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

At issue in contract talks are pay increases and teacher contributions to health-care premiums.

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. 

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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.

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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.