by Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Administrator Mark Douglas, teacher Ruth Gaer
Frosty is good if you’re talking about a snowman — but not when it describes the relationship between educators and administrators in your district.
Studies show that “school climate” has a direct impact on achievement and behavior of students. It also impacts the motivation, productivity and job satisfaction of school employees.
Schools with a chilly climate tend to have lower test scores, more discipline problems and higher staff turnover.
Schools with a positive climate have honest and open communication, involve teachers in decision-making, and demonstrate a willingness to experiment. School employees tend to feel hopeful at these sites.
Can school climate change for the better? Of course!
While it may not be easy, it’s possible for educators, administrators and school board members to put aside differences and work together to improve student success. It starts with improving communication between the union and the district.
Think about your school climate. Does it need improving? Learn from CTA chapters that have improved the local climate. It can’t always be perfect, but teachers and administrators listen to one another, work together, and even share some “Kumbaya” moments.
Moreno Valley ends the Big Chill
It’s a “he said, she said” dialogue between Moreno Valley Education Association President Harold Acord and Judy White, Moreno Valley School District superintendent, sitting side by side to dispel myths about managers and unions.
Unions protect bad employees, the superintendent says, tossing out the first myth.
Not true, counters Acord. Unions just want to ensure that everyone has due process and school leaders follow the contract.
Managers are anti-union, Acord says accusingly, taking on another myth.
False, says White. Most managers support teachers, and it shouldn’t be assumed that they’re anti-union.
The role-playing allows union members and administrators to clear the air, end misconceptions and open the lines of communication. So does an exercise called “Getting Away From Gotchas.”
The exchanges happen at a joint leadership conference titled “Excellence on Purpose: Collaborate, Coach and Connect.” It’s designed to improve communication so teachers and administrators can work together to help students instead of fighting each other. Funded by donations and grants — including one from CTA — it’s now an annual event. Other topics at the conference focus on the Common Core standards and cognitive coaching.
MVEA members working with district administrators designed the conference for several reasons: A revolving door of superintendents created inconsistency; there was mistrust between teachers and administrators; and test scores and graduation rates were low because of these problems.
The conference served as a springboard to increase collaboration year-round, including monthly meetings with the district office cabinet, MVEA leaders and classified employees, town hall meetings, and a new teacher evaluation process that’s being piloted at five schools, based on CTA’s Evaluation Principles.
“Before, we had a top-down collaboration model,” says Khaleelah Lewis, a teacher who taught a Common Core Literacy workshop at the conference. “Now, everyone has ownership and is working together to bring it back to the school sites. There’s a trickle-down effect.”
In the two years since MVEA and administrators became partners, student achievement has shot up on state tests and graduation rates have increased by 5 percent, says Anne Adler, MVEA executive director, who credits collaboration for the upswing.
Teacher morale has also improved, relates MVEA member Denise Tellez.
“It’s easier to talk, be open and share ideas. We’re no longer told, ‘You can’t do that.’ We are professionals and want to be treated as professionals. This type of communication allows for that.”
And the winner is… Mount Diablo Unified School District
Mount Diablo Unified School District caused negative feelings to “runneth over” years ago when it purchased 3,000 coffee cups with the words “I’m appreciated” stamped in big letters and distributed them to school employees, who angrily returned them en masse at a school board meeting.
After years of fighting for health benefits and raises, members of the Mount Diablo Education Association (MDEA) felt anything but appreciated. Morale was at an all-time low, and the district’s climate needed thawing.
Coffee cups may not have been the right way to go about it, but showing appreciation wasn’t a bad idea, thought MDEA President Guy Moore. So he decided to hold the first MDEA Academy Awards ceremony to improve morale, bring different factions together and focus on the positive.
“Our district doesn’t recognize employees and we suffer from low morale, so we decided to organize our own event to honor employees and volunteers who go above and beyond the call of duty, including teachers, classified employees and administrators.”
School board members, administrators, PTA members and others joined with MDEA on the project. The superintendent was asked to contribute $5,000 — the cost of the coffee cups — and the district came through. Shortly thereafter, the superintendent was let go by the district, causing more turmoil and upheaval.
Enthusiasm temporarily waned with the superintendent’s ouster, but MDEA decided the show must go on. A culinary arts class offered to cater the May 17 event. Unions who had partnered with CTA to pass Proposition 30 donated money for the gala, which had 250 attendees. State Superintendent Tom Torlakson, state Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, and Assembly Member Susan Bonilla handed out awards.
Stars on the walls contained quotes about the nominees for categories that included Teacher of the Year, Classified Employee, Leadership and Courage, Outstanding Administrator, Student Advocate, Outstanding Volunteer, and Most Inspirational. Elegant table settings added ambience, and a student glee club sang. Speeches, tears and abundant goodwill accompanied the handing out of the awards.
“It was an event that spotlighted the brilliant teachers, administrators, classified employees and volunteers that make this a wonderful district,” says school librarian and MDEA member Laurel Burns. “It united the entire Mount Diablo community, and set a positive tone for future interactions.”
MDEA had $7,000 left over from the dinner, and used it as seed money to start a foundation dedicated to supporting the arts in elementary schools. Plans are now under way for a second awards ceremony.
“I think this made people realize that teachers care about other things besides getting more money and working conditions,” says Moore. “It showed the community we can work together. When we change the focus from negative to positive by highlighting the great work people do, things can change for the better.”
Editor’s Note: Relationships are never perfect. MDEA and the district are at impasse in negotiations and MDEA is publicly protesting inadequate compensation and health benefits. The Academy Awards were a giant step toward improving morale, says MDEA President Guy Moore. “We look forward to settling our contract dispute so we can continue working together to improve school climate.”
“Fierce conversations” end fighting in Fullerton
Five years ago, administrators in Fullerton Elementary School District routinely sent “top-down memos” that ticked teachers off. Neither side trusted the other. Rather than engaging in meaningful dialogue, administrators and teachers talked at each other.
Things have improved, says Karla Turner, Fullerton Elementary Teachers Association (FETA) president. Now, memos are frequently co-written by union leadership and administrators to strike a positive tone. They view each other as partners, not adversaries. “Fierce conversations,” where people say what they mean without fear of repercussion, happen frequently.
A change in superintendents five years ago started the ball rolling in a more positive direction. During that time, Spanish teacher Ruth Gaer shared information with colleagues about ABC School District in Cerritos, where teachers and administrators had improved relationships.
Her husband, Ray Gaer, is president of that Cerritos chapter, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. He wanted a better working environment for Ruth, so he invited Fullerton teachers, administrators and classified staff to a two-day PAL (Partnership between Administration and Labor) retreat at a hotel, where they could see positive behavior modeled. Fullerton folks were impressed at the display of civility. After three years of workshops in the PAL process, Fullerton sponsored its own PAL retreat as a way to improve communication between educators and administrators.
“Our communication improved dramatically,” says Ruth Gaer, who serves on the FETA bargaining team. “We’re able to be as honest as possible. We don’t play games. We are now on equal footing.”
The book Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work and in Life One Conversation at a Time by Susan Scott was distributed to attendees at the retreat, and administrators, educators and classified employees used the book to discuss work issues and emotions in ways that were honest, respectful and diplomatic.
Fierce conversations continue in meetings between school staff and educators. Lawyers, once part of every bargaining session, are no longer needed. Money saved from the absence of legal representation has been redirected to fund professional development for teacher evaluation task force members. FETA members say a harmonious relationship with administration resulted in a more “teacher-friendly” evaluation process that has been piloted in schools. Test scores have gone up, which both parties attribute to being on the same page.
“Our motto is, ‘We don’t let each other fail,’” says Turner. “We have each other’s back.”
Lessons were learned, says culinary arts teacher and FETA member Kristin Montoya.
“Everybody has a different perspective, but we all want what’s best for the kids. When we work together instead of being ‘us versus them,’ we can reach our goals much quicker than we did in the past.”
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