The Things They Carried

Things They Carried Screen Shot 2018-11-11 at 9.29.37 AM

I was talking to a friend recently about the process of change in schools and all of the factors that seem lined up to protect the status quo.  In reflecting on the conversation, I was reminded of one of my favorite books from long ago, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. In his book, O’Brien sought to make a point about the terrible costs of war. Using the Vietnamese War as his backdrop, he tells the story about the things that he and his fellow soldiers carried with them. These were not just physical things. Those were small things, easy to carry. Not so easy to carry were the emotional things, things that weren’t so easy to discard.

I begin each piece I write with a hope.  In this case, my hope is that the story I’ll share will open us to the possibility that it’s not the physical things like favored room assignments, favorite lesson plans, predictable schedules that make change in schools so hard. Sure adapting to these is not easy. But often it’s the emotional burdens that challenge us more.  I started to think about the sources of such emotional baggage. Some were obvious but I also recalled something that was equally important, precisely because it represented any number of things that affect our willingness to take risks and accept challenges. It was something that I recalled from my time as superintendent. Since I’ve been preoccupied recently with the concept of stories, I’m going to share one with you to illustrate my observation.

This will be a two chapter story.  Don’t leave yet. They’ll be short chapters, filled with drama, suspense and a happy ending. OK, enough suspense, it’s about contract negotiations. Still here?

Why in God’s name would I share a story about contract negotiations?  Because while almost all contract negotiations end in an agreement, they invariably leave us with emotional scars… things that Tim O’Brien calls emotional burdens.  Things we carry with us and that affect our openness to change.  Here we go…

Setting the Stage – Chapter 1

In case it’s been a while since you’ve been involved in the process, here’s a quick synopsis of how most negotiations proceedings work. There are two sides. Each prepares a list of “gets” or “won’t give’s” and the fun starts.  Most states that have legislation permitting collective bargaining stipulate that areas for negotiations are limited to “terms and conditions of employment”. These typically focus on work hours, compensation (in the form of salary and health benefits), and responsibilities. These topics are not surprising as most model contracts for “labor” came directly from the experiences of organized labor unions.  Remaining true to the tradition, boards of education are described as management, setting the stage for repeating the adversarial process which had characterized the relationships in the labor movement.

Enter stage left… the writing and thinking of Dan Pink who has achieved international acclaim for his work on motivation. In case you’ve missed it, here’s a link to the animated version  of Pink’s viral TED Talk.

Pink’s extensive research revealed that there are very different motivational factors at work depending on the type of work you do.  If you’re engaged in assembly line /production work, monetary incentives can improve performance. But in “thinking” kind of work, financial incentives actually reduce both performance and engagement.  Here’s what Pink’s research revealed. What matters most to workers in “thinking” jobs? Three things: clarity of purpose, autonomy (freedom to focus on what works), and the chance to get better at what you do.

While many of the architects of the “school reform” movement might think of teaching as production/assembly line work (explaining their love affair with performance incentives and punishments), most of can make a pretty convincing case for teaching as “thinking work”. So let’s circle back to the contract negotiations process and its impact on embracing change.

Here’s where the story gets personal – Chapter 2

From my very first teaching job, I’ve been involved in contract negotiations.  I have served as an organizer of the first “association” at a private high school for boys, the president and chief negotiator for the teachers’ (and later supervisors’) association and the chief negotiator for the board of education while I was a superintendent. What I’m going to describe comes both from what I experienced and what I’ve observed.

For the record, the process used and promoted by both the state teachers’ organizations and the organization representing boards of education is referred to as “positional” bargaining.  As I described briefly earlier, each side identifies positions of importance and proceeds to attempt to persuade the opposing side of the wisdom and fairness of their position, while simultaneously offering reasons why the positions of the “opponent” are unreasonable, unfair, unwise, etc.

Not infrequently the words used to “win” arguments are strong, often insulting, and grow in intensity as they are reported to those not directly involved in the process. In my own case and prior to my arrival as superintendent, negotiations in the district had resulted in protracted, contentious discussions, teacher pickets and demonstrations, as well as vilification of each side within the community.

This was not the time for a new superintendent to ask people to “go the extra mile” in support of program changes.  A culture that I had witnessed any number of times while negotiating as a teacher now had new meaning for me.  All parties in the process were “carrying things in their pocket”.  Kid performance stagnated, budgets failed.  It was not the time to suggest change.

Neither side liked the picture painted of them by the community.  It had become clear that using the same approach guaranteed a future that “didn’t work”. Some research revealed that there was an alternative to the positional bargaining that had resulted in this culture of separation and alienation.  It was a new concept in collective bargaining known at the time as win/win bargaining, more commonly referred to now as “interest-based” or “integrated” bargaining.   It was a process which relied on the identification of common interests and the ways in which these could be advanced via collaboration rather than argumentation. It worked. (At the end of this piece I’ll list some of the areas that were included in the contract for the first time in the district and, in one instance for the first time in the state.)  It worked because the process was designed from the outset not to focus on winning but on the identification of interests and the transparent efforts to acknowledge and find commonality within them.  This was accomplished by organizing the meetings as collaborative working sessions, by acknowledging the identified interests, by focusing on the commonality found in these interests, by working in teams comprised of folks from each “side” to find solutions which honored these interests, and by having the teams present their “solution” to the entire group for approval or revision.

The big idea…

This process and this story extend far beyond the impact of the periodic need to negotiate. They extend to the recognition and elimination of the policies, practices, and procedures which cause separation, alienation, and emotional burdens both for our colleagues and for our students – i.e., they extend to the creation of processes that aim for, and result in, connectedness rather than separation.  This process and others like it provide a direction for how honest efforts to recognize, identify and respond to the emotional burdens we inadvertently create can reverse the fear of change and increase the engagement in the change process.   In the event that anyone involved in this process is reading this blog, thank you for the courage that allowed us to acknowledge the collective hurt we carried with us and for the trust that enabled us to move beyond it.

 Addendum – Agreement high pointsWhile the items listed here reflect the context at the time this process occurred, the process and impact on culture remain timeless.

Summary of Interests:  interests identified and defined in the initial phase of the process – completed in large group setting with facilitator assistance.

Board of Education Interests

  • Change from the image of being the “bad guys”
  • Commit to and be recognized for attempts to be good stewards of the community’s tax dollars
  • Improve student academic performance
  • Improve the quality of teaching/instruction
  • Deal more effectively with poor performing teachers

Teachers’ Association Interests

  • Be recognized for their efforts
  • Receive and maintain compensation that is commensurate with similarly structured districts
  • Improve student academic performance
  • Create a more positive public perception of the district
  • Move away from the district’s history of implementing short term “fixes” to problems associated with poor student performance

 Contractual Agreements – Highlights of the main points included in the multi-year agreement forged via the Interest-based process.

 Revised teacher evaluation and support system

Teacher support systems based on need – i.e., more extensive support for new teachers (years 1-3 and beyond if warranted) including more frequent observations, peer observations; targeted support and support plans for teachers identified as in need of support with this designation resulting from self-identification, administrative identification, parental identification; less frequent observations for teachers recognized as “expert” (with mutually developed definition) as a means of gaining time to provide additional support for new teachers.  Teachers identified as needing support were to be assigned a support team consisting of building administrator, an “expert” teacher of the teacher’s choosing, an association representative, and expert teacher of the superintendent’s choosing (optional)…included was the development of a support plan and responses based on progress toward meeting the goals of the plan.  During the life of this agreement teachers assigned to this support response achieved the plan goals with one exception… based on mutual agreement that teacher left the district.

Teacher run professional development academy

Startup fund provided to begin the academy. Teachers selected by peers subject to superintendent’s input (but not approval). Course offered for credit would be eligible for movement on salary guide but not transferrable to other districts. Instructors selected from teaching staff and/or outside resources. Instructor to receive credits on salary guide in lieu of payment.  Outside instructors paid through tuition charges.

Performance based compensation plan beyond the base salary agreement

Performance target area determined jointly by board of education, administrative team and teacher workgroup.  Plan included the development of performance goals, professional support required, and use of locally developed performance assessments.  Award of performance bonus based in grade level growth from initial baseline assessment (Sept) to third administration (May). Initial target areas was math and included targeted professional development designed to improve math instruction and student performance.

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