Teaching Profession

During Teacher Strikes, Principals Put to Test

By Denisa R. Superville — March 05, 2019 7 min read
Teacher Dina Suarez yells at a rally with other teachers in front of City Hall in Oakland, Calif., last month. Principals have been tasked with keeping schools open during the ongoing strike in that city.

Since the beginning of the year, teachers have already gone on strike in Los Angeles, Denver, West Virginia, and Oakland, Calif.

In three of those strikes, principals were charged with running their buildings while teachers were out on the picket line. In Los Angeles, they were expected to teach classes while juggling regular duties—a job that already keeps most principals occupied for more than 60 hours a week, on average.

The decision to keep schools open is putting principals in a bind. Many school leaders are former teachers and may strongly support their teachers’ calls for higher pay, more education funding, and additional counselors and social workers. But they have a duty to keep students safe and ensure that they are learning.

“I want to emphasize that the principal’s job, fundamentally, is to make sure children are safe and are educated,” said Judith Pérez, a retired principal in the Los Angeles school system and former president of the Associated Administrators of Los Angeles, which represents the district’s principals and other administrators. “And they have to have a positive environment—and that means supporting teachers. So, it’s challenging on all levels. They were really stressed by the circumstances and feeling very much alone and isolated in handling it.”

So given the demands on principals during these emergency situations and inherent tension between supporting their striking staff and upholding their duty to keep students safe and learning, what can districts do to make school leaders’ jobs more manageable during a strike?

Close Schools, If Possible

Ernest Logan, a former principal in New York City who now serves as president of the American Federation of School Administrators, said districts should close schools when teachers are striking if they are not “safe and secure.”

It’s a “farce” to tell the public that there will be meaningful instruction when the majority of the teaching staff is on the picket line and principals are expected to balance both administrative and classroom teaching duties, he said.

Los Angeles Unified kept its schools open during a six-day strike in January. That prompted the principals’ union to ask the district to shut down schools two days into the strike. The union had gotten several complaints, including one from a principal who encountered expletives from picketing teachers while trying to enter the building. Other principals emailed about insufficient staff.

Denver also kept schools open during a teachers’ strike last month. On the first day, a student at East High School sent a video to the Denver Post showing students dancing in the hallways, and students painted a chaotic scene to the paper. And Oakland schools stayed open during its first teacher strike in more than two decades, though the principals’ union urged the district to close schools. As the Oakland strike wore on into its sixth day late last week, only about six percent of students were showing up for school, according to local media accounts.

The United Administrators of Oakland Schools expressed its support for teachers, and 75 principals signed a public letter backing their demands, including higher pay for teachers and more state education funding. More than two dozen principals boarded a bus to the state capitol in Sacramento the day before the start of the strike, to lobby legislators for more funding, including forgiving a $36 million state loan to the district dating back to 2003.

Principals manned schools with fewer students in Oakland on the strike’s first day. Principals’ union president Lauran Waters-Cherry, and executive director JoAnna Lougin, said in a statement that the district should “abandon the notion that students can learn, and schools will function without professional teachers, and the supports of our counselors, psychologists, librarians, speech pathologists, social workers, early childhood and adult education teachers.”

Logan agreed.

“I believe that we should close schools, if it’s not a safe and secure environment,” he said. “All we are doing is babysitting those kids, that’s what we are doing. There is no meaningful instruction going on.”

Be Transparent About Why

Since meaningful instruction is not likely, districts should be honest with parents and the community about why they are keeping schools open: Because schools are often the only place where some children get two meals a day and a warm place to stay, Logan said.

“The question the public needs to ask, ‘If we are not having instruction, then why did we have the schools open?’ Because there is a greater social need more so than education[al]” need, he said.

Districts also have a powerful incentive to remain open during strikes: millions of dollars are at stake. When schools are shut down, funding tied in part to average daily attendance is lost.

Respond to Changing Dynamics

Districts can think that they have dotted all their I’s and crossed all their T’s as they prepare for the work stoppage, but very few things ever go according to plan. They must be able to respond in the moment to feedback from principals.

While Los Angeles Unified hired 1,400 substitutes and sent 2,000 district administrators to help principals, the support staff members and substitutes were not evenly distributed. Some schools had too many administrators, while others did not have enough assistance, according to the local administrators’ union.

Principals complained about the long work days—they were arriving at school at 5:30 a.m. and leaving later than they normally would. Staff was stretched to the limit.

“The working conditions were untenable before the strike. The situation is now impossible. Learning is not happening. Schools should have been closed,” one principal wrote to Juan Flecha, the president of the Los Angeles administrators’ union.

The schools remained open for the duration of the strike.

Keep Principals in the Loop

As district representatives, principals are the main conduit of information from the central office—to students, parents, and the wider community—and they must walk a fine line in what they say, even when they are not always privy to the details of the negotiations.

During a strike, they often have to reassure parents that schools are safe. But very often principals lack critical information that parents want to know, like how long the strike will last and when teachers will return to school.

Union leaders suggested that because principals must maintain the trust of their parents and the community, they shouldn’t be forced to parrot the central office’s talking points.

District officials must give principals accurate information, as much as is legally allowed—not just talking points—during the strike. And those messages should be conveyed in writing to principals and given to them before teachers walk out.

Pérez said that a standing committee that sets guidelines for what principals need to know and do during a strike would go a long way to alleviate the anxiety and stress.

Pérez experienced two strikes during her career in Los Angeles, and she recalled that during the 1989 teachers’ strike, the district sent communications to school administrators that included tips on what to do in various situations and contacts to call in certain scenarios.

“I think what applies in LAUSD applies as much anywhere else there is a strike, where principals need to be clear on what is expected; what to communicate to parents; what to say to concerned community members; how to ensure the safety of the children and the staff members in the school; what they do if they have a question, whom do they call; how do they deal with an emergency, with questions and answers,” Pérez said. “And that needs to be provided to them well in advance. It’s simply because it’s just a different situation from what they do on a day-to-day basis. And they need to feel like they can manage it.”

Pay Principals for Their Extra Time

If schools are open during strikes, principals must show up.

They are barred from striking in many states, and they can’t disobey a direct order from their superintendents without repercussions, Logan said.

In many cases, principals do not have any recourse. They could file a grievance against the district for changing working conditions, but that may only lead to discord and does not address the underlying conditions that led teachers to walk out in the first place, Logan said.

As such, principals should be paid for the extra work and additional hours they put in before and during the strikes, said Pérez.

Principals in Los Angeles reported spending weekends and nights before and during the strike to prepare lesson plans for classes they had to teach.

The compensation will not be a significant sum of money, but “it’s a sign of respect and appreciation for those who dealt with extremely tough situations on behalf of the district for no thanks or appreciation,” Pérez said.

“And that goes a bit in the direction of providing that recognition and support.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 06, 2019 edition of Education Week as During Teacher Strikes, Principals Put to Test

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