Chicago Teachers Union needs to re-think contract negotiations

In an interview about how a Secretary of State deals with all the competing demands, Hillary Clinton and Henry Kissinger said they approach their work with three views: the urgent, the important, and the long-term.  We can disagree with these politicians’ policies but we should consider their insights during the upcoming contract negotiations between the Chicago Teachers Union and the Chicago Public Schools.

Cataylst-Chicago reported and the Sun-Times commented on the list of demands published by the Chicago Teachers Union.  As a career-long and current member of CTU, I’m going to push the conversation a little farther from my rank-and-file status for the benefit of our profession and, more importantly, for the benefit of our students.

While the issues affecting CPS remain complex, during these contract negotiations, CTU should only bring issues to the table that belong in the labor agreement which determines our day-to-day responsibilities within the contract’s life.  Issues that do not affect the urgent or important day-to-day working conditions of staff and learning conditions of students should not be on the list of demands—especially since our current contract expires in three months.  We don’t have a lot of time.

A good move for CTU would have been to survey all current union members about our two options: extend the contract one more year and accept a small raise OR negotiate a new contract.  Our views cannot be represented at these contract negotiations if we have not been given the opportunity to express what we—as union members—prefer.

While union delegates may have voted (did they?), it’s impossible for one or two people from each school to fully capture their constituents’ views.

But since contract negotiations will move forward, what should stay on the list of demands if members advise for a new contract?  CTU published 11 demands in their press release.  (The release says there are others but there’s no link.)  The first three of the publicly available demands are essential:

  1. Establish lower and compulsory class size limits in all schools.
  2. Ensure that every school has: the necessary clinicians and a school counselor and nurse; a truant officer, restorative justice coordinator, librarian and playground instructors; and art, music, physical education and other teachers to create robust and effective educational programs.
  3. Restore adequate preparation time and enforce paperwork limits for teachers.

The rest of the publicly available demands are long-term policy changes that cannot be addressed in three months—especially with all of the other urgent demands that make teaching more and more difficult.  Here’s some of what should make it to the negotiations table:

  1. Limit the number of classes for which a high-school teacher must prepare.  Preparing instruction for one or two classes is possible.  When teachers get three or more different classes to prepare for, life becomes difficult, teaching quality decreases, and students lose out.  If a teacher must prep more than three classes, they should get increased compensation for the amount of work that will inevitably be brought home by good teachers.
  2. Teachers who have the most classes to prepare should be assigned to one classroom.  Maybe two.  Teachers with less classes to prepare should be the ones who switch rooms if this is necessary.
  3. Stop making grade deadlines late in the evening and stop Monday morning grade pulls to check compliance.  The subtext here is, “We expect you to work until 9 p.m. or all weekend at your kitchen table to complete this work without compensation.”
  4. Secure more teacher-directed professional development days so teachers can actually do teacher work and collaborate.
  5. Elementary and middle school teachers tell me that the process of filling out report cards is ridiculous.  Documents and passwords need to be exchanged so grades and checks and plusses can be entered, they say.  The report card itself needs to be redesigned to decrease the amount of time and paperwork teachers must devote this tedious task.
  6. Establish a district-wide policy for the amount of grades that should be entered each week.  A typical high-school teacher has about 150 students.  So that means 300 to 450 data entries a week—after this is assessed.  This data must then be used to make instructional decisions.  But, on a regular schedule, a teacher has approximately one compensated hour or so to do this each day.  This does not include the family communications and collegial collaboration we’re expected to do as well.  The grade-entry cannot be different depending on what school we work in.

And there are, I’m certain, other demands that teachers and staff think are urgent and important.

If we focus on the urgent and important demands, we can work on moving forward to provide each student with a higher quality education.

The conversations about Teach for American and Grow Your Own, the ones about legal action against banks, the one about 50 sustainable community schools are issues that need to be pushed but that cannot be agreed upon in three months.  These demands should guide a political and policy action committee.

Plus (I may be wrong) we cannot strike over these long-term issues.

When the strike was announced (a strike for which I voted), our CTU president read off a list of issues to the reporters that Sunday night.  Our president read off a multitude of issues.  As CTU members were interviewed about the strike, each person on the picket line presented a different perspective about what we were striking for.

We cannot risk our credibility—or our jobs, frankly—over failed negotiations that convolute professional responsibilities with political battles.

Call me naïve, call me cynical, but I do not believe CTU can gain public support during another strike this year.

I also do not think enough teachers will vote for a 2015 strike under vague terms.

Then again, Chicago politics work in mysterious ways, and I might be proven wrong.

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