The Montgomery Township School District administration (MTSD) and the Montgomery Township Education Association (MTEA) have progressed from a traditional labor and management relationship to form a partnership that fosters a more collaborative working environment. Administrators and staff across all aspects of the district are working together to impact student academic achievement and social and emotional growth.

In fall 2014, the district administration, along with MTEA leadership, began working with Dr. Saul Rubenstein and Dr. Charles Heckscher from the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, to begin the process of shifting our traditional labor-management style of relations to one that puts students at the core. Research shows that when teachers are involved in some of the decisions regarding their work, employee satisfaction increases, the staff becomes empowered and better services can be delivered to students.

Our current system of education reform continues to be widely questioned, from the time I was a child in school through the 28 years I have spent working in public education.

Efforts have been made to change the landscape with regard to “what works” to improve achievement for all students. Money has been used as the great equalizer in the poorest of districts, but that has not proven to be the magic bullet. In Montgomery, we are fortunate to exist in an affluent rural-fringe community in central New Jersey. Most of our students’ parents not only have a bachelor’s degree, but some form of advanced degree. As one of the highest-achieving districts in the country, we still have achievement gaps between our economically disadvantaged students of color and students with disabilities, as compared to all students. Money is not the only factor necessary to improve student achievement.

We believe that joining forces with the MTEA will help to make a difference for all students, but more important, for our most vulnerable students, academically as well as socially and emotionally.

Our maiden voyage into the collaborative seas began with the creation of a new two-year district calendar. Since my arrival in 2012, we have typically adopted two years of annual calendars at a time as a courtesy for our staff, students, and parents. Although district calendars are typically considered management’s prerogative and designed for students in mind, I was aware that the staff had some reasonable concerns as a result of district decisions on prior calendars. The staff provided sound rationale for the placement of in-service days throughout the year and submitted ideas regarding winter and spring recesses. They even had some practical suggestions regarding the placement of snow contingency days. As a result of our partnership, thoughtful changes were made that benefited the entire community.

For example, the staff suggested that we conduct our annual fall in-service day on the Wednesday prior to the NJEA teachers convention. I was initially concerned for a variety of reasons, but conducted some research and noticed that this week districtwide was our lowest week for student attendance. We worked with the association regarding typical teacher requests for absences abutting this long weekend, and the association supported the current collective bargaining language that limited the staff’s ability to extend long weekends. Our primary concern, both MTEA and administration, was to ensure that the professional development day be well-attended and beneficial for the staff and ultimately, the students. These changes made the district calendar better for all stakeholders.

Teacher In-Service Days Ask teachers what they think about their district in-service days. By and large they will all say the same thing, that it’s hit or miss, and mostly miss. Teachers have more required of them than ever before and are desperate for time within the contractual year to meet the needs of the students in the classroom.

Over the years, even though we increased our efforts to include teachers in discussions regarding staff development, we still fell short. Even though we frequently survey staff for their needs, it was still too “one size fits all” for some of our specialized professionals. Our teachers need time to collaborate with peers, vertically and horizontally, to digest the ever-changing standards and keep up with the warp-speed of technology.

Our collective bargaining agreement requires that teachers are in-district for 186 days, six days longer than students. Four years ago the district staff and administration partnered together to design a flexible professional development day (Flex PD) where staff members could select their own content based upon personal interest to differentiate their own learning. The rationale behind this is sound. After all, don’t we ask staff to differentiate instruction for students? So while there are five traditional professional development days, the staff is now able to complete six hours of professional development on their own annually and “flex” their sixth professional development day. Only about 2 percent of our staff elects to come in physically to the district to “sit” for their sixth day of professional development.

A majority complete those hours of professional development by participating in pre-approved training, whether it’s in-person, at a workshop, or online. Teachers are required to take their flex time outside of the contractual school day, on their own time (after hours/weekends/lunch), and at their own expense. The district offers flex opportunities in the summer aligned to district goals and, in some instances, committee work (Strategic Planning) is acceptable.

Engaging Stakeholders In 2016, our entire school community, including students in grades 7-12, participated in focus groups and completed surveys that informed our strategic planning process. We solicited input from the teachers’ association to determine the staff participants for the focus groups and invited district staff to participate, from teachers to maintenance staff to paraprofessionals to secretaries. Of all the feedback we received from the staff, the most impactful for us was when they reported that they wanted to be involved in the decisions that affected their work. Staff members want to be included from the start, especially with large-scale initiatives and mandates such as how best to implement Next Generation Science Standards, teacher evaluation, and local decisions like the new elementary recess schedule, or how to communicate the new benefits plan. Our staff indicated that if they were involved from the very beginning during district initiatives, those initiatives could have been rolled out more smoothly. Instead we sometimes had false starts and confusion and needed to reset.

In order to formally shift to a more collaborative partnership, MTSD committed to the formation of a District Leadership Team (DLT). This team is comprised of 50 percent administration and 50 percent faculty. The president of the teachers association and I co-chair the group.

We have an agreed-upon purpose:

  • Our District Leadership Team is designed to foster a collaborative learning environment across all aspects of our district that positively impacts student academic and social emotional growth.
  • It works together on district-wide problem solving and guides the integration of school collaboration efforts with district initiatives.
  • It provides opportunities to model and support a culture of collaboration where all stakeholders are engaged in building a system that is focused on continuing improvement, by learning and listening, in order to improve teaching effectiveness and student learning.
  • The DLT is responsible for establishing and implementing an effective system of schoolwide communication, creating targeted teams with clearly defined timelines to design and implement collaborative solutions to situations as they arise and monitoring progress of strategic plan/district goals. School Leadership Teams (SLTs) and the District Leadership Team support each other.

We understand that building trust takes time. We agreed that the best way to develop relationships among the DLT members was to join together around a common goal in alignment with our new district goals.

The Process in Action Since homework practices across the district were raised as an area of concern while unpacking the strategic planning feedback, we kicked-off our collaborative efforts around district homework practices. All DLT members are working closely with their School Leadership Teams (SLTs) to begin the process of identifying consistent and inconsistent homework practices. We asked the faculty to identify the different types of homework assigned and the approximate time necessary for students to complete. This work will eventually turn into a districtwide homework survey that will be used to assess student and parent perspectives regarding district homework practices.

In addition to the DLT, all members of the district administration meet regularly with the teachers’ association leadership. Each leader in the association meets with their counterpart in the administration. These are relaxed, professional meetings focused on building trust.

Although our partnership is relatively new, there are many indirect benefits. When teachers are involved in decisions that involve their work, they are more confident and comfortable in the classroom. When they are a part of the decisions, they are invested in those decisions and assume leadership to help implement the change. Teachers and administrators are communicating much better and are co-planning initiatives. When labor and management cooperate and collaborate, everyone wins. Initiatives are clearer. When decisions are made with district stakeholders, we have an upfront commitment and investment. All collaboratively led initiatives have a greater chance of success.

The Montgomery Board of Education has invited the MTEA leadership to join board of education subcommittees. They represent the staff and are a great balance in the conversations regarding the staff perspective. We believe we are the only school district in New Jersey to have teacher association representatives on board of education subcommittees.

We participate in annual training both in-house and with Rutgers, so the cost is nominal. During fall 2017, a team of district teachers and administrators attended the ABC Unified School District Annual Conference in Los Angeles, California. We were grateful to receive some financial support from education partners such as NJPSA, NJEA, and the MTEA. Nine district staff members went to California. Traveling together, eating together and training together brought us closer together. We realized that the ultimate goal in order to succeed in this venture was an agreement to not let each other fail.

In Conclusion Throughout my career, I have always considered myself collaborative and always thought I involved my staff, whether I was a principal or a superintendent, in the work that impacted them. Participating in labor-management collaboration has helped me grow as a leader. I believe that the people closest to the decision will make sure it is a quality decision. They will ensure quality resources are applied and ensure a quality implementation. Formal partnership leads to improved communication and improved student achievement. When staff members are satisfied, the school climate is positive. A positive climate encourages communication, and important initiatives and goals will be fully implemented.

For any district interested in beginning this collaborative process, I’d suggest starting small. In some districts one school was the pilot for the entire district. Success begets success.

Remember that teachers’ association representatives and building administrators need to have open lines of communication. I’d suggest setting monthly fixed meetings between association reps and principals just to talk, whether they have business or not. It’s important to get to know each other as people, when there isn’t a contentious issue on the agenda. That’s when the trust begins. And when teachers and administrators trust each other, students are the winners.