Q: I’m a member of my city’s school board and the mother of twins who attend school in the same town. Lately things have been TENSE. The teachers are debating whether or not to go on a strike related to a contract dispute. Basically, they want to pressure the school board to sign a contract that’s favorable to them. They’ve been doing a “flyer and doorbell” campaign targeting school committee members. All of our names and numbers are public, and these flyers urge people to call us to pressure us to support teachers. I’ve started getting hate messages on my home phone. One teacher said to my twins, “Is your mom listening to us?” Meanwhile, all the teachers in my kids’ school are wearing buttons that say “Teachers Matter.” When I walk my boys into school in the morning, the teachers line the hallways wearing T-shirts that say “Appreciate Me,” so I’ll be intimidated. They’re also hanging signs on their classroom windows with the same message. Both my boys (who are in 5th grade) are picking up on the vibe and are upset, and I feel like they’re being threatened. The irony is that I’m on the teachers’ side, but I can’t divulge anything related to teacher negotiations. (To be totally honest, I don’t think board members get paid enough either!) I’m honestly too upset to think straight. How would you handle this situation?
A: I’m sorry you’re experiencing so much hostility. You’re a public person, but your kids should be insulated from the dispute, and no one should feel threatened. Let’s start with your children. I’d approach their teachers directly. When they line the hallways in the morning, I’d make a point of shaking their hands. Don’t be intimidated. Signal that you support them on an individual level and absolutely believe they matter, but that you can’t divulge the details of the contract negotiation. Then explain that the campaign is starting to feel personal. Let them know that you’re always happy to talk to them about any issues they’re confronting, but that their approach is affecting your kids, and that’s not OK.
You may have some legal protection. I’d consult with the school board’s counsel. The lawyer likely will tell you the buttons and signs are permitted. After all, teachers have freedom of speech. However, most cities have rules and regulations about when teachers are allowed to solicit parents and talk politics. I’d obtain that information. In addition, I’d talk to the school principal. If intimidation is penetrating the classroom, make him or her aware. As management, the principal can put a stop to any inappropriate behavior and ensure your kids feel safe. If you want to get further into the weeds, you can find out whether the union is paying for the signage. The teachers can’t use school supplies or taxpayer dollars to fund their campaign.
Finally, I’d be up-front with your sons. As 5th graders, they’re old enough to handle an honest conversation. Talk to them about the dispute, validate their feelings, share what you’re doing to improve the situation, and remind them to report any problematic interactions. You also can help them brainstorm some go-to statements they can repeat whenever anyone badgers them. They should never feel blindsided. Keep in mind that if they perceive you’re struggling yourself, they may hesitate to burden you with their problems. Make sure they know they can talk to you at any time. Good luck, and I hope the contract dispute gets resolved quickly for everyone’s sake.
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