5 strategies to align district leadership with unions

Though they might appear basic, a handful of simple strategies can help superintendents and union leaders have successful relationships

teachers-unionsTeachers are essential to a successful digital transition, and when it comes to the relationship between teachers’ unions and school district leaders, open communication is the most important contributor to that success.

School leaders gathered at Discovery Education to discuss strategies to involve all stakeholders in a district’s digital transition during an all-day summit and roundtable discussion held in conjunction with the Mid-Atlantic Area Superintendents.

As superintendents and district leaders talked about a variety of stakeholder involvement, a handful of clear strategies and approaches emerged as discussions turned to cultivating positive and productive relationships between district leaders and teachers’ unions.

(Next page: Five strategies for a beneficial relationship with union leaders)

Maintain clear and consistent communication

Having regular meetings with union leaders or representatives can help keep communication clear and free-flowing, said Kevin Maxwell, superintendent of Maryland’s Prince George’s County Public Schools. Looking for common ground helps that communication, he added—where do interests align, and where to they diverge?

“Have consistent and caring communication,” said John Fredericksen, superintendent of the Wicomico County School District in Maryland. “Tell the truth with grace,” he said, adding that district leaders and union leaders should all strive to be honest, but to be respectful and considerate when doing so.

Focus on relationships

“You can’t do this work without partnerships—without relationships,” Maxwell said. “You can’t be successful if you don’t focus on positive relationships.”

Outlining and creating a clear understanding of objectives helps foster those positive relationships, Fredericksen said.

“Develop some kind of relationship beyond the normal office meeting,” he said. With every meeting he has, and especially those with new union presidents, Fredericksen said he emphasizes that the ability to trust one another and be honest is of the utmost importance.

Honoring the teacher voice is critical when establishing positive relationships.

“If we think about the dynamic of change that’s facing the teacher today, [including] student learning objectives and performance frameworks, trying to cultivate that joint understanding of how we improve teaching and learning, and how we do it in a digital context … it’s that regular meeting with the [union], it’s honest dialogue about what they’re hearing versus what we want to initiate,” said Jerry Wilson, superintendent of Worcester County Public Schools in Maryland.

“Fundamentally, you still have to have teachers who are with you, or nothing else happens,” said Aaron Spence, Virginia Beach County Public Schools superintendent. “You’ve got to find ways to involve [the] teacher voice in all these conversations.”

Spence’s district uses teams of “roving problem solvers” who listen to teachers, gather feedback, and present that feedback at the district level.

Invest time—and give unions and teachers time

In addition to attending a national conference on teacher labor management and collaboration with union leaders, Maxwell said he discovered how important it is for district leaders to take time to visit classrooms and look at teaching and learning in their districts.

It’s also important to use existing time wisely, he noted.

“How do we use the time we already have and convert it to training time?” he asked. “We talk about embedding professional development—how do you really embed it?”

“One of our biggest issues [is], how do you give teachers time to digest and implement some of the things you want to happen,” said Dallas Dance, Baltimore County Public Schools superintendent.

Research and model professional learning communities

The district leaders agreed that professional learning communities can have immense benefit in supporting a digital conversion, because such communities let educators learn and collaborate.

Professional learning communities are one of the most current examples of collaboration, and without collaboration, the superintendents noted, it is much more challenging to roll out new initiatives and sustain a digital conversion.

Define goals

“Bring the focus off of the next ‘new thing’ and keep it on what’s right for kids,” advised Wilson. Doing this, he said, should help union leaders and district leaders stay on track and meet the district’s teaching and learning goals.

“Let’s explore what’s best for our kids—it becomes less of a ‘here’s another thing for you to do,’ and more of a ‘here’s what’s right for our kids,’” he said.

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