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Creating collaborative working environments

By Eric Braxton on Oct 2, 2009 12:02 PM

Everyone agrees that the best schools are the ones where teachers and administrators are working together. So how do we get past the decades of mistrust that prevent the teachers union and school district from working together to improve our schools? Maybe we should send them all to a ropes course and have them practice trust falls. Maybe we need some new age facilitators to come in and let the healing begin. 

Thursday morning Timothy Kraus gave a very interesting presentation to the Education First Compact about how the teachers' union and school district in Cincinnati have worked together to create a collaborative approach to improving schools. While things are by no means perfect in Cincinnati, there are clearly some interesting lessons to be learned there about how to create democratic, collaborative work places, which is essential to improving our schools. 

Mr. Kraus has a very unique perspective on school reform. He is currently a Teacher Representative working for the Cincinnati Public School District, but is the former president of the teachers' union there. He also has a background as a filmmaker and as a steel worker and a leader in that union. Thus he approaches this work with a broader perspective about the labor union. 

Mr. Kraus says that deep school reform requires creating a democratic workplace, as opposed to the factory model of schooling that now dominates. He also says that all meaningful reform relies on one word: TRUST. Trust has been broken between teachers' unions and school districts, and rebuilding it is essential to allowing real change to happen. 

Mr. Kraus described the classic tension that exists between labor and management. Management wants flexible work rules to ensure quality and productivity while labor is concerned that management will abuse that authority and therefore wants rules that ensure fairness. When there is no trust, neither party will grant the other anything for fear that it will be used against them. In the case of schools, everyone (especially students) suffers.

Cincinnati has a few interesting initiatives that work toward creating a collaborative working environment including:

  • Professional Learning Communities. “Team-based schools” have local decision making and a shared governance structure where teacher committees are involved in decision 
  • Peer Assistance and Review. There is a complex evaluation system based on multiple measures. Teacher leaders assess their peers and provide support to them.
  • School Based Hiring. Teachers are hired through school based hiring committees, but other teachers are the majority on these committees, and individual teacher qualifications are not trumped by seniority.

So how do we rebuild trust in a system where there has been so much mistrust for so long? 

Creating schools that are collaborative is essential, and while it can’t be forced by either the union or district, there are things they can do to help create the conditions that make it possible. Mr. Kraus made the point that both districts and unions tend to have very top-down, hierarchical structures and that both will need to change for real reform to happen.

It seems to me that the School District needs to be willing to allow schools to have more control over decision making and require that teachers, not just principals, are involved in making those decisions. The union, on the other hand, will have to allow for more flexibility in work rules as long as teachers are truly involved in monitoring how that plays out at the school level.

It's time for the union and District to get past their history of mistrust. 

This will mean stopping blaming the other side for everything under the sun. So please, please don’t respond to this post by saying that all the problems in the District are all the fault of either bad teachers or bad administrators. That attitude hurts my soul. We all know that while there might be a few bad apples the vast majority of teachers and administrators are good people who want the best for students. They just have to get over their history. 

So let’s head to the ropes course and bring in the trainers and let the healing begin.

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Comments (10)

Submitted by Philly High School teacher (not verified) on October 3, 2009 7:34 am

Thank you for the post. Friday, after school, a new teacher came to talk - not vent - but talk through some of the difficult situations she was encountering at our school. Her student teaching experiences were at a charter school and suburban school. Both schools apparently provided teachers with a lot of time to co-plan and reflect on their teaching and student learning. Collaboration and teacher "empowerment" was already the norm.

This year, in high schools, we have common planning time which gives us an opportunity to co-plan and reflect. So far, the School District has not imposed a list of what has to be done or how and hopefully, we will be given time to develop a way to work together than benefits students and the school in general. I hope the SDP lets us learn together - rather than "sit and get" professional development. As a "veteran" teacher, I am learning from the common planning time just as I learned from the new teacher. While it might help to specify some goals of the common planning time (e.g. CSAP, analyze benchmark data, joint lesson planning, organizing a school activity, etc.), I believe teachers will feel more empowered if the process was, to a degree, organic, and based on individual school needs versus a "downtown formula."

Submitted by Eric Braxton on October 5, 2009 2:21 pm

Great points as usual.  I think the inviestment the district put in giving common planning time to all comprehensive high schools is one of the smartest things they have done in years.  It cost them a lot of money, but its worth it.  Mike Silverman deserves a lot of credit for this.

The next question is then about how it gets used.  I agree that it will be best used if it left up to schools and even SLCs to decide how to use this time and if teachers are involved in planning the use of the time. 

Submitted by alan kaman (not verified) on October 4, 2009 6:28 am

Trust would be much more conducive than mistrust and teachers do have to step up and take responsibility for their school as the site selection article in Education Week proposed.
The District must trust teachers and stop insisting all teachers adopt the district lesson plan format instead of using innovative lesson planning such as Understanding by Design.
Thus year, Professional Learning Communities exist in name only.
The Core Curriculum is rigid, instead of flexible. If a teacher does exhibit independent thought, watch out, you know a 204 is coming.
Teachers are supposed create pleasant learning environments but have to cover their rooms when imitation benchmark tests are given. How often are we expected to create and take down a room in one year?
Some principals have even come into classrooms and forbid teachers to have mini fidges or microwaves in their classrooms, while other principals have forced teachers to use classrooms as their students' lunchroom. Our classroom is our office. Treat us as professionals. Teachers need to demand that in this contract!
No contract is better than an insulting contract.

Submitted by Trylisteingtoteachersforachange (not verified) on October 4, 2009 11:18 am

What good is stepping up for Site Selection? The entire board can be made up of teachers (usually the pawns of the principal) and vote down a prospect only to have the principal overrule them. It was a disaster the one time we tried it. Everyone they picked quit or was fired within the year. Way to go!

Submitted by alan kaman (not verified) on October 4, 2009 6:09 pm

In the site selection proposed in Education Week teachers elect the 4 members to the site selection committee. Each teacher has one vote. The principal has one vote. A parent or community member has one vote.

Submitted by Trylisteingtoteachersforachange (not verified) on October 4, 2009 10:55 pm

What are "Education Week" teachers? What city are we talking about? In Philly there have been site selection boards where the teacherst voted against certain individuals only to have the principal choose those same people. If the principal gets one vote it must be a mighty big vote. Principals are always going to pick the individual that poses the least threat to their roost. Teaching ability will always be a distant second, unfortunately.

Submitted by Keith Newman (not verified) on October 4, 2009 8:37 am

Was anyone from the school district or union there?

Submitted by Trylisteingtoteachersforachange (not verified) on October 4, 2009 12:05 pm

This Wednesday is a half day, but the district evidently expects most of its teachers to travel on their lunch time. The kids leave at 12:10 and the program begins at 1pm. The school is more than ten urban blocks away. That does not include time for finding a parking space in an unknown neighborhood (since most schools do not have their own parking places for teachers). Guess Arlene feels nobody needs to eat lunch.

On top of this the district walkthroughs are the next day and they want to see the Corrective Reading program implemented. Gee, do you think maybe this training should have been done at the beginning of the year before the kids arrived. Not expect teacher to learn it the day before in a two hour crash course. Nothing gets up and running smoothly on the first day. This is so typical of the halfassed way in which the school district is being run these days. It's enough to make you want to call the cops . . . oops, we aren't allowed to do that anymore.

Submitted by Trylisteingtoteachersforachange (not verified) on October 5, 2009 7:03 pm

My bad, the Corrective Reading will be two weeks from this Wednesday's in service. What is taking the the district so long in implementing this program? It should have been going the first week of school. It sounds very robotic with teachers reading from a script. I do know another teacher who is using it with her special ed kids and likes it. It seems like a waste, however, to go nearly two months into the year before starting a new routine.

Submitted by Ben Cunningham (not verified) on October 7, 2009 4:50 am

This is a huge problem that is being addressed here. The distrust is evident everywhere a business deals with unions and nothing ever seems to change. This school district is tackling the problem by creating trust between administrators and teachers. I think it's the only way to resolve this ongoing problem to everyone's satisfaction. Maybe this system in Cincinnati can become a model for the rest of the nation. casino online

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