Don’t Negotiate Your Teachers’ Union Contract Before You Read This

Above all else keep calm and remember it’s not personal.

People hold banners and posters in their hands

In South Burlington, Vermont, teacher negotiations stalled, and a mediator was brought in . Teachers in Sacramento, California, planned a one-day strike over the financial health of their district. From state to state, teacher negotiations are ongoing and resulting in everything from teacher strikes to marches on state capitols.

As a school leader and possible lead negotiator during union contract negotiations, you may find yourself seated directly across from people you’ve worked alongside for years. The stakes are high, and your community is watching. Votes of no confidence or mediation, renegotiating health insurance and salary—it’s a lot to manage and a hard position to be in. So here’s our advice for managing it all and coming out feeling good about your district and your role in it.

Be in it for the long haul.

Union negotiations take months, not days. Contract negotiations range from three to 18 months . That means every day you come to work, prepping for negotiations (pre-work, actual negotiations, and implementation) should be part of your job. Get ready. Study the ins and outs of the current contract, including why those decisions were made. Keep tabs on other districts and experts, like The School Superintendents’ Association, so you aren’t surprised at the new trends, tactics, or demands that come your way.

Side-table your feelings.

Teacher negotiations inevitably involve money and students, and both are topics that invoke strong feelings. Teachers think they should earn more, and you are sure you’re making good decisions for kids, given tight budget constraints. Don’t let your feelings about what teachers are asking for, or how they are going about the negotiations, get in the way of the task at hand. If the negotiations over money get tense, put yourself in your teachers’ shoes. It feels good to get paid well for a job well done, right? And, even if money shouldn’t drive all the decisions teachers make, raising salaries does help morale. Keep top of mind: The problem teachers are trying to solve isn’t you. Fight feelings with empathy and facts that show what is and is not a real option.

Build relationships.

On the days that negotiations get tough, all the relationships you’ve built over the years will come in handy. Build formal and informal relationships starting on your first day at work and rely on those when you need them, especially when negotiations have been going on for months, or when they start to break down.

Lift the lid on the system.


Negotiations aren’t about you, they’re about the system. Make every effort to show how the system is working and shop around for new vendors or providers so you have all the information you need to influence and shape the system where you can. Communicate clearly and transparently. Your goal isn’t to make everyone like you, but it is to make your options and decisions clear.

Help leaders down the line.

If you’re at the top of the ladder, so to speak, your job is to support the faculty who are closer to the ground. Support the decisions of the principals you work with as they try to support their teachers. That way you’ll positively maintain the relationships that must funtion after the ink is dry.

Take care of yourself.

No one wants to be in a drawn out battle of any sort. Take time to do what you love—find time to read a book, work out, spend time with your family. Escaping the daily stresses of negotiations will help you come to the table fresh each day, and the time off may inspire some new ideas as well.

Be seen.

We get it—negotiations are wearing, especially if strikes are involved. Before a strike, have a plan to communicate with parents about what’s happening with school hours and substitutes, respond to negative press, and rebuild the relationship with the community once the conflict is over. As you’re thinking about posts and talking points, keep the kids a priority.

How are you managing negotiations or striking teachers? Share with us in our Principal Life Facebook Group

Plus, how principals can support teachers during a strike.