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The Teachers Union Chapter in the Elementary School

by Albert I. Goldberg & Lisa Harbatkin - 1970

This article, the outcome of a study sponsored by the Center for Urban Education, has to do with the potentially cooperative part to be played by union chapter chairmen in the elementary school. It is based on a questionnaire study of such chairmen and presents the findings with respect to several facets of the chairman-principal relationship in the elementary school.

This article, the outcome of a study sponsored by the Center for Urban Education, has to do with the potentially cooperative part to be played by union chapter chairmen in the elementary school. It is based on a questionnaire study of such chairmen and presents the findings with respect to several facets of the chairman-principal relationship in the elementary school.

The recent increase in teacher militancy has led to speculation by some educators that resort to the picket line to achieve better school conditions and higher salaries compromises the professional status of the teacher as an educator. Many administrators are apprehensive that the teachers' newly found assertiveness will have a harmful impact on educational programs within their schools.

With the growing power of the teacher unions, the union chapters (also called school building committees), with their elected chapter chairmen, are becoming the channel through which the principal is most likely to experience the "teacher power" won in negotiation by the union central office. The chapters are becoming an important influence on decisions made within the school, so much so that one administrator has expressed the fear that "the internal administration of the school by the principal is hampered by the activities of the union 'chapter chairman' or 'shop steward' and by the riling of imaginary grievances."1

Such fears rest on the assumption that the chairman's increased power must inevitably lead to nonproductive conflict with the principal. This, however, assumes that when the chairman gains in influence, the principal must necessarily lose, overlooking the possibility that the chairman's new influence could help eliminate a twilight zone in school administration where no one has exercised effective authority.

In the past, many principals, whether because of their heavy work loads or the difficulty of obtaining necessary teacher cooperation, may have had trouble developing new educational programs or increasing the effectiveness of existing procedures. The active participation and influence of the chairman can aid in eliciting the support of the teaching staff for school improvement. In a recent article, Thomas C. Wood directs attention to these possibilities by noting that teachers are on the threshold of taking active responsibility for the direction of educational change, and suggests that "this trend offers administrators a new role in responsibility to provide leadership for the terribly exciting potential residing in this teacher force."2

The data reported here suggest a number of areas in which administrators can work with unionized teachers to improve education in their schools. The findings are based on fieldwork, diaries, and a systematic survey conducted during the school year 1967-68. A questionnaire was sent to all 642 chapter chairmen in the elementary schools of New York City. Sixty-two percent completed the lengthy form and returned it to the study.

Reports From Chairmen In 1960, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), Local 2 of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), became the sole bargaining agent for teachers in the New York City public school system. Presently claiming some 46,000 of the City's 55,000 teachers as members, the UFT is the largest, and one of the more powerful and militant of the AFT locals. It is organized into school chapters which are present in virtually all the elementary schools of New York City; only 4 percent had no operating union chapter during the 1966-67 school year.

Although the chapters vary widely in size, a median of 83 percent of the teachers in the unionized elementary school belong to the UFT. In 90 percent of all the city's elementary schools, more than half the teachers in the school are UFT members. Of these, a median percent of 75 attend the regular chapter meetings. This high membership rate often makes the chairman, by his election to office, in effect the key spokesman for the teachers in the school, while the relatively large number of active members indicated by the attendance figures adds to his authority.

Among our respondents, the largest single bloc of elementary school chairmen reported teaching some specialty such as Art, Physical Education, CRMD, or Reading; 33 percent fell into this category. Nevertheless, there are representatives from all the grades, with no grade showing less than 6 percent of the total.

Most of the elementary school chapter chairmen appear to be well qualified by experience and education to play a leadership and decision-making role in the school structure. They have spent a median of eight years teaching, a figure which compares favorably to 1965-66 data indicating that 48 percent of the city's elementary school teachers had been teaching five years or less.3 By contrast, only 28 percent of the chairmen reported having five or fewer years experience.

Most of the chairmen have pursued their education beyond the B.A.; 49 percent indicated they held a Master's degree, and 73 percent reported taking 30 or more graduate credits. While no figures are available for New York City, a national survey in 1966-67 found that only 16 percent of all elementary school teachers had a Master's degree or higher.4 The majority of the chapter chairmen also report that they try to keep up with their fields, with 66 percent reporting that they read professional journals or periodicals regularly.

The chairmen tend to be oriented toward their schools and very much concerned and involved with school problems. As listed in the union constitution, the chairman's duties include the collection of monies for the central office, distribution of literature, solicitation of new members, presentation of recommendations to the central office, and cooperation with the duly constituted authorities of the union, responsibilities which, in effect, define him as an agent for the central office.5 Yet 80 percent of the respondents indicated that they viewed their role as representative of the teachers in their schools as equal to or of greater importance than their role as UFT agent. Their school-centered orientation is further shown by the 87 percent who reported that guidance and constructive criticism from their principals was "very" or "somewhat" important to them.

The potential for cooperation suggested by this response is emphasized by the 36 percent of the chairmen who indicated a desire to become assistant principals. Once again, this invites contrast with a national sample of teachers in large cities in 1961 in which some 20 percent indicated an interest in becoming assistant principals.6 The interest of the chairmen in entering administration, while representing only a third of the total, nevertheless raises the possibility that within the next twenty years a large proportion of supervisory positions may be held by former chapter chairmen. In line with this, 8 percent of the respondents reported that their predecessors in the post had gone on to supervisory positions. Union officials and school supervisors may well have a good many interests in common.

Viability and Grievance

Considering these attitudes and orientations, administrators may not be surprised to discover that the majority of chapter chairmen feel they have viable working relationships with their principals. Ninety-one percent of the respondents agreed that "the administration is trying to work within the contract." Sixty-seven percent felt that their principal's performance in working with the union chapter was "good," "excellent," or "outstanding," while 22 percent rated it as "fair." Only 11 percent considered their principal's efforts in this area to be "poor" or "very poor."

The principal-chairman relationship has both formal and informal aspects. Bringing formal grievances is potentially the most visible activity chapter leaders perform, yet fully 71 percent of the respondents reported none during the past year. For the relatively few cases in which informal methods within the school fail to achieve resolution of a teacher complaint, the contract outlines a formal three-step grievance procedure. The union central office provides the chairmen with aid and support in representing individual teachers seeking to challenge administrative assignments or decisions. If agreement cannot be reached at step one within the school, the contract provides for a second-step appeal to the district headquarters, and, if necessary, for a final step to the city superintendent's office.

The grievances likely to occur are specified in the contract, and usually involve issues of teachers' rights. Examples mentioned by the respondents include the following:

  • The cluster teachers filed a grievance because the principal refused to rotate the assignment of duties before and after school.
  • The duty schedule was inequitable. Not all teachers were included.
  • On the first-grade level, the class registers were above the maximum, 33. A new class was formed as a result.
  • Substitute teacher given an IGC class.

The chairmen's responses indicate that the grievances are usually settled amicably and to the teachers' satisfaction, suggesting the extent to which mutual adjustments are possible within the school framework.

Another formal aspect of the principal-chapter relationship is the monthly consultation session mandated by the contract. These meetings provide an adjunct to informal communication channels, and may be used to discuss virtually all school problems that are of concern to the teachers. Replies taken from the questionnaire indicate that the formal consultation session has become a regular monthly aspect of the chapter-administration relationship in more than one half (57 percent) of the city's elementary schools. Seventy-nine percent of the chairmen report that some form of consultation with the administration occurs "about once a month" or more frequently. Only 18 percent report that consultations with principals take place "several times a year" or less. These figures indicate that both formal and informal consultation arrangements operate to keep a viable channel open between chapter and administration through which either can initiate action and discussion on a large variety of school problems.

The format of the meetings allows faculty members to suggest new programs for the school, to request information, and to seek changes in rules affecting them. As representatives of the teachers in these sessions, the members of the consultation committee are more likely to get a hearing on ideas and proposals than is an individual teacher making recommendations. Examples of the agendas for the consultation meetings taken from the diaries suggest the topics likely to be covered:

  • Discussed problem of parking near the school, problems in the first grade program (what are the responsibilities of the program coordinator), discussed disruptive child problems and what might be done.
  • The assignments of quota teachers; more information about record-keeping; speeding up record keeping; the quicker distribution of supplies; an inventory of current textbooks; making clearer the job of teacher aide.
  • Possibility of book fair; school assignments made more equal; new coffee machine; dress regulations; number and system for observation of teachers.

Informal contacts and meetings also appear to play an important role in the principal-chairman relationship. The chapter leaders' answers to the question, "Do you ever meet with the principal for lunch or have informal conversations with him after school hours?" indicate extensive informal contact, with 19 percent saying "often," 33 percent "sometimes," 20 percent "a few times," and only 27 percent "never." Such informal talks provide an opportunity for the principal and chairman to explore areas in which they might be of aid to each other, as well as a setting for the informal resolution of teacher grievances.

The 50 percent of the respondents who replied affirmatively to the question, "Has the principal ever asked you, as chapter chairman, to take over a school problem that called for teacher support?" indicate the extent to which principals may use these informal contacts with the chairmen as a means of securing teacher cooperation and support. Some of the answers to this question indicate the range and type of problems the principal may bring to the chairman's attention:

The union committee was asked to make a decision as to what type of OTP position we needed most. The committee was also asked to select the teacher for said position. We decided science should be the subject. The selection of the teacher was left to the principal.

We are desperately short of space, and the principal asked me to see if the faculty, in cooperation with the parents, could convince the powers-that-be to provide either portable classrooms or other suitable facilities. As chapter chairman, I began to apprise all of what was needed, and put pressure on the district office. As a result, 200 children will be transferred to a new school, slated to open this fall.

Professionalism in appearance, manner, and attitudes was requested, and specific breaches were resolved.

Planning of programs using federal money. Discussed with principal and had open meeting for teachers and parents to submit ideas.

Formation of a school-community committee. Committee was formed.

In effect, the principal may seek the chairman's advice and cooperation in dealing with any of the numerous problems likely to develop in a school. Table I indicates the issues on which principals most frequently approach their chapter chairmen.

As indicated in Table I, the principal is most likely to approach the chairman on questions of school assignments. Teacher resentment develops easily in this area if it is felt that a particular teacher does not deserve a rewarding assignment, or that another teacher is unreasonably being asked to do an unpleasant task. In a related area, 46 percent of the chairmen report being called upon to deal with problems involving individual teachers.


Does the Principal Ever Ask You, as Chapter Chairman, How You Feel About: (N = 398)



% saying often or sometimes

School assignments


Meeting with parents


New curriculum materials


Problems with particular teachers


New clerical work for teachers


Problems with particular students


The retention of a new teacher or substitute


Performance of the assistant principals



 Securing Cooperation

The chapter chairmanship can be particularly valuable in securing faculty cooperation for the effective implementation of new programs. As the teachers' elected representative, the chapter leader is in a good position to secure their interest and participation in efforts to upgrade education in the school. In this area, 45 percent of the chairmen reported that their principals "often" or "sometimes" sought their feelings on new curriculum materials, while in a different vein, 51 percent noted that their principals consulted them in regard to meeting with parents.

There are several areas which most principals apparently feel are chiefly their responsibility. The assignment of new clerical work for teachers, for example, is a sensitive issue which might create strife within the school, yet it appears to be one in which the administration feels it should have the final say. The fact that as many as 39 percent of the chairmen report being consulted on this issue probably reflects a desire on the principal's part to reduce the chances of tensions and problems developing later. Other areas, such as problems with particular students, retention of a new teacher or substitute, and performance of the assistant principals, in which 31 percent, 27 percent, and 7 percent, respectively, of the chairmen reported being consulted, fall into this category in which principals feel they should have full responsibility.

Due to his heavy work schedule, the average principal may be unable to turn adequate attention to the development of new school practices and programs. Chapter initiation on these issues can make a valuable contribution to their solution. Such initiation is clearly an area in which activities of chapter and administration complement each other, while leading to educational improvement within the school. Some chapter-initiated programs listed by respondents to the questionnaire include the following:

  • We have given new teachers a "workshop" during the first 8-10 weeks of the year during lunch hour. This workshop included class routines, discipline, daily scheduling, plan books and planning, school routines, roll book and other clerical tasks, and reviewing child's cumulative record.
  • We have improved the method of obtaining and ordering class supplies. Each teacher of the grade meets with grade leader to call items from G-l supply book. We order and send to supervisor.
  • The teachers have discussed with the administration certain problems relating to the disruptive child. In the majority of instances, our recommendations have been followed.

In general, programs dealing with parent-teacher communication, the disruptive child problem, and with helping new teachers get adjusted to the school seem to be most common. Many are carried out with administration encouragement and cooperation, and suggest the wide range of possibilities for joint action to solve school problems.

The emerging pattern suggested by these data seems to be one of productive cooperation between chairman and principal stemming from a mutual interest in improving school functioning. Far from some administrators' fears that the chairman does not identify with his school, the chairman tends to consider himself a representative of the teachers in his school, to have a positive orientation toward his principal, and is more likely than other teachers to aspire to an administrative position. The frequency of actual conflict within the elementary schools is shown to be low by the relatively few schools reporting formal grievances. Many chairmen report that their principals seek their advice, while the chapters often help in the development of programs to deal with different educational problems. Teacher activism within the chapter format may well prove to be a viable instrument for improvement in the schools.


1 Maurice D. Hopkins, "Development of a Collective Bargaining Relationship," Bulletin of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, Vol. 52, No. 328, May 1968, p. 103.

2 Thomas C. Wood, "The Changing Role of the Teacher-How Does it Affect the Role of the Principal?, The National Elementary Principal, Vol. 47, No. 5, April 1968, p. 35.

3 See Madeline M. Morrisey. School Experience Index: School Year 195S-S6, Educational Program Research and Statistics, Publication No. 265. New York: Board of Education, January 1966, p. 2.

4 See The American Public School Teacher, 1965-1966. NEA Research Report, 1967, R4, p. 71.

5 Constitution of the United Federation of Teachers, Local 2. American Federation of Teachers, Article IX, Section 4.

6 See Robert E. Herriot and Nancy Hoyt St. John. Social Class and the Urban School. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1966, p. 88.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 71 Number 4, 1970, p. 647-654
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 1758, Date Accessed: 5/28/2022 9:04:27 AM

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About the Author
  • Albert Goldberg
    Israel Institute of Technology

  • Lisa Harbatkin
    City College of the City University

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