The Tennessee General Assembly was often criticized during the legislative session by the entrenched education establishment. However, they deserve recognition for the passage of the Professional Educators Collaborative Conferencing Act of 2011 (T.C.A. 49-5-601(c). Surely all stakeholders can agree and understand it takes everyone working together to improve Tennessee public schools.
That is why our organization is excited to advocate for our members and other teachers as allowed by the new legislation. This legislation provided a new beginning for policy dialogue and opportunities for greater collaboration in defining and implementing educational goals, policies and practices. Our organization has long argued it was time to incorporate trust, problem-solving, data-driven decision making and cooperation into procedures that impact teacher employment and conditions. Teachers have a unique voice and should be heard on all matters relating to education. However, teachers are keenly aware of new political realities in the state. It is important that any association representing teachers strive to avoid being identified exclusively with any political party.
It has been a long time in many school districts across Tennessee since teachers and administrators could sit down jointly and identify common interests. Now teachers and administrators can “sit on the same side of the table.” School leaders and teachers can now work toward solutions, as
opposed to engaging in distributive arguments. Collaborative Conferencing can allow for freeflowing, good faith discussions, rather than talks that are restricted to a narrow range of topics. Teachers and school boards should not be adversarial to the other but, to the extent possible, work
together for the benefit of students, improve performance, attract future teachers and retain and obtain benefits necessary to keep quality teachers in the classroom.
In any process, lines of communication must be kept open between all parties and within each party if the objective is to reach a satisfactory conclusion for all parties. Members of each side must be informed of developments (or lack of) at the conferencing table. Keeping such information flowing reduces the possibility of misunderstandings and can help speed up negotiations. When those negotiations are adversarial, lines of communication are shut down. Being willing to alter demands, writing agreements and memoranda of understanding and selecting respected, credible members on conferencing teams all contribute to the cooperative spirit that is at the root of Collaborative Conferencing.
Collaborative Conferencing creates the necessity of securing mutual commitments among the parties to find real solutions without the threat of a one party suddenly bolting from the table. This builds a model which focuses teachers and administrators on common interests rather than
differences. This good faith effort is an essential element of collaborative conferencing as teachers and administrators work toward a mutually agreeable memorandum of agreement. Collaborative Conferencing allows us to do just that and may provide an effective and professional framework for teachers and school districts to collaborate more efficiently.
There are legitimate concerns. The timeframe for implementing the training and the process of Collaborative Conferencing has been extremely fast. Our members are committed to work through the difficulties. Creating a climate in which collaborative practices work is critical. Creating cultural change after 40 years is difficult and can present an enormous task at the local level, especially when one organization previously held much of the power and leverage. This approach is always subject to being changed itself legislatively at any time. So, teachers and administrators should envision the end-product and consider making the process as transparent as possible for policymakers and other stakeholders. Change in attitudes and culture will not come easily or immediately. However, greater collaboration only benefits Tennessee teachers and students, and
surely that should be our goal.
Teachers are highly educated, well-credentialed professionals with substantially independent but critical responsibilities. Most educators agree that trust and respect for colleagues and stakeholders are the cornerstones in building a cooperative environment. Establishing trust may be difficult. As personal relationships develop and the adversarial aspect is eliminated, a sound foundation for mutual respect and trust will gradually take shape.
J. C. Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee.