sept. 2011 edition of eSchool News—The principal of P.S. 147 in Cambria Heights, N.Y., offered me a sixth-grade teaching position in September 1968. It was to be my first regular teaching assignment. Several weeks into the school year, Al Shanker, then president of the New York City United Federation of Teachers, called for a teacher strike. For several weeks that fall, I found myself walking the picket line with Al and my fellow teachers. As the strike progressed, unsettled, I took a job on Wall Street to make ends meet. I was getting married that January, and I had bills to pay.
Fortunately, the strike came to an end before the holidays, and I resumed my teaching career. I experienced another teacher strike in New York City before I left the classroom and then several others after I became an administrator. During the 30 years I spent in New York, the unions and collective bargaining were very much embedded in every aspect of education. Negotiations often were contentious and bitter, particularly if they culminated in a strike. As a superintendent, I learned to work with the unions and walk that fine line between teacher compensation and working conditions and my responsibility to the taxpayers and the students we served. Harmonious relationships were always in the best interest of the students, as long as both sides were fair-minded and willing to compromise.
In February, the American Association of School Administrators co-sponsored a conference in Denver along with the U.S. Department of Education, the two teacher unions, the National School Boards Association, the Council of Great City Schools, and the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. The conference focused on how labor-management collaboration could lead to enhanced student learning. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is a strong proponent of that process, and he invited 125 school districts from around the country to participate in the conference with teams consisting of the superintendent, the union president, and the school board president. Amazingly, more than 200 districts applied to attend the conference.
For more on school labor-management relations:
We have seen over the past few months a strong backlash against unions and collective bargaining. Wisconsin, Ohio, and Idaho are among the states that were part of the 35 that had collective bargaining and now have changed or are attempting to change the law. There are 15 states, referred to as right-to-work states, that do not have collective bargaining provisions. When I left New York to become the superintendent of schools in Fairfax County, Va., I found myself in a right-to-work state. Aside from the fact that negotiations are forbidden—instead, we “meet and confer”—positive relations with the teachers and their associations remain essential to a functional, highly performing school district such as Fairfax.
Essentially, improved labor-management relations are in the best interest of every school district. Along those lines, the American Federation of Teachers and AASA have collaborated in the development of a framework to improve two areas critical to teacher quality and student performance—teacher development and evaluation and a due-process model that can lead to the expedient removal of an ineffective teacher or a teacher charged with misconduct.