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Creating collaborative working environments

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Everyone agrees that the best schools are the ones where teachers and administrators are working together. So how do we get past the decades of mistrust that prevent the teachers union and school district from working together to improve our schools? Maybe we should send them all to a ropes course and have them practice trust falls. Maybe we need some new age facilitators to come in and let the healing begin.

Thursday morning Timothy Kraus gave a very interesting presentation to the Education First Compact about how the teachers’ union and school district in Cincinnati have worked together to create a collaborative approach to improving schools. While things are by no means perfect in Cincinnati, there are clearly some interesting lessons to be learned there about how to create democratic, collaborative work places, which is essential to improving our schools.

Mr. Kraus has a very unique perspective on school reform. He is currently a Teacher Representative working for the Cincinnati Public School District, but is the former president of the teachers’ union there. He also has a background as a filmmaker and as a steel worker and a leader in that union. Thus he approaches this work with a broader perspective about the labor union.

Mr. Kraus says that deep school reform requires creating a democratic workplace, as opposed to the factory model of schooling that now dominates. He also says that all meaningful reform relies on one word: TRUST. Trust has been broken between teachers’ unions and school districts, and rebuilding it is essential to allowing real change to happen.

Mr. Kraus described the classic tension that exists between labor and management. Management wants flexible work rules to ensure quality and productivity while labor is concerned that management will abuse that authority and therefore wants rules that ensure fairness. When there is no trust, neither party will grant the other anything for fear that it will be used against them. In the case of schools, everyone (especially students) suffers.

Cincinnati has a few interesting initiatives that work toward creating a collaborative working environment including:

  • Professional Learning Communities. “Team-based schools” have local decision making and a shared governance structure where teacher committees are involved in decision
  • Peer Assistance and Review. There is a complex evaluation system based on multiple measures. Teacher leaders assess their peers and provide support to them.
  • School Based Hiring. Teachers are hired through school based hiring committees, but other teachers are the majority on these committees, and individual teacher qualifications are not trumped by seniority.

So how do we rebuild trust in a system where there has been so much mistrust for so long?

Creating schools that are collaborative is essential, and while it can’t be forced by either the union or district, there are things they can do to help create the conditions that make it possible. Mr. Kraus made the point that both districts and unions tend to have very top-down, hierarchical structures and that both will need to change for real reform to happen.

It seems to me that the School District needs to be willing to allow schools to have more control over decision making and require that teachers, not just principals, are involved in making those decisions. The union, on the other hand, will have to allow for more flexibility in work rules as long as teachers are truly involved in monitoring how that plays out at the school level.

It’s time for the union and District to get past their history of mistrust.

This will mean stopping blaming the other side for everything under the sun. So please, please don’t respond to this post by saying that all the problems in the District are all the fault of either bad teachers or bad administrators. That attitude hurts my soul. We all know that while there might be a few bad apples the vast majority of teachers and administrators are good people who want the best for students. They just have to get over their history.

So let’s head to the ropes course and bring in the trainers and let the healing begin.