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As W.V. teachers strike ends, districts put emphasis on employee satisfaction

Students in West Virginia returned to the classroom Wednesday after a nine-day teachers strike finally ended with the state legislature’s approval of a 5 percent pay raise for all state employees.

The nearly two-week standoff in West Virginia comes at a time when states and districts are struggling to retain and recruit quality teachers.

The strike also demonstrated the organizational strength of West Virginia’s teachers’ unions, even as the strength of such organizations nationally is threatened by a pending Supreme Court decision.

The teachers strike was centered on compensation and benefits. But, we also know that school employee satisfaction isn’t tied solely to pay–school climate, engagement with leadership, professional development, and other forms of support are key factors in teacher satisfaction and retention.

As school leaders work to hire and keep the best teachers, the strike in West Virginia is a stark reminder of how important effective employee engagement is for K-12 districts.

20,000 strong

As CNN reports, nearly 20,000 teachers walked out of their schools Feb. 22 to demand better compensation. At the time, the state ranked 48th nationally in teacher pay.

While an agreement was reached last week between Gov. Jim Justice (R) and state teachers’ unions, the strike continued as the state legislature worked to agree on two competing bills: one in the House of Delegates that included a 5 percent pay increase, and one in the Senate that provided a 4 percent raise.

With teachers refusing to return unless the pay raise reached 5 percent, a legislative conference committee finally agreed to the 5 percent bump late Tuesday morning.

In a separate agreement, Justice announced the creation of a new task force charged with, among other things, improving the state employee health care system–in reaction to another demand from teachers for stronger professional benefits.

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The strike marked a victory for West Virginia’s teachers’ unions, which were critical in organizing work stoppages and rallies in the state capital in Charlestown.

The resolution comes as teachers and other public-sector employees await the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Janus v. AFSCME. The outcome of the case could determine whether public-sector unions can require non-members to pay fees for collective bargaining. As Valerie Strauss writes in the Washington Post, if the court rules against the unions, it would deal a significant blow to labor organizations, both in budgets and in negotiating power.

Engaging employees

While compensation was at the heart of the West Virginia strike, teacher satisfaction isn’t guaranteed by a high salary alone.

A recent report from the Learning Policy Institute found that administrative support, quality teacher training, and instructional independence are as important to teacher satisfaction as salary.

The key for school districts is understanding what employees want–and how to support their needs, while empowering them to do their best work. This starts when school districts begin to understand that employees aren’t just employees, says former school superintendent Dr. Gerald Dawkins–in many ways, they are also customers.

Says Dawkins:

“Our focus shouldn’t be only on great external customer service. How you treat your internal customers matters a great deal as well. If it takes weeks for an administrative assistant to get his computer fixed; or a teacher can’t get a straight answer about a late paycheck; or a principal has lingering questions about staffing or budgets prior to the start of school, that also reflects poorly on your brand.”

Does your school or district provide teachers and staff with a channel to exercise their voice? What steps can schools take to avoid protracted labor disputes? Tell us in the comments.