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Principals and Teacher Strikes: How Districts Can Make the Job More Manageable

Oakland-teacher-strike-tarp-blog.jpgSince the beginning of the year, teachers have already gone on strike in Los Angeles, Denver, West Virginia, and Oakland, Calif.

In three of those strikes, principals were charged with running their buildings while teachers were out on the picket line. In Los Angeles, they were also expected to teach classes while juggling their regular duties—a job that already keeps most principals occupied for more than 60 hours a week, on average.

The decision by districts to keep schools open is putting principals in a bind. Many school leaders, who are former teachers, support their teachers' calls for higher pay, more education funding, and additional counselors and social workers. But they also have a duty to keep students safe and ensure that they are learning.

"I want to emphasize that the principal's job, fundamentally, is to make sure children are safe and are educated," said Judith Pérez, a retired principal in the Los Angeles school system, who served two terms as president of the Associated Administrators of Los Angeles, which represents the district's principals and other administrators.

"And they have to have a positive environment—and that means supporting teachers. So, it's challenging on all levels. They were really stressed by the circumstances and feeling very much alone and isolated in handling it."

So given the demands on principals during these emergency situations and the inherent tension between supporting their striking staff and upholding their duty to keep students safe and learning, what can districts do to make the job more manageable during a strike?

Close Schools If Possible

Ernest Logan, a former principal in New York City who now serves as president of the American Federation of School Administrators, said that districts should close schools when teachers are striking if they are not "safe and secure."

It's a "farce" to represent that there will be meaningful instruction taking place inside the school buildings when the majority of the teaching staff is on the picket line and principals are expected to juggle administrative and classroom teaching duties, he said.

Los Angeles Unified kept its schools open during a six-day strike last month. That prompted the principals' union to ask the district to shut down schools two days into the strike after it got several complaints, including one from a principal who encountered expletives from picketing teachers while trying to enter their schools. Others emailed about insufficient staff to help them manage the workload.

Denver also kept schools open during a teachers' strike earlier this month, and on the first day, a student at East High School sent a video to the Denver Post showing students dancing in the hallways, and students painted a chaotic scene to the paper. And Oakland schools planned to stay open during its first teacher strike in more than two decades, which started Thursday, though the principals' union has called on the district to close schools during the duration of the strike.

The United Administrators of Oakland Schools has expressed its support for teachers, and 75 principals signed a public letter supporting their demands, including higher pay for teachers and more state education funding. More than two dozen principals boarded a bus to the state capitol in Sacramento, the day before the start of the strike, to lobby legislators for more funding, including forgiving a $36 million state loan to the district dating to 2003. 

Principals manned schools with fewer students in Oakland on Thursday. In a statement issued before the strike, principals union president Lauran Waters-Cherry, and executive director JoAnna Lougin, said they would monitor the situation in schools during the strike, but urged the district "to abandon the notion that students can learn, and schools will function without professional teachers, and the supports of our counselors, psychologists, librarians, speech pathologists, social workers, early childhood and adult education teachers."

Logan agreed.

"I believe that we should close schools, if it's not a safe and secure environment," he said. "All we are doing is babysitting those kids, that's what we are doing. There is no meaningful instruction going on."

If Districts Keep Schools Open, Be Transparent About Why 

Since meaningful instruction is not going to taking place, districts should be honest with parents and the community about why they are keeping schools open: Because schools have often become the only place where some children get two meals a day and a warm place to stay, Logan said.

"The question the public needs to ask, 'If we are not having instruction, then why did we have the schools open?' Because there is a greater social need more so than education[al]" need, he said.

Districts have a powerful incentive to remain open during strikes with millions of dollars at stake. When schools are shut down, funding tied in part to average daily attendance is lost.

Dan Domenech, the executive director of the AASA, the School Superintendents Association, acknowledged that schools are open during the strikes because families have become dependent on schools. It would be easier to close schools during a strike, but doing so would leave many kids hungry and without supervision, he said.

"It is certainly not an optimum situation," Domenech said.

"But the principals are going to do the best that they can," he said. "Everybody in the building is going to do the best that they can. But can you say 'Well, this is fine; this is OK?' It isn't ... It's just a short-term solution to a problem that needs to be resolved."

Respond to Changing Dynamics on the Ground

Districts can think that they have dotted all their I's and crossed all their T's as they prepare for the work stoppage, but very few things ever go according to plan. They must be able to respond in the moment to feedback from principals.

While Los Angeles Unified hired 1,400 substitutes and sent 2,000 district administrators to help principals, the support staff members and substitutes were not evenly distributed. Some schools had too many administrators, while others did not have enough assistance, according to the local administrators' union.

Principals complained about the long work days—they were arriving at school at 5:30 a.m. and leaving later than they normally did. Staff was stretched to the limit.

'The working conditions were untenable before the strike. The situation is now impossible. Learning is not happening. Schools should have been closed," one principal wrote to Juan Flecha, the president of the Los Angeles administrators' union.

Flecha asked the district to address all concerns that principals raised, but also urged officials to close the schools if those issues couldn't be addressed. The schools remained open for the duration of the strike.

Keep Principals in The Loop Before and During The Strike

As district representatives, principals are the main conduit of information from the central office—to students, parents, and the wider community—and they must walk a fine line in what they can say, even when they are not always privy to the details of the negotiations.

During a strike, they often have to reassure parents that schools are safe. But very often principals don't know what's happening behind the scenes and lack critical information that parents want to know, like how long the strike will last and when teachers will return to school.

And because they must maintain the trust of their parents and the community, they shouldn't be forced to parrot the central office's talking points.

District officials must give principals accurate information, as much as is legally allowed—not just talking points—during the strike. And those messages should be conveyed in writing to principals and given to them before teachers walk out.

Pérez said that a standing committee that sets guidelines for what principals need to know and do during a strike would go a long way to alleviate the anxiety and stress.

Pérez experienced two strikes during her career in Los Angeles, and she recalled that during the 1989 teachers' strike, the district sent communications to the school administrators that included tips on what to do in various situations, Q & A's, and contacts to call in various scenarios.

"I think what applies in LAUSD applies as much anywhere else there is a strike, where principals need to be clear on what is expected; what to communicate to parents; what to say to concerned community members; how to ensure the safety of the children and the staff members in the school; what they do if they have a question, whom do they call; how do they deal with an emergency, with questions and answers," Perez said. "And that needs to be provided to them well in advance. It's simply because it's just a different situation from what they do on a day-to-day basis. And they need to feel like they can manage it."

Pay Principals for the Extra Time They Work Before and During a Strike  

If schools are open during strikes, principals must show up. 

They are barred from striking in many states, and they can't disobey a direct order from their superintendents without repercussions, Logan said.

In many cases, principals do not have any recourse. They could file a grievance against the district for changing working conditions, but that may only lead to discord and does not address the underlying conditions that led teachers to walk out in the first place, Logan said.

As such, principals should be paid for the extra work and additional hours they put in before and during the strikes, said Pérez, the former Los Angeles principals' union head. Principals in Los Angeles reported spending weekends and nights before and during the strike to prepare lesson plans for classes they had to teach.

The compensation will be not be a significant sum of money, but "it's a sign of respect and appreciation for those who dealt with extremely tough situations on behalf of the district for no thanks or appreciation," Pérez said. "And that goes a bit in the direction of providing that recognition and support."

Caption: Teachers and supporters at a rally at Frank Ogawa Plaza in front of City Hall in Oakland, Calif., Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019. Teachers in Oakland, California, went on strike Thursday in the country's latest walkout by educators over classroom conditions and pay. --Jeff Chiu/AP

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