I teach classes in the principal preparation program at Washington State University Vancouver. We are early in the semester and many of my students are teachers, informal leaders in their schools and districts, and studying to be principals in Southwest Washington schools.
In seven of the eleven Clark County school districts, district leaders and teachers unions have been negotiating contracts, with some reaching an impasse and teachers striking, as has been widely reported. And, as has been reported, tensions have been high.
Recently in class, I asked students to reflect on what will happen next after the contract negotiations end — when the dust settles and teachers go back to their classrooms, principals go back to leading school improvement efforts, and children return with their giddiness, curiosity, nervousness, or reluctance.
In my research and classes, my students and I often focus much of our attention on the students and families they serve (as we should). But, research tells us that supportive and safe school environments for students rely heavily on relationships among adults in their building and district.
What happens when the adults have been fighting in their district? What happens when children hear their parents or neighbors bemoaning the “stubborn unions” or “greedy superintendents”? What happens when adults arrive back into the school building nervous, bitter, or disappointed?
What happens is that the children and young adults we serve in schools feel it. They know when their teachers, counselors, front office staff, custodians, and principals aren’t happy. They will be able to tell when one teacher avoids saying “hello” to another as they pass in the hall (even if they don’t know the source of this tension, or the debates on who walked the picket line and who didn’t).
They will be able to tell when “good mornings” are strained to the occasional district program director walking the halls. They will know the same way kids can tell if their parents are fighting — they sense and understand more than we give them credit for.
Right now, I know (and trust) that the teachers’ union and district negotiators have been working around the clock to find resolutions. I trust this because I know teachers, and I know administrators. They all want what’s best for teachers, kids, and families. They are left with complicated funding models from the Legislature — Google “levy swap” and “McCleary” and you will know what I mean.
All on same team
My students — these amazing teachers sparked with leadership and visions of equitable, loving, and supportive schools — are like the over 4,000 teachers who were striking or in contract negotiations across Battle Ground, Camas, Evergreen, Hockinson, Ridgefield, Vancouver and Washougal.
Most teachers in our districts support their union, but they were not at the negotiating table. The thing is — neither are most principals, assistant principals, or other district administrators. But, they will all have to return to schools, working together to create the kinds of classrooms and buildings we want to send our children to — full of love, excellent and passionate teaching, rigor and equitable support for all learners.
Now, I repeat my question, but this time to all teachers, school and district administrators across these districts: What will happen next? What will you do to repair relationships when the dust settles? What will you do to create relational trust among staff following these negotiations? How will you make sure the children and young adults in your care feel that even if these trusted adults in my life argued and disagreed, we are still on the same team?
Katherine C. Rodela is an assistant professor of educational leadership at Washington State University Vancouver.