by Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Mel Collins, Jaime Olivares
Teachers on special assignment. Program coordinators. Curriculum specialists. Literacy coaches.
The titles and ranks of teachers working outside of the classroom have increased over the past decade, say CTA members. In some districts they are helpful and supportive, providing fresh strategies and resources to colleagues. In other districts, they may act as quasi-administrators who look for shortcomings in co-workers and report them to higher-ups.
“Most teachers out of the classroom in our district have a sincere desire to improve the practice beyond their own classroom,” says Chad Cooper, Associated Calexico Teachers president. “Others see it as an administrative stepping stone.”
The trend creates a “gray area” between teacher and administrator in some districts. Confusion and resentment over the lack of role delineation may develop into a “You’re not the boss of me” scenario — even among bargaining unit members.
While school districts view teachers on special assignment (TOSAs) and others outside the classroom as being “a little bit of an administrator,” there’s really no such hybrid, say CTA negotiators, who compare it to being a little bit pregnant. Either you’re an administrator or you’re not. The true test of being an administrator is the ability to hire and fire staff and make decisions about administration’s handling of grievances. This eliminates CTA members.
During tough times, districts are tempted to take teachers out of the classroom to save money. Rather than hiring more administrators, administrative duties are delegated to teachers for a lower salary and a stipend. Teachers looking for a change, the chance to help colleagues, or the fast track to a district office position, accept these positions. The downside: TOSAs are often the first positions cut during tougher times.
CTA supports teacher-led professional development as a path to bettering schools — which is the goal of many TOSA jobs. However, teachers, whether inside or outside the classroom, should never be part of the process of evaluating peers.
Crossing the line
While teachers outside the classroom should not report on peers to administrators, comments in casual conversation may have repercussions on someone’s career. A TOSA talked to an administrator about a history teacher having a “difficult time” in the classroom at 11 a.m. While no name was mentioned, there was only one history teacher teaching class at that time and the principal contacted that teacher, who feared the incident would be used in an evaluation.
That was an accident. But sometimes lines are crossed intentionally.
There are cases where an abusive principal uses TOSAs to intimidate teachers. TOSAs are used by some administrators to do “dirty work” and spy on colleagues, says a chapter president who prefers to remain anonymous. Teachers are harassed under this policy, are given dictates by TOSAs, and get in trouble for not following them. The district in question denies using teachers as administrators, and numerous grievances have been filed.
Mel Collins observed similar situations in the West Contra Costa Unified School District and saw teachers turn on one another.
“Teachers can get into an administrative mindset when all their directives come from administration. Even though they are not supposed to evaluate teachers, there’s backroom talk with administrators, and their comments can affect evaluations of their colleagues.”
A balancing act for TOSAs
Collins, himself a TOSA, says it’s important to walk the union line in his job as liaison to the district’s Gateway to College program at Contra Costa College, which helps at-risk students earn high school and college credit. As a TOSA, he monitors student attendance and CAHSEE scores, recruits students throughout the district, and develops resources to foster success.
“I recommend TOSAs meet with union leaders to set or clarify ground rules to avoid blurring the lines between administration and teacher expectations. I did this both officially and unofficially, because I was recommended by my president, Diane Brown, to apply for the position,” says Collins, United Teachers of Richmond vice president.
“I act as a comrade to teachers, as opposed to authoritatively. I work with them. I don’t make threats.”
Karlene Steelman, Moraga Teachers Association, views her role as a TOSA as supporting teachers, not criticizing them.
“My job is getting the word out on what the new standards look like for each grade level and helping teachers create units around the Common Core. I give gentle suggestions and ask, ‘Have you thought about trying this?’ I model lessons in their classrooms.”
Teaching math half time at Joaquin Moraga Intermediate School keeps her “grounded” on the teaching side of the job, while being a TOSA provides a big picture of what is happening districtwide and allows extra time to find resources her colleagues need.
“It’s definitely a balancing act. The challenge is getting people to accept that you are trying to help — and getting them to tell you what they need. Until they can do that, you’re fishing in the dark.”
Vanessa Lopez Mendoza, Associated Calexico Teachers (ACT), does not want to be considered an administrator or force colleagues to work with her at Dool Elementary School.
"I want to be invited in, so I make it a point not to walk in with a clipboard," says the former special education teacher. "Nothing makes people's hair stand on end more than seeing someone with a clipboard."
Written comments that she jots down during visits are left with teachers when she leaves. It's a way of saying that whatever happens in the classroom stays there. As a result, teachers are constantly stopping her in the hallways, asking her to come into their classroom and see what they are doing with their students, which she finds very rewarding.
A big part of her job is analyzing and interpreting data in tandem with teachers, so that school staff can see what's working and what isn't.
"I'm looking at effectiveness. But I am not judgmental, and I don't want people to judge me, just because I'm interested in getting to the core of what numbers really mean."
Mendoza believes she’s making a positive difference at her school. So she was surprised when she returned from summer break to learn TOSAs could no longer work full time at their own school sites. They should instead report to the district office one day a week and "float" to other school sites doing "walk-throughs" two days a week. ACT filed a grievance and won; now she’s back at Dool Elementary full time.
"It can be difficult for TOSAs," says Cooper. "Sometimes it's hard for them to get the same support the rest of us receive. They are supporting us, but who's supporting them?"
Out of the classroom, out of the bargaining unit?
Lake Tahoe has crystal clear waters, but the district’s definition of who’s an administrator is murky. For many years a teacher was the Mount Tallac Continuation School “coordinator.” The Lake Tahoe Unified School District never referred to this teacher as a principal until she retired — and then said she should be replaced with another principal.
“She was a TOSA and a member of our bargaining unit,” asserts Jodi Dayberry, South Tahoe Educators Association president. “Now that she’s retired, they’re giving away union work to someone outside of the bargaining unit. This is wrong. She did not supervise or evaluate teachers. We’re a small chapter where every job counts, and we’d like to retain our membership. This action is causing confusion and dissent.”
The chapter filed a motion with the Public Employment Relations Board (PERB), which is pending. CTA was victorious in a similar PERB motion against the South Monterey County High School District in 2012, which sought to eliminate counselors and then create new administrative positions with “counseling duties.” PERB ruled in favor of the union on the grounds that the district failed to negotiate changing certificated positions to administrative positions.
Further blurring the lines in Tahoe is the district’s “Administrative Internship Program,” where teachers become administrative interns in the same district where they teach. Two out of four interns became principals in the district, and a third intern is a "technology coordinator."
Dayberry has strong concerns about bargaining unit members teaching in the district where they are practicing to become administrators.
“They can vote on contract ratification and union leadership positions, which present potential conflict of interest. If they attend a meeting and we’re talking about union organizing activity, that’s a problem. I understand there are people who want to move into administration, but this blurs the lines. What if interns do something wrong in an administrative capacity? Will CTA represent them? If there’s a lawsuit, should we defend them? Our negotiating team is looking to create language around this. ”
Dayberry says important lessons from Lake Tahoe can be learned.
“Watch how your district is manipulating your membership. When it’s convenient for your district to have someone be a teacher, they call them a teacher. When it’s convenient for someone to be an administrator, they call them an administrator. Don’t let the district office give away union work or use teachers to save money instead of hiring administrators. If this is happening, talk to your president or primary contact staff.”
As local unions enter into bargaining in the era of the Local Control Funding Formula, local leaders need to pay increasing attention to the helpful and appropriate use of TOSAs to improve the conditions of teaching and learning — and to guard against the district office seeking to use them in an administrative capacity.
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