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When And Why Teachers Decide To “Organize”

The key to independent school quality has been strong leaders, committed faculty, healthy boards and the ability to adapt to changing markets and educational directions.

    1. The Changing Face of Faculties

Most independent and international school teachers today are not drawn from the ranks of independent school graduates or from the pool of those having taught previously in independent schools. Most of our teachers have prior experience in public schools or are the product of a public school education. Even if they attended independent schools and fit within the culture, that does not mean they are more willing to stressful working conditions. The idea of a “union” or organization that represents teachers more effectively and powerfully is, thus, not unknown to many independent school teachers who may have belonged to such organizations in previous schools.

Maintaining healthy schools has usually meant hiring and maintaining a strong faculty and a positive faculty culture. In independent schools, we often observe the following pattern with new teachers: hire the best and put them into the classroom without further mentoring. If the students and parents complain about their performance, either conclude that the new teachers have chosen the wrong profession, or evaluate them more aggressively. If no one complains, assume that they are growing and happy in their work. A teacher who entered the field with ambition, optimism and the desire to innovate is at risk of losing that positive fresh attitude. To leave a new teacher “unattended” is not only a disservice to all, but it is a potential threat to the health of the faculty culture and thus, the school.

More independent schools today have faculty unions, internal “organizations”, or faculty committees with political influence than ever before. The label is less important than the tone of these groups. The formation of a union is a shock that most school heads are sure they will never encounter. The smugness of that certainty can be dangerous. Faculty in independent schools may turn more readily to an internal collective bargaining unit, or “faculty advisory committee”, or “faculty concerns committee” than to an outside affiliated union. However, such internal groups or committees can be as much or more of a threat to the flexibility of school management than a formally affiliated faculty.

    1. What Motivates Teachers to Organize?

The main issue that drives faculty to feel the need to form such a committee or organization is insecurity. It is NOT money. However, salary, benefits such as tuition remission or health care costs can be a secondary or tertiary reason supporting the development of such a group. In fact, some committees start off as a “faculty salary committee”, and it is often one not suggested by nor chosen by the head, but one that grows up on its own initiative.

These committees may (or may not) be led by one to three strong, single minded individuals who perhaps have a personal agenda, a slight “edge”, a past complaint, or simply a natural need to be seen and noticed. These individuals may mobilize successfully a sufficient number of like-minded, outspoken teachers to eclipse even a majority of quieter, more self effacing teachers who may not support such a group or challenge its formation.

    1. “Security” does not refer solely to the fear of job loss, though this is often a major component. A growing collective memory of past or current departures of teachers that appear as “dismissals”, with no explanation to the teaching staff when one is expected, sows a fear of job loss for all. Even departures that are mutually agreed upon, or where a compensation settlement has been reached, may be read by some teachers as a “firing”, no matter what label is put on it for public consumption.

Heads cannot explain why individual teachers leave. Whether the issues are personal or professional, or if the departure is prompted by the school, legal counsel will persuade the head that the less said, the better. Teachers then face a communications vacuum filled with more rumor, fear and insecurity.

In a recent client school, for example, the religious order that owns the School was preparing to turn the board over to a more “lay” governing board, which would in turn “rent” from the religious order. There was little explanation of the new governance structure to the faculty, although most outside observers might see this as a logical progression to more constituent input. However, teachers unionized, at least in part, out of fear that the new board would not have the resources to pay out severance if the school closed or suffered losses in the future. The fear was that, being only a renter, the board could claim it did not own or have access to those resources.

There were other major issues as well, including a prior head who had very poor communications skills and an intimidating manner and a board that was totally unaware of substantial faculty discontent. It appeared to the teachers that “no one was listening”, and there was “no one to turn to.”

In another client school, a faculty unionized recently. The faculty had a low workload relative to similar schools, little or no recent history of accountability to a revolving door leadership, and great flexibility to come and go freely. The teachers feared the formation of a new board structure that might change previous policies, tighten up lax absentee procedures, and make teachers more accountable to management. These changes occurred too fast, and a new Head, without sufficient “political capital”, was expected to execute them. Fear of change, disapproval of the new Head’s direction and style and awareness of the very comfortable circumstances in which they worked prompted enough key teachers to organize quietly behind the scenes to garner a vote for affiliation with an outside union.

In other schools, faculty may resort to less drastic measures, but nonetheless create new structures for “protection” and security and to ensure more consultation before change occurs. While consultation is essential in all good independent schools, some of the consultation which some faculty now require of their heads essentially makes any real leadership by the head extremely difficult. He or she may then play a figure head role or simply help facilitate arguments among competing factions or pressure groups. There are a number of schools like this in large urban areas for example, where such organizations may be viewed as part and parcel of the “normal” school.

The insecurity experienced by faculty which can lead them to organize generally involves a fear of change and a loss of control. Those feelings are often triggered by an information vacuum, poor communication and a lack of experienced leadership rather than substantive aspects of the school’s condition.

In the next section, we consider approaches heads should employ to avoid these unfortunate outcomes.

    1. Some of the “Do’s” and “Don’ts”
      1. Build Political Capital

All heads should know that upon arrival at a new school, they need to build political good will with the staff, understand the school’s culture and political past, and “lay low” the first year at least. Normally it takes THREE TO FIVE YEARS for a new head to transition fully, regardless of that head’s previous experience. In international school settings, however, a head may not have the luxury of waiting too long to launch change initiatives.

Sometimes seasoned heads actually fare less well in moving into new schools and faculty cultures than new heads. This is because they believe that their experience will serve them very well, and they may forget these core principles: “Do not talk about your previous school” and “Learn and appreciate the new school’s traditions.”

Heads often talk about all they are accomplishing in their new post and about how many things they needed to “fix”, thereby impugning the reputation of their predecessor. This is dangerous talk as the predecessor may have more “holding” power on faculty loyalties than the head thinks. Such statements can also be perceived as self serving and grandiose.

      1. Support Direct Communications

A young head of school hired a new teacher named “Dennis,” who would walk by the Head’s office and wave every day on his way to the faculty room. A few weeks later, the Head noticed Dennis would walk by but not wave. Next, Dennis began avoiding the Head’s office entirely and taking the Head on pugnaciously in faculty meetings. This escalation of frustration and anger between Dennis and the Head continued for three years. Neither party attempted to find out what had happened until the Head took a course at Harvard about dysfunctional communities. These were described as “small, independent ‘collegial’ environments” where, for fear of offending a colleague, teachers vent to everyone but the person who had offended them. This leads to cultures where innuendo, rumor, gossip, negative body language and avoidance behavior can run amuck, and direct and honest communication takes a back seat.

After taking the course, the Head asked Dennis why they had been angry with each other for three years. Dennis gave a blank stare until pushed. Then he said, “About two weeks after I was hired, I learned that you had paid someone with similar experience and background $500 more than I was offered.” The Head asked why Dennis had not come to see him three years ago. Dennis said, “You were the boss, and I did not feel I could approach you on such a topic as I had just been hired.” The Head replied, “So you have been angry with me for three years.” Dennis then said, “YOU have been angry with me for three years.” To which, the Head replied, “I was angry with you only because you have been angry with me!”

Strange as this story may sound, it rings very true to many teachers and heads around the world who know that faculty cultures often are more accustomed (and some might say comfortable) with underground indirect communication than rather forthright expressions of opinion.

Creating an atmosphere where “presuming good intent” reigns supreme, and encouraging the adults to express their opinions openly, honestly, and diplomatically is very important to keeping a faculty culture healthy.

      1. Build Coalitions

Heads need to find the power bases among the faculty and reach out to build coalitions with those bases and especially with the long term teachers who may be the most concerned about any changes proposed by the new head.

Unions and other faculty formed committees that are hostile to the administration may be led by teachers who have felt passed over for promotion or are unhappy or disgruntled about their personal and/or professional lives. “Organizing” the faculty, as well as the conflict implications of forming an adversarial group, can be an energizing and powerful process for some individuals. Some teachers are inclined to argue, debate and parry, and most have the intellect and training to do so. Most organizational efforts will be led by mid career teachers, although at times it is spearheaded by more senior faculty. Young teachers often feel more ability to leave an unhappy situation or tension filled environment and move on to another job.

      1. Manage Change Carefully

Heads should try to avoid “firing” or dismissing anyone in the first year or two. Dismissal of staff without having a good evaluation system in place, and without loyal middle management who will take the brunt of the criticism, is very dangerous for the survival of a head. It can cause faculty movement toward more protectionist tendencies, forming a union being the most powerful reaction.

      1. Develop a Credible Faculty Evaluation System

A professional faculty evaluation system, that has the support and participation of the entire faculty, can build trust between teachers and the administration. Enlisting the ongoing involvement of the most respected members of the faculty, who represent the teacher perspective, can help to ensure “buy in.” While some teachers fear accountability, they learn that a credible evaluation system in the long run benefits them more than an inconsistently applied model that is simply a professional growth tool lacking any “teeth” or substance.

Heads need to have “faculty advocates” who are not administrators but see issues from a faculty perspective and are loyal to the head, school and mission. They can help to “broker” an intellectually honest evaluation process.

Some schools with “ladder” or “band” salary systems have created a cadre of outstanding teachers known as “faculty leaders” who may also assist in faculty evaluation. These individuals can help to ensure quality teaching but can also assist in communicating important messages from the head to the faculty and back again, so communication is not solely through the established management chains of command.

      1. Develop a Credible System to Deliver Salaries

Teachers are caregivers not risk takers. Research done by Littleford & Associates demonstrates that they crave predictability of earning power AND the ability to influence their own future earning power. There is an international movement in public and independent schools toward faculty salary systems with “bands” and “ranges.” This is happening because the “traditional” head controlled model can lead to inequities over time and breed resentment and grievances.

A more transparent salary system with some link to performance evaluation removes the “mystery” behind how teachers are paid and is also less frustrating and more flexible than the lock step public school model that simply rewards teachers for staying another year and earning more graduate credits.

      1. Understand the Demographics, Composition and Personality of the Faculty

Hiring INTO a faculty requires great care. Certain personalities are naturally positive and certain individuals have issues at home or from their past that can “infect” the culture of a department or grade level. If that department or grade is already bordering on “negative contagious behavior”, it may take only one more such hire to “tip” the scales of the entire department or school. Of a faculty of 60-80, it takes only 5 seriously unhappy and vocal individuals to make the school culture unpleasant for many. Heads should hire more for “attitude” and perhaps less for credentials.

      1. Ensure “Fail Safe” Systems

All school heads need regular, open and honest sources of information coming to them from a range of faculty and faculty opinions. They should not listen exclusively to their management teams, some of whom may not be in touch with teacher attitudes themselves.

A recent client head fired an upper school head after long tolerating her lack of performance. That upper school head made her departure as unpleasant as possible for the school head by telling stories, starting rumors, and in general undermining the head. Lack of loyalty of influential division heads, or division heads who wish to build their own coalitions with teachers at the expense of the head’s relationship with that same group of teachers, is a dangerous combination for the head of school.

    1. What To DO IF the Teachers Form a Union?

Clearly, this is not an easy question. However, there are four simple maxims for heads to keep in mind from the outset:

      1. Hire an outstanding STRONG labor attorney to lead the discussions. Never hire a novice.
      2. Form a negotiating team where the head is represented by another administrator. The Head should never “sit” at the bargaining table. These sessions can become too stressful and further separate the head from the faculty. At least one or two key board members should serve on the management side. Someone who deals with unions in the business world might be a good choice.
      3. Always start by putting the management’s version of the proposed contract on the table first and not waiting until the union has done so. The School always starts with “all the marbles”, and the union can only obtain what the management bargains away, other than basic union and organizing rights guaranteed by the National Labor Relations Act or similar state law or national laws.
      4. Recognize that sometimes bargaining with an affiliated union CAN be healthier than bargaining with the inchoate anger of an internal faculty committee or group of teachers. Often the outside “affiliate representative” will exercise more reason and dispassion than the internal faculty can muster. At the formation of the union, anger, discontent and “reactive” behaviors are highly visible, and progress in negotiations cannot be achieved until that anger has subsided or been shelved.
    1. The Bottom Line

Try to avoid the anger and insecurity that rises up in faculty when they feel insecure, uninformed, not consulted and “cornered.” Building bridges and managing change carefully, thereby dissipating anger or misunderstanding through dialogue, will go a long way towards avoiding the labor confrontation to which teachers may resort out of a sense of frustration.

Littleford and Associates is assisting an increasing number of schools on the topic of faculty climate and culture. We can assess underlying behaviors and sentiments within potentially troubled faculty cultures, create a more helpful and proactive culture and correct underlying difficulties which could otherwise lead faculties to organize. If a union has already been formed, we can offer counsel on how to negotiate and manage relations with the union leadership. Littleford & Associates has more than 100 client schools on this topic alone.

John Littleford
Senior Partner