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Why are Anoka-Hennepin teachers ‘working to rule’? A Q&A with Julie Blaha

Julie Blaha
Julie Blaha

Last week the union representing teachers in the state’s largest school district announced that in frustration over what they see as the lack of progress in contract talks, they will stop performing work beyond the scope of their current agreement. The “work to rule” action was announced after Anoka-Hennepin School District leaders and representatives of Anoka-Hennepin Education Minnesota (AHEM) met for the 13th time to attempt to reach a 2014-2015 contract.

At issue, according to statements made by the two sides before mediation closed the process to the public, are pay increases and teacher contributions to health-care premiums.

Working to rule is not something teachers — frequently I-dotters by nature — are crazy about. Many are quick to be available to students and families after hours and value the sense of community created by events outside the workday.

AHEM President Julie Blaha explained the decision and its impact to MinnPost. An edited transcript of that conversation follows. 

Look for a Q&A with district Superintendent Dennis Carlson in this space soon. Update: Carlson’s Q&A is here.

MinnPost: Why work to rule? What got you here, and what are you hoping to show?

Julie Blaha: We have been in bargaining with our district for over six months now. Our contract effectively expires July 1. So we are significantly beyond when we had hoped to be finished. What we noticed in the 12 sessions we had was that we were not seeing the progress we needed to see to come to a fair, competitive, reasonable solution here. So in order to get a settlement, teachers are sending the message that this is really important to us and we are willing to do what it takes to make it happen. Work to rule is one of the ways we are looking at sending that message.

Beyond that, though, there is a benefit to work to rule beyond helping to move along stuck bargaining. As teachers this can help us to take a good, hard look at the work we do and what we need to change to be more effective with our students.

MinnPost: Can you provide examples of things teachers do outside of the duty day as outlined by the contract?

JB: Teachers are meeting up outside of buildings and walking in together, and the goal is to leave right away at the end of the day. So teachers are avoiding taking extra correcting home, they are avoiding volunteering for extra events outside of school.

It’s almost more about prioritizing than avoiding, frankly. What you may notice from an Anoka-Hennepin teacher is that it may take longer for them to reply to an e-mail. They’re still going to answer their e-mail, but it may take a couple of days longer. They’re still going to do the assessment that helps them understand student performance, but it may take longer for them to get the feedback to their students. They are still going to complete all of their duties, it’s just going to take a couple of days longer to get them done within the limited time that they have.

I don’t know if a lot of people realize that when they see teachers at events outside of the regular day that they are more often than not volunteering to be there. For instance, I don’t know if people realize that in our district, open house is a voluntary activity. Virtually every teacher attends, but they’re not compensated for that. Or academic showcase night, they are there on their own volition, they are doing that for free.

I think it’s important that we share with the community just what our day looks like. I believe our community values our teachers for the quality work that they do every day, but I don’t think the community is asking them to work to exhaustion. Or to take time away from their own families so that they can do yet another thing for a student. I think this is an opportunity to examine our practice and to show what a teacher’s day looks like.

MinnPost: You have described this as a pretty emotional point for your members to reach, that they are conflicted. How are they reacting?

JB: This is very difficult for our members. When you are looking 30 students that you care about very deeply in the eye, it’s difficult to say no to any idea that could possibly help them. However, I think it’s important that we as teachers take some time to examine our priorities. If your house was on fire and you had just five minutes to grab whatever you could, what would you save? What you choose tells you what you really value.

Work to rule tells you, if you could only work from 7:15 to 3:00 p.m., what would you choose to do? How we answer that question gets at what we believe matters most to our students’ success. We need to think beyond simply doing more and more and more for students and think about doing better and better for students. 

MinnPost: How is the concept of work to rule related to what you are seeking?

JB: We are looking for an agreement that is fair, that is competitive, that is affordable and that recognizes what our teachers do. Right now our teachers are helping to deliver MCA scores that are above average in every level and in every subject. We have one of the lowest achievement gaps in the metro area. We are taking on new initiatives like Q-Comp, new instructional strategies. We really are doing our part and we want to see a contract that recognizes those contributions. Work to rule is a way to help show our school district, our board and our community exactly what we do.

As a profession, as a community we need to have a conversation about structuring our schools so that our teachers have what they need, the time, the skills and technology, to truly serve their students. So as we talk about work to rule, we can talk about bargaining, because that definitely matters. But I hope we remember to keep this conversation going far after every single contract in the state is settled. If we want to ensure that we have a profession that is attractive to a new generation of teachers and that we retain the teachers we already have we need to take a good hard look at the day to day work we expect our teachers to do and make sure it’s the kind of work that serves our students best. 

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Comments (24)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 01/28/2014 - 10:09 am.

    Tough to take

    Maybe the times were different – a near-certainty – and I taught in a different state, but teachers in my district affiliated with the local NEA chapter. I personally never regarded it as a “union,” though there were some union-like aspects, and the local association did bargain collectively with the local district.

    With that as backdrop, I’d have had a hard time doing this. It’s not an exaggeration when Ms. Blaha says that a lot of teachers would be “conflicted” about this tactic. The vast majority of my grading was done at home, and I typically spent four evenings during the week, plus most or all of the day and evening on Sunday, grading papers and doing other, classroom-related work. I also assigned fairly lengthy essays at least once every semester. I never found a shortcut for grading written work, and it was always time-and-energy intensive. Brief quizzes could be done quickly, but more lengthy evaluations, and especially the essays, took a great deal of time. If I’d only done that work at school, the spring semester essay might not get back to students until late July. Yes, I had a prep hour, but as the interview suggests, there were always plenty of other things to do during that hour, from parent phone calls to meetings with building administrators to making copies of handouts for the next day’s classes that there wasn’t often appreciable time left in the hour for grading – or for even brief conferences with students.

    I coached only one fall sport, but even in that situation, keeping up with team and individual statistics was time-consuming, and also something that was always done at home.

    It’s important to note, however, that this was all taking place in the 1980s and early 1990s – in other words, during the Paleolithic, when cell phones were rare objects of curiosity, and the personal computer was even more rare. For several years, I and a literal handful of colleagues (in a faculty of about 100 people) were the only teachers at my school who had personal computers at home. The computer at home made a sizable difference, in large part, because the school district went to some expense to provide a computer lab for students (a good thing), but provided no computers at school for teacher use (not such a good thing). A lot of math-intensive work like averaging grades, which took minutes in a spreadsheet, took hours of labor with a hand calculator. More importantly, teachers needed to be able to keep up with students technologically, and that couldn’t happen on a faculty-wide basis unless/until everyone was on board the technology train with at least a few computers in the faculty room.

    I’ll be interested in seeing what the superintendent has to say. Our superintendent for the first half of my career was something of a scholar himself, as opposed to merely administrating, and used to regularly dismiss agitation for higher salaries by saying “You’ll just want more later on,” which struck me then, and still does, as the expression of an arrogant CEO’s attitude toward worker compensation. At the time, that superintendent was being paid several times the district’s average teacher salary, so it’s fair to say that we weren’t persuaded by either his logic or his example…

  2. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 01/28/2014 - 10:40 am.

    You can track

    the decline of test scores and the quality of education in general when the NEA stopped being a professional education association dedicated to the advancement of pedagogy and became a labor union dedicated to the advancement of dues-paying tradesmen.

    I feel extremely fortunate that I went to public school before all that happened.

    • Submitted by Dan Hintz on 01/28/2014 - 11:20 am.

      Confused

      When you say things like “you can track the decline” you are implying that you have evidence to support your statement, when of course you don’t. If you are just going to make things up, you should start with “I think” or “I believe.”

    • Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 01/28/2014 - 11:30 am.

      Another evidence free post from Mr Tester. In fact, scores have been rising, inexorably, for decades. Gains have been slowed in the era of education deform, but scores are still going up.

  3. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 01/28/2014 - 11:35 am.

    Value and values

    Our society values people based on their earning capacity and their wealth. Somehow it’s OK for the CEO’s of the largest banks, health insurance companies and corporations to get multimillion dollar salaries and bonuses voted by their buddies on the corporate boards, but it’s wrong for teachers to use tough bargaining methods to earn a livable salary.

    We want our children to receive a good education. But for the vast majority of people in our country, education is not an end in itself but a means to a good job. With college tuition being priced out of reach for most people, record high unemployment while the depression drags on and wages stagnating or declining, I wouldn’t be surprised if the reason we see so many problems in education and test scores is that many students have seen the handwriting on the wall and asked themselves” what’s the point?”

  4. Submitted by John Edwards on 01/28/2014 - 11:49 am.

    The full story needed here

    I know teachers are noble, as this interview suggests. But it is also important to remember they are unionists who work a very reduced scheduled compared to most people, which is important to remember when we hear about their extra work. I think the Anoka-Hennepin contract calls for them to work about 1,600 hours a year (Forty 40-hour weeks). For that, experienced teachers can make $80,000 a year. But more important, career teachers have pensions that make them the equivalent of millionaires when they retire. Moreover, they have extremely generous health plans.

    I think teachers should be paid what they can negotiate. If they can get more compensation, fine. But the taxpaying public should also be aware of their total compensation and the number of hours they work annually. I did not see that information in this highly sympathetic interview.

    • Submitted by Mike Worcester on 01/28/2014 - 03:54 pm.

      Millionaires?

      “But more important, career teachers have pensions that make them the equivalent of millionaires when they retire.”

      Could you please cite your source on this claim? I am the son of a retired career elementary school teacher and I can assure you that she certainly is not a millionaire. Not even close.

  5. Submitted by James Hamilton on 01/28/2014 - 12:59 pm.

    Terms of the Current Contract

    will be found at the link below. Currently, AH teachers are to work 187 days for 7 hours 40 minutes per day, including a 25 minutes lunch period, or 1440 hours per year, the equivalent of a .7 FT position at 2080 hours per year.

    Information on teachers’ salaries at AH will be found at the second link. The district wide average is just under $47,000, with the median being:

    Preschool: $28,324 ($19.67/hour)

    Kindergarten: $50,086 ($34.78/hour)

    Elementary: $51,183 ($35.54/hour)

    Middle School: $41,503 ($28.82/hour)

    High School: $48,606 ($33.75/hour)

    Hourly figures are my own, based on a 1440 work year. Presumably, the differences lie largely in longevity.

    Underpaid or overpaid? I don’t know. I do believer, however, that if teachers wish to be considered and paid as professionals, that they put in the hours of professionals. A 50 hour work week over the same 187 days is only 1870 hours a year. (187/5 = 37.4 x 50 =1870). They might even eat lunch on their own time. Kudos to those who already do. Sadly, I’ve seen too many who ‘work to the rule’ every day of every week.

    “Subd. 1. There shall be 187 days of service for teachers.”

    “Subd. 1. The duty day shall be 7 hours and 40 minutes in length, including the
    equivalent of ½ hour before and ½ hour after school and a minimum of a
    25-minute duty free lunch. The remaining 375 minutes shall include a minimum
    daily average of 50 minutes for preparation to be provided on a weekly basis in
    middle and high schools and over a 5-day digital schedule in elementary schools.
    Teachers shall receive a minimum of 5 minutes preparation time for every 25
    minutes of instructional time. Every effort will be made to provide preparation
    time in a continuous block, but at no time shall a block be less than 30 minutes.
    The remaining time shall be used for passing students, supervision, I.E.P.
    preparation, team planning, traveling, advisor-advisee meetings, and other
    assigned non-instructional duties. Special Education teachers may be released
    from supervision responsibilities to attend required due process meetings or
    student assessments.

    Teacher requests to fulfill parent-teacher conference duty time obligations outside
    of regular paid duty days and at times other than scheduled parent-teacher
    conferences may be approved by the principal.”

    http://www.anoka.k12.mn.us/education/page/download.php?fileinfo=QWdyZWVtZW50XzExLnBkZjo6Oi93d3c2L3NjaG9vbHMvbW4vYW5va2EvaW1hZ2VzL2RvY21nci82NDc1X2ZpbGVfMTQ1NzFfbW9kXzEzMjM3MjgyMDgucGRm&sectiondetailid=188571

    http://www.teachersalaryinfo.com/minnesota/teacher-salary-in-anoka-hennepin-public-school-district/

    • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 02/01/2014 - 12:02 pm.

      You’re counting only time on the school premises

      Teachers do most of their grading and prep at home, since they have little or no time for either. Fifty minutes of prep is nothing, as you would know if you had ever taught school.

  6. Submitted by Brenden Schaaf on 01/28/2014 - 04:16 pm.

    Not the right tactic, IMO

    If the contract only requires teachers to work (as cited in the piece) from 7:15am-3:00pm, then that’s a problem. That is, quite clearly, not enough time to do what it requires to be a quality educator. In any other profession I can think of (and even Ms. Blaha refers to teaching as a profession) people work until the job is done satisfactorily. That is the mark of a true professional. They don’t punch a clock nor are they paid by the hour. The idea that the open house or conference time is “voluntary” is ridiculous as those are clearly requirements of the job — or at least a job well done. If it takes 9 hours/day on average to be a good teacher then it’s not unreasonable to expect teachers to work 9 hours/day. If some can do it in 8, so be it. But to say “we are only going to be here 7 3/4 hours a day because that’s what the contract says” is not living up to what the public expects of its teachers. Nor is it setting a good example for our children.

    While I do believe that teachers should be compensated fairly and probably are due raises of 3-5% or more this year because of what was forgone in years past, I don’t think this approach is the way to win the argument. It smacks of whiny, grade-school behavior and I believe all it does it put the other side on the defensive. Teachers deserve great respect for what they contribute to society, but they jeopardize that respect by taking this stance. Thankfully, the truly great teachers will still put in the effort/time the job requires and their students will not be hurt by a spat between the teachers and the administration.

    Perhaps what we need in schools (and elsewhere, IMO) is to tie the Superintendent (or CEO in the corporate world) salary/benefits to the teachers’ (or worker-bees’) salary/benefits. If the top dog could only make a multiple of the average salary of those below them I bet they wouldn’t be quite so quick to leave the negotiating table.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/28/2014 - 04:32 pm.

      Working to rule is a time-honored labor negotiating tactic. If the bosses won’t budge, why should the workers?

      You may regard it as “whiny, grade-school behavior,” but let’s look at the current environment in which teacher contracts are negotiated. Teachers are expected to put in whatever hours deemed necessary to do the job. They are then vilified as parasites, blamed for the fiscal ills of government, and “reform” ideas seem to revolve around stripping away their bargaining rights (“I’m really a liberal, but let’s dismantle the teaching profession as we know it and turn public schools over to Wall Street grifters”). No matter how little they make, there will be someone with a calculator to tell you why it is too much (or who will just throw the numbers out with no context, and disingenuously say “you decide”). These are the same people who will piously invoke their respect for the teaching profession and loudly proclaim their belief in paying teachers what they “deserve.”

      My rant aside, I like your idea of tying management’s salary to teacher salary.

      • Submitted by James Hamilton on 01/28/2014 - 06:30 pm.

        My complaint

        is as much how little the rule requires as it is working to the rule. Dump work rules that limit hours per day. Lay out the work that will be accomplished rather than the time that will be spent to accomplish it.

        Up the required work, up the salaries to levels commensurate with others. Registered nurses, for example, tend to work less than a 40 hour week yet earn significantly more per year throughout their careers than do teachers, yet the entry level education is comparable.

        Balance the scales between new hires and old-timers more equitably, so that districts don’t find it in their financial interest to send the new hires down the road as quickly as they do and so that new teachers have some incentive to stay in the profession. (The 10th percentile at AH make about 40% of what the 90th percentile make. The difference is in time in service in the district and the degrees obtained by the teacher.) Loading the back end also ups pension benefits given the methods used to calculate pension benefits.

        I understand pay differentials based on area of study and grade level are anathema to teachers’ organizations. Why? They make sense both in terms of the relative professional demands on teachers and the difficulty in attracting and retaining top STEM candidates, for example.

        Done right, teaching is hard work. Most of us, I suspect, know that. Teachers only undercut themselves by negotiating ludicrous work rules and then retreating to them as negotiating tactics while proclaiming their professionalism.

  7. Submitted by John Edwards on 01/28/2014 - 05:57 pm.

    Mike Worcester: Who is a Millionaire

    I know a 30-year teacher who retired at 55 (!) and receives an annual pension of $56,000. To receive that amount, a 55-year-old female would have to invest $1,000,000 in an immediate annuity to receive (at the current 5.63% rate) $4,692 monthly, or $56,304. I understand that being a millionaire is not what it used to be, but it can make for a pretty pleasant retirement—especially when it comes at a comparatively young age.

    Go to: http://www.immediateannuities.com/

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/29/2014 - 09:06 am.

      Who wants to be a millionaire?

      This is like saying that a person who earns $50,000 per year is a millionaire, because if they work at that rate for 20 years, they will have earned $1 million.

      Can your retired teacher put on his/her financial statements a net worth of $1 million? Or would they be laughed at?

  8. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 01/28/2014 - 06:45 pm.

    When the last contract was signed

    The teachers agreed to the contract after pointing out all the work they do on their own time and the district pays them for that. Now, the last half of the school year will be “work-to-rule” so the teachers are not, in fact, doing what they signed their contract to do. The work-to-rule was used in the district a couple of contracts ago so the same thing happened.

    The contract expires JULY 1st and it is only January. Much like the legislature, no results can be expected until closer to the deadline.

    The district is planning on 7.5 million dollars in cuts to meet their budget including teacher layoffs. Any amount over what the district budgeted for teacher salaries and benefits will have to come out of the rest of the budget and there will certainly be more layoffs necessary than those already planned.

    With area districts settling for around 1.5% per year for each of two years, the 2.5% per year requested by the teachers (with no health insurance increases) might not be deemed affordable even with the recent increased tax levies in place. This in a district where I believe over 25% of the students qualify for free or discounted lunches.

  9. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 01/29/2014 - 08:12 am.

    30 years later

    I retired from teaching after 30 years. My retirement income is still several thousand dollars short of the example John Edwards cites, but I’ve been retired long enough that it’s also several thousand dollars more than I was paid under my last contract.

    Allow me to point out that, according to the latest figures from the census (Google “median income, Minneapolis”), the median income in Minneapolis is $66,282. The teacher Mr. Edwards is citing has an income that’s only 85% of the median for the city, which pretty much fits my own lifetime income profile. Whether during my classroom career or after it, I’ve never reached the median income in any of the metro areas where I’ve lived – St. Louis, Denver or the Twin Cities. It’s not as if retired teachers have joined the fabled 1%. They usually haven’t even joined the top 50%.

    Perhaps Mr. Edwards would prefer that teachers retire to a life of abject poverty? Somehow, “Join us, and spend your life as a pauper” doesn’t strike me as a recruiting slogan likely to engage “the best and brightest” college graduates that so many seem to want in their children’s classrooms.

  10. Submitted by colin kline on 02/01/2014 - 07:07 am.

    Priorities

    I would much rather our teachers be paid many multiples of what they are paid now and cut our defense budget by 80-90%, however in our country we prioritize destruction over education. Really what is more important than our children and their futures?

  11. Submitted by Janie L. Bakken on 02/01/2014 - 10:06 am.

    Professional?

    Let me get this straight: You want to be considered a professional, paid as a professional, have the benefits of a professional, but punch a time clock like an employee at WalMart? You can’t have it both ways. In order to earn the respect of a professional, you have to walk the walk. Every professional I have ever known must, at times, and often most of the time, choose to put in long hours or take work home. I don’t see that you are achieving your goal of settling the contract when your behavior is so very, very UNprofessional.

  12. Submitted by jason myron on 02/01/2014 - 08:03 pm.

    Wow…

    millionaire teachers and servers who make 100K per year…..it’s no wonder this country is so divided. Conservatives inhabit an entirely different planet.

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