Beyond academics and sports programs, there are many important issues facing our school district; among them, implementing the national Common Core standards, academic program management, and, most importantly, providing safe, challenging, inclusive learning environments for all students. However, this month’s column will focus on a little discussed topic that has a profound effect on every aspect of district business: The relationship of the district as an employer to those who do the work of the district.
There are numerous roles and ways that employees of district interact with children and the community. Basically, a district employee can be broken down into one of three categories: classified, certificated, and administrative staff. District employees who are certificated or classified staff work under collectively bargained contracts that govern most aspects of their work.
The Davis Teachers Association is the sole legal representative of the certificated staff. Our members include classroom teachers, subject specialists, psychologists, special education teachers, counselors, nurses, and speech therapists. As a community member, you may not have considered the connection between your student and our contract. Simply put, the contract that DTA negotiates governs the conditions under which these educators work, and where these people work is where your student learns.
Our contract directly affects student learning. It covers everything from class size, special education caseloads, and school hours to the evaluations of educators to ensure that they are serving the students at a high level. Our contract also ensures a safe learning environment for both students and educators, as well as the professional development that enhances our teachers skills and knowledge.
As with any document, the contract is only as strong as the specific language in it. Some of the language in our contract is clear and strong, while other language is vague and weak. A central contractual issue for DTA is class sizes and caseloads. This is an important concern for educators and parents as the number of students in each class shapes our ability to educate each student.
Currently our contract says that the district will “endeavor” to keep class sizes down. To secondary teachers, this translates into 160 students for their five classes, for an average of 32 students per class. At an elementary school level, teachers work with an average of 29 children per class. As you can tell, the word “endeavor” is weak. When the DTA tries to hold class sizes down, the contract does not compel the district to do much. You can judge by the average class sizes how hard they are trying. DTA is also concerned about large imbalances in classes that allow for a teacher to have a class of 40 one period to be balanced with having a class of 24 another period. The teaching in a class of 24 is very different than in a class of 40, and so is the learning.
The dynamics are also similar for counselors who have had to fight for manageable ratios of students so that they can really get to know kids and provide them a high level of individualized services. Yet, counselors do not have a defined ratio of students in the contract. In fact, their ratios change from year to year, and DTA must work with the district to maintain workable caseloads for counselors.
Another group of certificated staff who do not have well-defined limits is special education teachers. These teachers are charged with managing a number of students who not only have varying levels of needs, but all students require an intense amount of paperwork. For special education teachers, the contract contains outdated language that is unenforceable. As a result, the time and resources of these teachers are stretched thin, as they struggle to serve all of their students effectively. Sometimes, this means that work falls to para-educators who though hard working, are not the specially trained teachers that the students need to modify their work appropriately.
This is not to say that the class sizes educators deal with are always unbalanced or over but the contract is the bedrock of our working conditions and the students learning conditions. Our contract should reflect the best practices that create optimal environments for student learning so that educators can be as effective as possible with the students they serve. DTA has tried to strengthen the language in the contract regarding class sizes, only to be met with stiff resistance from a district that wants more flexibility to load classes how they choose, which is not always what is best for students and educators. Community support for strong language to ensure manageable class sizes may be something that moves the district to change their perspective on this issue and ensure manageable class sizes and caseloads for all educators.
Blair Howard is the current President of the Davis Teacher’s Association. This is the first of what will be a monthly column from DTA – starting next month it will be every first Tuesday of the month.