Teacher Independence: Know the Law

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So far we’ve discussed how teachers can no longer wait for our leaders to recognize the folly of top-down educational initiatives and realize that the only way we will get better schools is to hire good teachers and let them teach our kids based on their expertise, situations, and resources.  The futility of teacher patience can be seen in virtually every public education movement over the past two decades: All of them have moved in the opposite direction of trusting teachers, instead veering toward more control and power being concentrated in the federal government (through programs like No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Common Core, and now the Every Student Succeeds Act) and governors (like Wisconsin’s Scott Walker whose main initiative has been to try to strip teachers of any and all control of their work worlds).  Instead of hoping these immovable forces will suddenly see the light, teachers need to study the system in order to find ways to do what they know to be right, despite all the interference and intrusions from those who have no clue what should be happening in any specific teacher’s classroom.  You can find the first couple of these articles here and here.

Last time, we warned new teachers to exercise their power very cautiously until they have become established in their systems.  Without some job protections, working around those who would tell teachers what to do can get teachers fired before they really know how and when to exert their influence to make their students as good as they can be.  But once a teacher has some job stability (or tenure in states that still grant it), the next step requires a bit of extra homework:  Knowing the law.

Teachers don’t have to be lawyers in order to research and understand the basics of what their particular state has on the books regarding fundamental procedures like discipline and rights.  That’s not to say the statutes will be written in easily deciphered English since those aforementioned lawyers compose school code.  But despite the overly complex diction and convoluted structures found in most state laws, there are plenty of resources available to grasp the gist of the laws’ intent.  To get you started, two basic terms that matter to individual teachers would be “just cause” and “due process.”

“Just cause” refers to the reasons teachers can be terminated.  Just cause protects teachers from arbitrary and capricious dismissals that have nothing to do with teaching.  “Due process” means that before firing anyone, school boards and administrators have to go through certain procedures which allow the teacher to understand and challenge the reasons for being let go.  In Illinois, teachers have to be rated “Unsatisfactory” on their evaluations, be assigned another teacher (usually selected by the teachers’ union) to assist in a remediation program, and be given forty-five days to show improvement on whatever criteria were used for the unsatisfactory rating. (Those steps are essentially the protections tenure provides, those and seniority rights.  I know—that doesn’t seem like a lifetime job guarantee to me either.)

There are, of course, a host of other regulations and statutes that impact teachers in the school code each state has.  If you’d like some “light” reading, you can dip into Illinois’s version here.  Understanding, much less finding, all that is relevant to teachers is a daunting task for most of us, but there are a couple of articles that every teacher probably should know—like this one, which covers the dismissal of a tenured teacher, for example.

But most of us will throw up our hands in disgust at the legalese of school codes.  That’s where teachers’ unions provide one of their most basic and important services:  They have the legal firepower to be on top of the statutes which impact teachers as well as the experience to be able to advise members how those regulations relate to specific situations.  A teacher intent on as much independence as possible, therefore, needs to understand how to access her union’s advisors.  Additionally, unions provide fact sheets on which laws are most important to their members.  The Illinois Education Association (IEA), Illinois’s largest teachers union, provides sites like this, with lists of various documents which explain a law’s relevance.  Unions will generally assign a field operative to each school (IEA’s are called UniServ Directors) who will be able to provide information on most legal issues.  Finally, the unions have lawyers who can be called upon if things get really complicated.  In my twenty-five years of union activism, advising hundreds of teachers, I had to access an IEA lawyer three times—it doesn’t come up very often.

Which leads us to the last and most common way for teachers to understand their legal rights:  Find another teacher in your building who understands them better than you do.  The most important aspect of teachers’ unions to the rank and file is the other teachers in their buildings who volunteer their time to help with union/contract issues.  You often hear pundits and politicians railing against unions as harmful to education, but the vast majority of union leaders and workers are simply classroom teachers.  Sure, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten gets a ton of press and is regularly quoted in the media, but your kid’s eighth-grade social studies teacher who also volunteers as his union’s grievance chair is much more significant to the other teachers in his building.  Teachers aspiring to independence should definitely get to know their local leaders (at least know who they are) and attend union meetings to educate themselves on laws that should matter to them.

One last aspect of the law which teachers must learn—and arguably the most important—is collective bargaining law (or lack thereof) in their states.  Illinois has one of the better collective bargaining laws in the country, especially on that which must be bargained with the “exclusive representative” of the teachers (the union, typically, as voted in by a district’s teachers.  You can see the entire Labor Relations Act at this site).  In Illinois, school districts are required to negotiate “terms and conditions of employment, including hours, wages, and other conditions of employment.”  That’s a broad definition and includes much of what a teacher does.  Basically, “other conditions of employment” means that Illinois teachers cannot simply be told what to do at the whim of a school board or administrator—any new aspects of the job shouldn’t be mandated to teachers, but bargained with the union.

For teachers wanting more independence, this is a key component to understand and apply; often, edicts will be handed down from on high with little thought to the requirements of the law.  When you understand how this part of the collective bargaining law works, though, you can make sure that nothing is forced in without its being discussed, at the very least.  Let those aforementioned union leaders in your building know when you think something is being done to change how you do your job without your being given any opportunity to discuss or provide input.  They’ll either tell you that nothing can be done, that the union has already ceded on this issue, or that yes, they’ll look into that.  I’ve mentioned it before, but one of the many positive outcomes of reasonable relationships between unions and school districts is that the union leaders filter out most potential problems by telling angry members that their issue is not something contractually challengeable.  And, not surprisingly, the sympathetic ear the union leader provides often helps the potential grievant to feel better about the problem—it’s amazing how often the airing of your grievances to someone empathic to your plight can uplift your spirits.

But, when you understand how the “other conditions of employment” idea works, it can be very useful.  To give a quick example (which I’ve gone over in more detail before), my old district converted to using grade programs for posting student grades on-line, eliminating the “progress report” process which had been in place for many years.  I had (and still have) a problem with grade programs as they force teachers to convert all aspects of a class into points, regardless of how amenable student assessments are to the numerical flatness of points.  In my class, at the end of each quarter, I would assign a grade that counted for 25% of each student’s overall grade to a catchall category I referred to as “class participation.”  Class participation consisted of student volunteering, effort, courtesy, attendance, engagement, and non-graded homework assignments—basic classroom behaviors that don’t translate well into points, but are crucial (in my opinion, at least) to evaluating how well students perform.  You could ace every test, but never raise your hand to contribute to a class discussion and regularly disrupt the class by chatting with your neighbors or putting your head down on your desk during other students’ speeches.  In my view, a kid like that had not done excellent work and did not deserve an A, just because he had excelled at test-taking.

But with grade programs, you have to resort to lame things like awarding daily points and stuff like that to factor in non-test behaviors.  Most teachers now, however, just make their grades only about objective points which skews student evaluation almost exclusively to tests and projects.  I didn’t want that to happen, so I just ignored the grade program when it was first unveiled.  Eventually, though, I was told that I would have to use it, basically, since everybody else was.  Rather than be considered insubordinate—which is a key thing to avoid for independent teachers—I told my bosses that I would use the program since they were now making it a “condition of employment.” But I added that I would be filing a “demand to bargain” request under the terms of Illinois’s collective bargaining law and that my building’s administrators would have to let the school board know that we would need to reconvene the two sides’ bargaining teams to hash out contract language on grade programs.  Within a couple of days, I was quietly informed that I was not being required to use the program, that it was highly recommended but optional, and that I would not need to file any bargaining requests.  The reality, of course, was that the administration had already gotten some 99% compliance with its “recommendation” of grade program use and knew that I would probably get nowhere trying to raise an insurrection over its implementation, which many teachers liked.  All they really needed was for me to shut up and leave them alone, now that I understood they had overstepped their authority, technically at least, in trying to mandate universal use of grading programs.  And I did shut up, with the unspoken agreement that they would also leave me alone, happily using my antiquated system with one of those now-forgotten brown, multi-ringed grade books with the green graph paper to record grades.  My goal was never to stand in the way of “progress,” just to assess which types of progress actually made my teaching better.  Grade programs did not, and I used my knowledge of the law so I never had to use them.

Obviously, using labor relations statutes is an advanced technique in our teacher independence training which should not be used by neophytes or those who can’t stomach their bosses’ disapproval.  Mine were not happy with me for this, but by that time, I had participated in many contract negotiations and been union grievance chair for a decade.  I had no aspirations to any administrative “promotions,” and all I wanted was to be allowed to teach my class as I saw fit.  My understanding of the law and my willingness to challenge that to which everybody else had acquiesced allowed me to do that.  Knowing the law is a key aspect in becoming an independent teacher.  And if it’s too intimidating to try to understand and apply the law directly, the next best thing is accessing knowledgeable alternatives: state unions and fellow teachers on-site with union experience.

One final resource I would highly recommend is my e-book, Snowflake Schools, which addresses aspects of teacher independence as well as other ways that public education can be improved.  If you’d like to check out some sample chapters from the book, you can find them here.


One comment

  1. Pingback: Not the End of Unions |

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