Sunday, September 1, 2013

Just in Time for Labor Day, A New Employee Handbook

A big deal to many Janesville school employees, but a sidebar note in the local paper (and just in time for Labor Day!) was the unanimous board approval of the school district’s employee handbook this past week.

As noted in my last posting, the Janesville’s teachers union is one of the last holdouts in Wisconsin to be subjected to Gov. Walker’s discriminatory Act 10 legislation, which ends most collective bargaining rights for almost all public employees. This questionably constitutional and purely partisan legislation forced districts, like mine, to shift the rules and regulations of work conditions from collectively bargained labor contracts to district-produced employee handbooks.

Of course, this is what Wisconsin (and more commonly non-Wisconsin) neo-cons wanted. Top-down management dominates. The public educator’s perspective is devalued. Under Act 10, hierarchical bureaucracy now trumps collaboration and teamwork in many Wisconsin public schools. This is a step back from the collaboration-focused professional learning community (PLC) model I desire for all Wisconsin public schools. Most frustrating, this neo-con concocted counterfeit medicine distracts all of us from the eight ball.

I understand teachers’ territorial attitude toward work conditions perplexes my market-world friends, who live contently under management-dictated rules and regulations. Ironically, I suspect the same thrill entrepreneurs get building a business is similar to the feeling employees get when they are directly involved in organizational decision making. School districts, however, cannot follow the corporate model. Declining and shrinking school resources prevent districts from buying the “buy-in.” Regardless, building together is the best buy (as the latest motivational research shows) for the “buy -in.” Generally, the market-world lags behind in the employee empowerment model making empathy for educators’ angst difficult.

According to duh reformers, the clampdown on educator empowerment was necessary because unions had too much power and its members too many liberties. Indeed, the collective bargaining process did empower professional educators with a collective voice on work conditions. Indeed, compromise and collaboration were key components in creating the labor contracts. Also indeed, teachers had a voice and a vote in approving contracts. However, the final vote in negotiations always belonged to school boards. An important checks and balance system was at play in this dynamic.

Admittedly, the collective bargaining process was messy at times. Looking back, I wish my involvement might have been different at times. However, creating can be messy and clean up is part of most creation processes. Mutually agreed contracts provided the climate for clean up. Fence-mending previously was an equally shared responsibility of both school management and labor leaders following contract negotiations. With district leaders exclusively producing the employee handbooks, school officials now shoulder the load.

The process of creating new employee handbooks has further revealed the wisdom of the old collective bargaining process. Many Wisconsin school districts had to race to complete handbooks in the wake of Act 10. With time constraints, some districts just plagiarized heavily from the old collectively bargained contracts.

Even with a two-year window for completion, my own district struggled to complete its handbook before this school season. This struggle is understandable. Decades of quality and evolving work put into past teacher contracts by hundreds of former teachers, board members, and administrators cannot be replicated by a single, resource-strapped administrative staff. The teacher contracts of old had roots, like natural grass, nurtured over many seasons. The new-fangled employee handbooks seem a bit like the Brady Bunch’s backyard lawn. They have an artificial look and feel. I have always favored the look and feel of natural grass and teacher contracts. I also prefer the nurturing process that goes into developing something lasting and rooted.

To be fair to my school district, I acknowledge that many efforts are made to involve teachers in curriculum design, school improvement, and development of programs. Our neighborhood schools certainly have tight working units. Impressively, the district is empowering more teachers in leadership roles.  Appreciatively, my own building administrator meets with representative staff monthly to address building and staff concerns. And, admittedly, most school district leaders hear me out--even when we disagree--and reply in timely and thoughtful ways.

Some corporate ideas were also attempted by my district in creating shared ownership in the employee handbook. However, the focus groups and  “meet and confers” were not effective at replacing the collective bargaining process that empowered teachers and school officials to both claim ownership in the final product. The current system of asking for employees’ opinions and then locking labor out of the actual document creation is not empowering to employees. Ownership comes from being involved fully in the decision making process. This requires intense collaboration.

Educators understand collaboration. Our professional culture is centered around it. Our classroom activities are often and increasingly designed with collaborative practices. Moreover--consensus building, compromise, democracy, and other collaborative practices are consistently part of teachers’ union decisions. Teachers understand sharing power creates shared ownership. We are aware that shared ownership is essential to school culture.

I want my own kids’ teachers to feel like they own the rules and regulations they work under. The current employee handbook does not belong to my kids’ teachers. Teacher empowerment was missing in the handbook creation. The rules and regulations--like the dress code--are owned by the handbook’s creators. Like in learning, the process is more important than the product. My district’s decision to not include teachers and their union leaders as equal partners in the handbook creation was wrong. The current handbook is about us, but made without us. A paradox exists in the current exclusionary policymaking process. How can district leaders fully entrust the care of children to teachers, but not trust teachers to develop reasonable working conditions?

Putting my pessimism aside, I have not given up on my district’s handbook. Certainly, remnants of the teachers' old contract snuck into the new handbook creating some de facto ownership. I look forward to a full briefing of the changes in work conditions. I hope for district receptiveness to employees’ suggested revisions. I wish my kids to be taught by teachers who feel greater ownership in district initiatives.

Many school districts across Wisconsin successfully and directly worked with teachers and union leaders in creating acceptable handbooks. What’s right is for my district to do the same.

1 comment:

  1. Well said, Steve! Once again, I give an open invitation to any School Board member, or ANY member of the public to come and spend time with me in my fifth grade classroom (Stephanie Kortyna - Jackson Elementary) and then tell me that I should run my class like a business, or that I don't deserve a cost of living raise, or that I shouldn't have input in my working conditions!