By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Three years ago, an overhead screen broke loose in Carminda Kho’s class and hit her on the head. After the initial pain subsided, she thumbed through her union contract.
She found a provision about contacting her site rep. The rep told her to inform her administrator about the incident and see a physician. It was a wise move, because what she thought was a “small accident” turned out to be a severe injury with delayed pain. She eventually went on disability for several months before returning to the classroom.
If she hadn’t looked through her contract, she might not have told anyone about the injury, which she considered, at the time, to be minor. And if she had not reported the incident and seen a physician, there would have been no way to prove the accident was school-related.
Now a site rep at Toll Middle School, the Glendale Teachers Association member advises other teachers about the importance of reading the fine print and understanding their contract.
“When I first started teaching I hadn’t read my contract,” says Kho. “I didn’t how know much money I was making. I didn’t know my rights. I told everyone that I wasn’t worried about that; I just wanted to teach. But I learned everyone should read their contract so that if something goes wrong, you know what to do.”
At least read the table of contents
“Lots of people never open the contract until they have an issue. It’s true of both sides — administrators and teachers,” says Jon Van Drimmelen, Tracy Education Association.
TEA members receive a hard copy of the contract, but most access it online via the association’s website. Even though members have the contract handy, some go to their peers when they have a problem — and many times their colleagues aren’t familiar with the bargaining agreement, either.
“They get misinformation this way and sometimes get into trouble,” says Van Drimmelen, who is the chapter’s grievance chair and a high school chemistry teacher.
“Go through your contract. Look at the parts that pertain to your grade level, teaching or coaching situation,” he urges. “Some parts may not apply, but at least look through the table of contents.”
Contracts, for example, may put a cap on the number of students in your class or the amount of time you can take for sick leave or pregnancy, or even dictate when you may be eligible for a pay raise. Your contract stipulates how you are evaluated and who does your evaluation. Contracts also determine “bumping rights” and seniority in case there are layoffs. As a union member, you are entitled under the Weingarten Act to have a union rep with you if you are being reprimanded by an administrator and fear it could jeopardize your job.
Educators tend to be overly trusting at times, and they need to be educated so they won’t be taken advantage of. Reading the contract is not only informative but empowering, since you are no longer guessing what is allowed or not allowed under your bargaining agreement.
“Once you are educated, you can be active at your site and participate in your own union, instead of sitting back and letting someone else do the work for you, thinking it will all work out,” says Kho. “You’ll be glad you did.”