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Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Playing The Game With New Rules

One of my high school teachers gave me a piece of advice that helped me get through many difficult situations: “You have to learn how to play the game. You have to figure out what the person in charge wants and do that.” In the last six months, the game of teaching has become much more difficult. Yesterday I signed and turned in my contract for the 2011-2012 school year. The form of this year's contract is very much like those I have signed in the past. This time, however, there was no negotiation or discussion between me (or a party that represents me) and the school district. The only choice was sign the contract and agree to the prescribed loss in income, the unilateral work rules, and the worrisome potential of future changes or don't sign and be unemployed. Contrary to the popular rhetoric, the changes in Wisconsin's public sector employment rules have not freed me from the "bonds of a union" to allow me to "negotiate" with my employer one-on-one as equals. These changes have allowed my employer to dictate pay and work rules on a take it or leave it basis. These rules can also be changed at any time and I will only have a 30 day notice of the change (and that 30 day notice isn't a certainty either).

This contract signing was drastically different from my first contract signing at the start of my years in the classroom. Then, I was excited and happy; I was grateful for the opportunity. I felt a little bit of ownership. I now had classes to make mine and students to help as they prepared for their futures; I was overwhelmed and yet eager to take on a position that gave me such a grand purpose and an important mission. I still have that drive to fulfill a purpose and I know that it is still an important mission. This time, though, it felt like I was signing my contract at gunpoint. I feel powerless and marginalized. I know that to preserve my employment I have to resign myself to not speaking what I know to be the truth about education in order to play political games, so much for being a respected professional.

While our school board (with the help of Governor Walker's "tools") can't take away my right to speak, they have created a situation in which I have every reason to remain silent. For example, if a new initiative that I know to be educationally unsound is introduced by the principal of my school or the superintendent of the district, I have to consider the relative value of speaking up and making myself a target for future retaliation. I don't have any particular reason to believe that the current administration is this vindictive or reactionary; however, they might not always be here, and how can I ever truly know that my challenge will not have conscious or unconscious consequences somewhere down the line. This risk has, of course, always existed, but now the nature of the possible consequences is much harsher.
If our mission is the education of children, don't we need everyone actively involved in both the decision making and the day to day operations of the school? The people who actually work with the children now have a reason to no longer seek out support, advice, and cooperation from their administrators. Politically difficult situations will now arise many times in every school day. Student discipline, student grading and assessment, supervision of clubs, coaching, and many other daily activities now become a game of balancing what I know to be right versus what the politics of the situation dictate. Most often, staying silent and going with the flow will be the choice made. How can I encourage students to embrace what they know to be true about themselves as they plan for their adult lives when I have to forgo my own professional and personal truths in order to maintain my employment?

I have learned over the years that my teacher's advice to “play the game” didn't mean that I had to just be a follower. As a professional, part of playing the game is having both the expectation and freedom to give input based on my knowledge and experience. The rules have clearly changed. “Playing the game” now could mean either doing away with important personal and professional values or putting my career and livelihood on the line. I have always been a calculated risk taker; the calculations have become far to complicated to be certain of anymore.

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