Smile Politely

The process of progress

This year’s Unit 4 contract negotiations are about support, respect, and the quality and quantity of instruction in the lives of C-U students.

In the 14 years Cathy Mannen has been a teacher with Unit 4 Schools, she can remember only one year she held a signed contract in her hand when students walked through the front door in fall—and that was a rollover contract in 2011.

Although it may be considered routine, or “old news” that once again, more than 850 professional educators in the region are back in front of the classroom without a current agreement on their working conditions, it just isn’t right.

It’s been two weeks since Mannen, who represents the Champaign Federation of Teachers (CTF), last spoke to the press about the negotiations. A federal mediator has been called in and she believes it will be another two weeks until talks reconvene—which brings us to mid-September.

“The first day teachers reported was the 15th, (of August) actually,” Mannen said. “And our Balance Calendar Schools started in July.”

Last year the contract negotiations started in April, a mediator was called in around August, a strike-authorization vote was taken in early October, and an agreement was reached by October 15th. Back then, it was about fair pay and benefits. This year, it’s different. Mannen said:

For a lot of teachers, I would say it’s frustrating for them to come back to work without a contract. Negotiation is about more than just salary and benefits. It’s also about working conditions and contract modifications, and those issues come to the table because there are things that have come up. So we want to use bargaining as a way to resolve these issues.

When pressed, Mannen shied away from specific “sticking points” in this year’s conversation, and referred to certain “themes” that were important for maintaining the free and quality education Unit 4 teachers deliver, year after year. Mannen added:

One of the themes is really about respect and support for the work teachers do every day. Another main theme is quality and quantity of instruction within the school day. Those are the major themes we’re trying to address.

Mannen used the issue of “planning periods” as an example. She emphasized that this was something not on the bargaining table this year, but it would adequately suit the illustration of the CTF’s aforementioned themes.

To explain, a planning period is a gap in a teacher’s day without students. They can range anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour, and usually afford the teacher enough time to make copies, use the restroom, talk to a colleague or student, grab a snack, do some grading, update a blog, call a parent, or cover a class so someone else can use the restroom. That is unless that planning period has been filled by recess duty, lunch duty, hallway duty, learning support coverage, or a myriad of other potential assignments. She went on to say:

One of the things teachers have in our contract is planning time. That’s something already a part of our day, a part of our working conditions. We all know that teachers work way more hours than is already in the day, so when we looked at a contract negotiation, it’s not just about salary, healthcare and benefits—those are important—but it’s also about the conditions under which teachers work. Because the conditions that they work in, are the conditions that our kids are learning in.

The key term when discussing teachers is “profession.” Mannen and the Teachers of Unit 4 schools are a hearty lot. They’ve been through this before and all signs point to continued conversations, negotiations and a resolution to this year’s contract. They will continue with smiling souls, despite this yearly slight.

The main question is: Why put them through this process?

Why is it that every year, teachers have to endure this battle when their sole function is to create better and more learned citizens? They are not, nor ever have been, in it for the money. Any teacher will tell you that summers are spent updating teaching skills, reading new texts or novels, attending seminars, re-certifying, and planning, planning, planning for fall term. So that’s not it.

For the parents of the 9,600 students in the area, think about your profession, your working conditions, and the greater good you serve. What are the conditions, under which you deliver the best product, create the best environment, or bolster your company image?

Mannen is confident that negotiations will remain open and lead to a positive end, but if it came down to holding up a sign, she hopes that parents who join in would treat teachers like professionals. “I would want it (their sign) to read: ‘Supporting Our Teachers, Supports YOUR Kids,’ or ‘Honoring Your Teachers, Honors YOUR Students.’”

Champaign Schools spokesperson Stephanie Stuart was contacted for an update on the negotiations as well. She said she would forward SP contact information to School Board President Laurie Bonnett. At this posting SP has received no contact.

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