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Four great ideas from the teachers’ union as contract talks begin

credit to mortgagebrokernews.ca

credit to mortgagebrokernews.ca

The 2015-17 Minneapolis teacher contract negotiations have started. Last week, yours truly was once again there as public observer.

A brief background for those who may need it: In Minnesota, teacher contract negotiations are open to the public (as are all negotiations involving the government and public employees unions) under the state’s Open Meeting Act. Which is good  because the public is paying for the salaries of both sides of the negotiation table.

About six years ago, a small group of progressive parents and citizens, including moi, began watching teacher contract negotiations under the theory that if our elected school board was going to negotiate agreements that were so wildly-tilted to the needs of adults at the expense of children, they should have to do it in public view.

(Note to Black Lives Matter activists: this same law means people can also show up at police contract negotiations which, among other things, have made it easy for certain cops to regularly shoot or beat the crap out of unarmed civilians and still keep their jobs.)

Okay back to the present: I showed up last week with low expectations for anything of substance happening during this round because the Minneapolis district has an interim superintendent and Minneapolis Federation of Teachers President Lynn Nordgren is probably on her last term before retiring. So I figured neither side would want to rock the boat or do much.

But I was wrong. The union spent the first two hours proposing some cool ideas that could make teachers happier AND more effective. Here are four that I think are worth considering:

1) Give teachers two hours a day instead of the current one hour to do all the stuff we ask them to do; which they’re willing to do, but there’s not enough time in the school day to do.

Under the union’s proposal, classroom teachers would spend one less hour a day teaching kids and one more hour looking at student data, consulting with social workers, school counselors, fellow teachers, updating the parent portals, running off extra copies of whatever, organizing the next field trip, preparing for the next lesson and the 10,001 other things we want them to do.

Teachers would still have to do hours of work at home in the evenings. But at least they’d have a shot of completing some of the work that needs to be done at the school site during the day.

To come up with the extra hour, the union would have to be flexible.  As Lynn Nordgren said, teachers might have to work in shifts—with some starting early and some starting late. And the district would have to hire more teachers to create more art, music and gym  classes—which also happens to be something parents keep clamoring for.

So I see this as a win-win solution for everyone. Teachers could feel saner and get more done. Kids could get more art, music and gym.

It won’t be cheap.  But teachers have been complaining about the increasing workloads for decades. So what if we actually took them seriously and tried to do something about it? Because the union will also be asking for smaller class sizes across the board which– can we be real?—is not going to happen because:

a) Neither the union nor our Democratic legislators nor our governor (not to mention the GOP) seems willing to honestly talk about how much it will cost to reduce class sizes and ask the taxpayers to pony up the costs. 

b) The data doesn’t show lower class size makes a significant difference in academic achievement;

So until these two things change, I say let’s at least try to deal with the teacher workload issue. Along the same lines, the unionis also proposing to…

2) Hire Playworks to run recesses in K-8 schools. Playworks is a non-profit company that hires people who specialize in creating and supervising fun recess games aimed at different levels of activity and ages. Anyone who’s ever dealt with Playworks comes away converted to the whole idea.

In most district schools in Minneapolis, kids get 20 minutes to eat lunch and then 20 minutes of recess. Teachers get 20 minutes to eat and then supervise recess. Which isn’t a disaster, but the majority of our teachers are middle-aged women who do many things well, but coming up with an endless supply of new running-around games for active kids, especially boys, in all kinds of weather, is usually not one of them.

So if Playworks did recess, teachers would get another 20 minutes to prepare for classes and kids would have a lot more fun running around at recess. Schools that use Playworks say there’s less fighting, less bullying and kids come back to the classroom far more recharged and ready to learn.

So I think the union is proposing another win-win solution here. I mean, hell, if we’re talking about about health and productivity, most companies should hire Playworks for lunch breaks for their adult employees. Seriously.

Playworks costs money. But if the business community wanted to step up…..I’m just saying, ”this recess is brought to you by…… Target or Blue Cross or Health Partners,” etc could endear corporations to parents, kids and teachers.

3) Create roving teams of star substitute teachers who specialize in cool, supplementary lessons—poetry in the schools, two-hour long science experiments, etc. These teams could come to schools three or four times a year and allow a team of classroom teachers to watch other star teachers teach…..or do a day-long professional training on site or elsewhere.

Right now, when teachers are called to do training and/or development work during the school day, they prepare lesson plans for the substitute teachers.  But substitutes often can’t effectively do another teacher’s lesson plans and this isn’t necessarily the fault of either the classroom teacher or the sub.

Teaching is complicated and highly dependent on the relationships between the students and the teacher. Which is why substitute days are often wasted time for students and developing lesson plans for subs is a waste of time for teachers.

The union’s plan could be another win-win solution—although it would depend on the quality of the substitute teams coming in.

4) Require less one-size-fits all training sessions for teachers held at district headquarters during school days.

The union said some of the district –mandated training is great (math and science trainings were singled out for praise), but there were still too many lousy ones that wasted their members’ time.

Great teaching inspires great teaching, Nordgren says teachers should come out of these trainings inspired by the level of teaching they’ve just received as opposed to having endured another series of powerpoints.

As any long-time reader knows, I’ve disagreed with the union on plenty of things.  I mean, don’t get me started.  But give credit where credit it due—these are good ideas, so good on the MFT.

—Lynnell Mickelsen

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One thought on “Four great ideas from the teachers’ union as contract talks begin

    Ann says: July 7, 2015 at 5:52 pm

    Excellent ideas! I have another one. How about a Teacher-to-Teacher Mentorship Program that pairs retired teachers with new teachers in their first few years? It can be very low-cost! (I started one and had 13 outstanding retired teachers mentoring for free in their area of expertise, i.e. elementary music). Children are not penalized by having to have a sub when their teacher works as a mentor. Anyone interested? Read about the model: http://www.lifelongmusicmaking.eventwebsitebuilder.com/mentoring.html


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