The first day back after a strike -- 'it won't be the same'

"The strike is over!" "Not really." At least that has been the experience of numerous parents, teachers, administrators, and, unfortunately, students across the country when trying to return to normality in the aftermath of a strike.

The residue of ill will, dissension, and bitterness too often remains and is potentially more destructive for a school system than anything experienced during the strike.

Since 1975 strikes occurred in more than 900 school districts with salary considerations almost always the main issue.

The "quality issues" -- class load, facilities, supplies, number of teachers' aides, security, local control -- act to divide a district along emotional lines with either side claiming it has the best interests of the students in mind.

Janet Halvor, an elementary-school teacher in Billings, Mont., who participated in the first-ever strike in that community in 1975, acknowledges that five years later, Billings is still looking for the answer.

But if the complete answer on healing a strike has not been found, some significant first steps have.

One of the ways says Janet Halvor, is "To keep the media informed before, during, and after the strike."

Local media coverage is critical in shaping the long-term impact of a strike she feels. "It forms the perceptions of the community. Media must be kept informed long before a strike situation occurs, otherwise labels of 'all good' or 'all bad,' for whichever side, are tougher to deal with after a strike."

The first priority of a district that has just experienced a strike is to "create an atmosphere of business as usual," says Santee Ruffin, director of urban services for the National Association of Secondary School Principals. This falls primarily on the shoulders of the building principals.

The personal presence of strong administrators is even more important after a strike. Emotions are so high during the strike that reconciliation between faculty on opposite sides of the issue may take years without clear, strong leadership. One Philadelphia principal speaks of two teachers who still won't speak with each other 12 years after being on opposite sides of the picket line.

Another principal said he went out on the picket line to chat informally with his teachers so they would see him as a person and not as an obstacle in their cause.

Principals should be aware at all times of their crucial roles as conciliators after a strike, says Mr. Ruffin. He cautions that the leadership role of principals must not be jeopardized by making decisions on issues and policies they are not equipped to handle.

"No principal should be discussing solutions for a strike or calling assemblies and staff meetings while the strike is going on," Mr. Ruffin says. "Principals and educators should not react to this or that group; they should base their actions on sound educational principles."

Principals should also avoid interpreting any new policies that may or may not result from a strike. Wait until the contract has been signed and is understood by all parties involved, he advises.

"There is a tendency for recrimination, for fixing blame," says Dr. William Hebert of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. Everyone in the district "must work especially hard at not personalizing all the difficulty and trouble. It [the strike] must be put behind; if it isn't, it will affect daily activities."

Mr. Hebert says education is in great difficulty at present and working in schools in whatever capacity, teacher, administrator, school board member, or parent, is a tough job.

A conflict of interest in this "highly committed environment" can result in personal conflict, he adds. Somehow school personnel and board members have to distance themselves from issues the way legislators do when they agree and disagree in their jobs. "It's the best analogy I can think of, or something like it," he says.

All parties stress the administration must make it clear that no reprisals will be tolerated by either side after a strike. The recruitment of students by either side also is considered impermissible.

Harriet O'Donnell of the Chicago Region Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) states: "Good districts should be equipped in advance on how to deal with the first day back after a strike and have long-range planning and follow-up on a monthly basis, especially to work out their feelings.

"You are still going to have differences of opinion after a strike, and for big city districts you can expect to have more than one strike. (She just underwent her second in Chicago in less than six years). Own up to the fact of adversary positions with the school leadership and have problem-solving sessions run by qualified people," she concludes.

Parents must be kept aware of what is going on in school teacher contracts, Ms. O'Donnell feels and is surprised at how "unaware the public, especially parents, are of the role contract decisions play in running schools."

The policy of the national PTA is to maintain a position of neutrality during a strike in order to be effective and avoid recriminations after the strike is concluded.

"In the last Chicago strike, we recommended parents send their children to school when the first walkout occurred," Ms. O'Donnell says. "When the teachers called for an official strike, then we recommended children be kept home and that the schools be closed."

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