Why There’s A Contract

One of the biggest complaints from education reformers and politicians is that contracts negotiated by teachers’ unions are full of perks and benefits that prevent quick transformation of schools.  One report suggests that redistributing the cost of these “perks” to other programs and initiatives would be more useful.  The report goes on to attack teacher retirement programs, professional development, and salary structure based on length of experience among other factors.

Yet, as they lament the terms of the contracts, the question never revolves back to the fact that the contract is negotiated.  It never discusses that two parties are involved and the unions are just one part.  No blame goes towards the administrators or politicians in signing such a “bad” deal.  Maybe, it is because administration is the target audience for this type of report. Perhaps that is why it doesn’t seem even handed.  Maybe, it is not meant to be.

If it was, it may have addressed the fact that one of the most common weapons that teachers’ unions use in negotiations is “working to contract.”  What does this mean?  Simply, the contract hours that teachers are required to work, is all that they work.  In my wife’s first school, it meant that the teachers all walked into the building at 8:15 and out of the building at 4:00.  It means no before or after school staff meetings.  No committees.  No tutoring.  No parent-teacher conferences. No voluntary after school clubs. If it can’t be done during contract hours, it wasn’t done. Athletics and other school activities continued on site, but only if the teachers received a stipend to perform that work.

This does not mean that the teachers didn’t work after school.  Lessons needed to be planned; grading still needed to be done; parents needed to be contacted, but all off site, outside the other requirements imposed on teachers, requirements that reformers don’t or won’t acknowledge. The same reformers would probably decry this outcome.  How dare these selfish teachers work only the 7 hours that we give them credit for anyway?

Now ask yourself, what would happen if these “perks” were not in the contract? Beyond that, think about if the contract failed to address simple requirements like a break period for lunch or planning time during the school day.  While the reformers harp on these mandatory elements in the teachers’ contract, they never explore what would happen if these elements weren’t there.  They never address why a union would fight for dedicated professional development time or increased sick leave.  They never speak to what would happen if simple expectations like a 20 minute lunch break or 30 minutes of plan time were not included in the contract.  Maybe they just don’t know.  Maybe, they don’t want to know.

In my wife’s current school, there is no requirement for teachers to get a 20 minute lunch break. So guess what happens?  My wife doesn’t have time to eat lunch.  Meetings or lunch duty interfere with that most days.  We have had to adjust what she takes for lunch. No leftovers, there is no time to heat it up. Nothing requiring utensil or more than one hand, because you always need a free hand during lunch duty.  Going to the bathroom, not an option during lunch, the kids need your full attention, save the trip for your plan time.

Did I mention that there is no requirement for a planning period each day either?  So sometimes she gets a planning period, and sometimes not.  Actually, make that most times not, as frequently, meetings are scheduled during that time.  Not once or twice a month, more like 3-5 times a week.  So, no time to plan lessons, or make copies.  No time during the day to call a parent or document a student’s progress. Again, this assumes that she even gets a planning period on that day in the first place.

In the past six weeks, my wife and her colleagues have had less than 5 planning periods.  In the last 2 weeks, planning periods have been canceled. Oh, in that same time period, they haven’t had a lunch break either.  That means from when the kids come in at 8:30 to 3:35 when they leave for the day, she has no break.   Why? To give you the short answer, because the contract doesn’t require it.

So when reports come out complaining about mandatory elements in teacher contracts, please stop and consider why.  Please think about what happens if these “mandatory” elements are not included.  Please consider that there are two sides to this equation and that the contracts are negotiated, not dictated.

Because the administrators that are the target audience for these report know the truth. They know the “perks” in the contracts are far outweighed by the dedication that the majority of teachers bring. They know that schools cannot run if teachers don’t put in the extra effort. They know that the “bad” teachers that are highlighted in these reports are the exception not the rule.  They realize that the worst thing that could happen is teachers “only” working to contract.

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