Strong principal-staff relationships help schools move on after teachers strike
While one principals network official says "strikes are meant to polarize," it's easier to resume a positive school climate when teachers feel principals were sympathetic to their concerns.
While principals in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) are relieved to have teachers back in classrooms, administrators may still have some repair work to do over the next few weeks in helping teachers, classroom assistants and families move beyond the divisive words and feelings that are often prone to surfacing during a strike.
With the Denver Classroom Teachers Association in Colorado voting to strike — and the Chicago and Oakland, California, districts also facing the same possibility — more school leaders may soon be coming to work with no teachers, as well as considering ways to bring some cohesion back to their school communities when a strike is over.
“Strikes are meant to polarize. Knowing that is the case, you almost need to allow and give permission for that polarization to take place,” said Ron Sisson, associate director of the Association of Washington School Principals, which advised administrators around Washington when teachers from several districts went on strike over salary issues at the start of the school year.
During a strike, he said, a principal’s role is to represent management — however difficult or uncomfortable that may be. Strikes can be especially hard on educators who aspire to be administrators, Sisson said in an interview. They might think expressing support for district leaders will benefit them in the future. Principals, however, should urge those educators to side with their fellow teachers during a strike and “stay out of the building,” he said.
Returning to a ‘shared commitment’
Following a work stoppage, principals are the ones “putting the pieces back together,” Sisson said.
That process, some say, is easier if principals have created collaborative work environments in which teachers’ views are valued and working conditions are addressed.
“The most successful principals are very skilled at building trust and relationships,” Thomas Ramming, a clinical associate education professor at the University at Buffalo, wrote in an email. If principals and other school leaders have created such an environment at their schools, “then when teachers do return to work, they will most likely once again demonstrate a shared commitment to serving the needs of students.”
Ray Gaer, the president of the ABC Federation of Teachers (ABCFT), which represents educators in the Los Angeles-area ABC Unified School District, suggests it’s important for principals to acknowledge teachers’ efforts during a strike. ABCFT went on strike in the 1990s before building a strong labor-management partnership with the district.
“Principals need to make a concerted effort to engage the union site leaders, and then the staff, about how to best move forward together so that the community and students see that the dialogue during the strike was healthy and on their behalf,” Gaer wrote in an email. “It’s about understanding each other’s reality.”
Julia Koppich, a San Francisco-based education researcher and expert on teachers unions, said in an interview that the school culture following a strike can depend on whether the principal was supportive of teachers’ concerns over issues such as class size and working conditions. If non-union substitutes are hired to work in place of teachers during a strike, however, educators might be less willing to forgive.
“Strikes are meant to polarize. Knowing that is the case, you almost need to allow and give permission for that polarization to take place."
Associate director, Association of Washington School Principals
In addition, if parts of an agreement are to be implemented at the school level, Koppich added, “smart principals will get teachers involved” in such decisions.
In Washington, Sisson agreed that from school to school, it’s still “a mixed bag” with some principals thinking things are back to normal and others still feeling residual effects of the strikes last fall. He added that in some districts, only one-year contracts with the unions were approved, which might leave some administrators already anxious about the next round of bargaining.
Leaders call for collaboration
Putting the strike in the past can also be more difficult when there are issues that bring continued disagreement among the teachers union and administrators. In Los Angeles, for example, the Associated Administrators of Los Angeles (AALA) still opposes many of the provisions United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) sought, because they “usurp the decision-making capacity of principals,” AALA President Juan Flecha wrote in a post on Monday.
Strikes often end with calls for more collaboration between districts and unions to advocate for increases in state funding and flexible policies. That’s what happened in 2012, when Chicago teachers went on strike for seven days, and that’s what’s happening now in Los Angeles, especially since LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner has indicated future state funding will be necessary to maintain the gains the union won in the contract.
“Tomorrow begins a new chapter in every classroom and every school in Los Angeles Unified,” Beutner said in a statement. “A chapter built on a strong foundation in this contract and a commitment to work together to make sure every student gets a great education."
Both the district and the union will also support the Schools and Communities First initiative on the November 2020 ballot, an effort to change the way commercial property is taxed, and direct the increased revenue toward education. The initiative, however, will face strong opposition from taxpayer groups and the business community.
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