Work to the contract or keep doing ‘extras’?

Q: This is the time of year when my district is developing its budget and my union is negotiating a new contract. Things are always tense when this happens. The union has not instructed us to “work to the contract,” but many teachers have decided to limit their extra work to make a point. For example, many of my colleagues at the high school where I teach have decided not to write letters of recommendation for colleges until we have a satisfactory contract. Other teachers are refusing extra assignments as a way to protest. That’s easy for teachers who live in another district, but I live and work in the same district and see the parents of my students all the time. I feel like I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place on issues like this. Where do I go from here? 

A: I won’t be able to decide for you, because much of this will come down to your own comfort level and beliefs. However, I can help you frame the problem and work through the decision-making process. 

You note that “many” teachers have decided to limit their extra work to make a point. They’re making an individual decision, and the union is not mandating how they behave. In fact, you explicitly state that some colleagues are refusing to write letters of recommendation, while others are refusing extra assignments. Each of these teachers is deciding how to handle the situation in a way that feels right to them. You have the same freedom. You can define for yourself what feels consistent with your values and addresses your practical concerns. 

There are several variables that you can consider. For starters, withholding all extra services in a way that hurts students will fire up parents. That may be an effective negotiating tactic, but it’s not an especially nuanced approach. You may want your union to reach its bargaining goals, but you also want to meet students’ needs. Consider the impact on them. 

It’s also appropriate to consider any personal ramifications. You might take on extras simply because you work and live in the same community, and doing anything less would feel embarrassing or wrong. On a broader level, you may feel that you have an ethical obligation to set children up for success, whether or not they live next door. 

I also think it’s worth considering that all extras are not created equal. Withholding a recommendation may disqualify a student from college admission. The stakes are lower if you’re refusing to chaperone a dance.   

The nature of teaching makes these types of decisions tricky. Whether we’re talking about educators, doctors or firefighters, there are some professions that have a social contract with the public. The reality is that teachers are part of the fabric of a community even if they’re not running into parents in the grocery store. Violating that trust can have long-term negative effects, so we need to solve problems in a thoughtful and deliberate way. 

Ultimately, you need to consider your obligations to yourself, your family, your students, and the community in which you work and live. You get to decide how to strike that balance. It sounds like that’s exactly what the other teachers in your district have decided to do. 

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PHYLLIS L. FAGELL (@Pfagell; is the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C., a therapist at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, Md., and the author of the Career Confidential blog. She is also the author of Middle School Matters, available at

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