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How to Build a Better Teacher Contract

—Getty

Teachers and district staff lay out 7 steps for a successful negotiation

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As the U.S. Supreme Court was deciding the Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 31 opinion this year, a district of over 13,000 students in Illinois ratified and approved a collectively bargained teacher contract months ahead of schedule. The contract fell within district budget projections, eliminated the traditional salary schedule, and rewarded teacher performance. In a post-Janus era, this type of collaboration could be increasingly valuable.

We—Jon Eckert (the facilitator), Bryce Cann (the local union association president and teacher), Bob Rammer (an assistant superintendent), and Jeff Schuler (the district superintendent)—met monthly with 15 other district teachers and administrators for two years to develop a recommendation for this viable model. We ended up with a contract that was ratified by nearly 70 percent of our educators’ association with nearly unanimous school board support.

So, how did we do it? Collective leadership. Collective leadership involves working toward shared goals, which means that leadership is not defined by positions.

"Communication is not a one-way process to increase buy-in."

Before we began this process, the district and union agreed upon a contract with the caveat that the single salary schedule for teachers would end. The administration and union jointly selected the facilitator to lead the compensation study team. The result was a contract that rewarded learning and leadership. Educators in our district can now earn additional compensation for taking on leadership roles, as well as for extending their learning through degrees and micro-credentials (professional learning designed around demonstrated competencies).

Because every district is different, the contract is not necessarily a template for other districts, but perhaps the process can offer some direction.

There were many factors that contributed to our success, but there were seven essential steps that can now serve as guideposts for other districts interested in thinking about compensation differently.

1) Take time to work together. Our district and union leadership agreed upon a facilitator to mediate the discussions and set the agendas for monthly meetings. This maintained a sense of neutrality and allowed the facilitator the opportunity to reflect back to the team what he was observing about the process.

Establishing monthly meetings for 18 busy educators who are being compensated for their time with nothing more than a few chocolates and good will is challenging. The superintendent and association president each selected team members based on their desire to work together. The team came together each month because they valued the process even when they disagreed.

2) Don’t bargain, recommend. We approached the process with the mindset that we were putting together a recommendation, not bargaining a contract, which reduced defensiveness. Administrators and teachers were always seated around the room strategically, in mixed teams to encourage cooperation and shared expertise. Simply listening to each other increased trust. One major breakthrough came when we stopped talking about details and numbers and instead started discussing the broader model on which to build our recommendation.

3) Look internally to identify strengths and face reality. We identified a list of 34 district strengths—strengths that we did not want to compromise with an ill-advised recommendation. We faced the reality of the district’s financial situation together. The district spends approximately the same per pupil as the national average. Because state funding is scarce, approximately 87 percent of district funds come from the local level, which is nearly double the national average for local contribution. With a static student population, uncertain and limited state funding, there were not significant additional resources for compensation.

4) Look externally for improvement, not silver bullets. We studied what others have done. We read research on compensation and how districts improve. We collaborated both face-to-face and asynchronously through a shared Google doc in order to identify opportunities and obstacles. Based on this research, teachers and administrators brought ideas from other districts that could inform our recommendation. We knew we could not directly replicate others’ plans, but we needed to be informed so our compensation plan could be improved.

5) Establish shared values. After looking externally and internally, our research led the team to develop a shared set of district values and non-negotiables within the first five meetings. We decided we would prioritize professional learning and leadership, and that we would not tie those to evaluation ratings or student test scores. From there, the process became clear, even if the outcome was not.

6) Communicate with others. Five months into the process, we released a memo to teachers, administrators, and the school board outlining, in general terms, our committee’s progress. We eventually released two additional memos and a list of frequently asked questions. We did this for two reasons: First, we wanted to provide as much information as possible after agreeing on the appropriate level of detail. We also wanted to get feedback from others that could illuminate our blind spots and improve our process. Communication is not a one-way process to increase buy-in. Communication should be about increasing the understanding of all involved.

7) Trust the process and each other. From the beginning, transparency was vital to the process and the development of trust. The facilitator took notes through every meeting and all asynchronous discussions and chronicled them in the shared Google doc that ended up reaching nearly 100 pages. This documented the progress over time and showed how the concepts and solutions evolved.

The recommendation that emerged from this process gave the district a running start to navigate the collective bargaining at the table, the school board, and the full union membership. Certainly, there were challenges to overcome, but by starting with a recommendation process rather than a formal negotiation, we laid the groundwork for a successful negotiation—one grounded in shared values and expectations. Such negotiations are never done, and the contract four years from now will certainly change. With collective leadership, however, those changes will be improvements for everyone involved.

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