Contract talks teaching lessons, but the right ones?

Posted: Sunday, August 18, 2002

Life is full of all kinds of teaching moments. Unfortunately, during these impromptu sessions, the lessons learned are not necessarily the ones that were intended.

The current contract negotiations have offered plenty of such moments, and their lessons are cause for concern.

Lesson 1: How does one resolve conflict? Is bullying ever an acceptable conflict-resolution technique?

In a perfect world, the contract talks between the school district and the teachers and support staff unions would offer a model to students and the rest of the community of how reasonable people can disagree on important, difficult issues, resolve their differences with respect and move on.

In a perfect world, the end result wouldn't be with one side being declared "the winner" and the other side "the loser."

So far, however, the contract talks have provided few glimpses of that kind of behavior. Instead, it's hard for outsiders not to shake their heads in disgust and bewilderment at the many side roads the talks have headed down. Are the charges and countercharges that have surfaced posturing and attempts to intimidate or are they valid, principled stands?

If contract talks were mirrored on the playground, would students get away with the same kind of behavior exhibited at the bargaining table?

As those involved in the contract talks consider what they are teaching, it may be of use to return to some of the lessons taught in kindergarten: don't hit, play fair, share and clean up your messes.

Lesson 2: Why should a young person today consider entering teaching as a profession?

If the climate of the contract talks provided the only barometer for gauging a teaching career, one would be hard-pressed to encourage a student to pursue that particular profession.

In a perfect world, the contract talks would portray teaching as the honorable profession that it is. This is a job that makes a positive difference in the lives of many individuals on a daily basis and in the fabric of a community. Few other jobs can claim the influence that a teaching position has -- and it's not necessary to take a vow of poverty. There's a need for good teachers. Young people need to hear that message. Teaching needs them.

Lesson 3: Is it possible to change course without giving in or losing face?

Judging from the tenor of talks so far, whichever side can push and pull the hardest will be able to dictate the final resolution. But will this be the best answer?

In a perfect world, the different sides would remember their common ground, focus on the basics -- how do you reasonably compensate employees of the school district with the available resources? -- and arrive at a situation that best serves the students of the district.

Is it possible the compensation can take a form other than monetary? In some districts in other parts of the United States, schools have gone to four-day weeks in an effort to save money. With people's time stretched as thin as their money these days, are there creative solutions to compensation that have yet to be explored?

The adversarial relationship that contract talks produce is dismaying and hides the values the various sides share -- primarily, doing right by students. No one wants to balance the district's budget on the backs of its employees or on the backs of its students.

All sides likely agree that the state needs to provide more money for education. Is it possible for the different sides in the bargaining process to work together toward this common goal and send everyone the message that "we're in this together" as opposed to "it's us vs. them"?

As students return to school this week, we can't think of a more valuable lesson that could be modeled for them than one that says reasonable people who disagree can work together for the common good.

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