“Collaboration trumps conflict,” observes Shaker Heights (Ohio) Superintendent Gregory Hutchings in this new podcast that he and John Morris, President of the Shaker Heights Teachers’ Association, recorded for www.boardsavvysuperintendent.com. That might not be an earth-shaking observation, but as our readers well know, building a really positive and productive district administration-faculty union working relationship is no small accomplishment in these challenging times. What with straitened budgets, contentious debate over suitable measures of student achievement, and growing public expectations combined with widespread skepticism of institutions, the default setting in administration-faculty relations is distance, suspicion, and tension. The parties, when not downright adversaries, tend to be like mating tarantulas warily circling each other in their quest for the same end. And in Greg’s case, the relationship building challenge was made more daunting by his coming to the Shaker Schools from a right-to-work environment and following a widely admired superintendent who’d been at the helm for twenty-five years.
Why have Greg and John beat the odds, working in close collaboration to build a close, positive administration-Teachers’ Association working relationship? Perhaps most important they share a common vision transcending more mundane political concerns: that fully meeting the educational needs of their students comes first, with no close second. Greg and John also bring a similar leadership style to the relationship building effort: open, communicative, collegial, and non-manipulative. And they well understand that their working relationship must be constantly nurtured and meticulously managed to combat the always-present danger of erosion resulting from neglect. By the way, experience has taught me that even if an open and collaborative leadership style doesn’t come naturally to a superintendent or faculty association head, the good news is that it can be cultivated if the need is recognized.
Greg and John describe a key milestone in the first months of their new professional relationship: a five-hour work session involving the Shaker Board of Education, Greg and his top executives, and John along with the officers of the Teachers’ Association. Precipitated by a letter from the Teachers’ Association raising a number of issues that the arrival of the first new superintendent in twenty-five years had brought to the fore, the session was a practical test of collaboration that participants passed with flying colors. Greg and John give due credit to the Shaker Board of Education, whose strong support for the session was critical to its success. It’s also important to note that the work session took place in the context of the district’s recently updated strategic plan, which itself was the product of a highly participatory and collaborative process and, hence, widely understood and owned.