For this installment of Growing Young Professionals, we will discuss contracts with none other than Dr. Jenny Neff, Associate Professor of Music Education and Director of the MM in Music Education & Summer Music Studies Program at the University of the Arts. So, what are contracts? Most people sign contracts all of the time, even if they do not realize it. Checked to agree with the terms and conditions? That’s a contract! Signed a lease? That’s a contract! Took out a line of credit? Surprise, another contract! Contracts keep all parties of a particular agreement legally protected. Contracts are vital to professional education so, let’s learn about them!

What is the point of a contract? Why are they important? 

Dr. Neff points about the importance of contracts by stating, “It would be a wonderful world if trust and good memory were the basis of every business relationship. But humans are fallible and contracts are the main means of documenting business relationships to protect both parties from mistakes and malfeasance, and to avoid expensive future litigation. You will come across many contracts in your career, whether as a signatory or negotiator. A teacher contract will provide information on wages, hours/calendar days, and teacher expectations at a district level. Additionally, benefits will also be explained.”

We are all human and contracts keep us honest to our word. 

How do I read a contract? Is there specific jargon of which I should be aware? 

In my experience with contracts, the language can be difficult to comprehend. It seems like the more serious the agreement, the harder the contract is to read. Dr. Neff sheds light on the subject, “Contracts can be criticized sometimes for being filled with legalese and hard to understand, but most of that language is actually designed to make the contract as clear and unambiguous as possible. The best way to read a contract is just to go through it slowly and carefully. Mark any passages that are confusing or seem wrong to you and ask your union representative what they are about.”

Dr. Neff also provided a list of major sections popularly found in teaching contracts; it is as follows.

“Some major sections can include:

Leave of absence


Length of school day and year

Salary provisions

Extra duty pay

Tuition reimbursement

Health care and benefits

Job transfers

Working conditions

Strike (if applicable)

Separability Clause

Family Medical Leave Act”

What should I look for in a contract? 

Contracts are usually written to outline one’s responsibilities upon agreement. Dr. Neff provides important details:

“The main things to look for in a contract are ‘What are my responsibilities?’ and ‘What are the risks to me?’  To this end, there are several things to look out for:

  •  Under what circumstances can I be fired, particularly without cause? This would typically be in the Termination section.
  • Under what circumstances, if any, can I walk away from the contract, particularly without cause? How many days’ notice do I have to give? Am I making a commitment I might not be able to keep? 
    • These answers will vary from district to district and state to state, so be sure to fully understand them and/or meet with your union representative. In some states, not staying for a specific time can impact your teacher certification, and you don’t want to risk losing that after all of the years of school and hard work you have put in to prepare for the profession.
  • Is my compensation stated accurately?
  •  Is there any restriction on my ability to teach elsewhere, like a non-compete clause?  (Non-compete clauses are exceedingly rare in teacher contracts because they are generally judged to be contrary to public policy, but look out for them.)
  • Are my job responsibilities clear?  (Often, the contract will refer to your job description, but sometimes it will just say you are responsible to perform the duties directed by your boss. This is not ideal, but sometimes cannot be negotiated.)
  • Where are my benefits listed or referred to in the contract?”

How do I ensure I am protected when signing a contract? Should I be wary of contracts?

I have always been weary of serious contracts because–based on the little I knew about them before this amazing interview with Dr. Neff–I assumed they meant to make life difficult for the signer. Dr. Neff’s insight is as follows, 

“Contracts can be a little intimidating, especially early in your career when you’re just learning the ropes. The good news is that generally, in education, contracts are not a “gotcha” to be wary of. Quite the contrary, contracts protect both parties from future misunderstandings and provide a document to look back on to resolve conflicts, as an alternative to what one party or another says. That said, you are responsible for understanding what you are signing. The most important things you can do to protect yourself:

  • Read the contract!  It’s tempting to blow this off because, what could be more boring?  But sit down with a cup of coffee and give it a read.
  •  Read it carefully and critically.
  • Don’t be shy about asking questions. It may seem uncomfortable to do this given you are starting a new employment relationship, but you are better off speaking up than clamming up. If done in a professional and non-confrontational manner, it’s more likely to impress your future boss than be a source of dismay.” 

Being informed IS being professional. Staying informed is a vital aspect of a professional lifestyle.

I have to write a contract, what are my first steps? 

Dr. Neff warns, “You really shouldn’t try to write your own contract. There are very few instances, if any, where you would be expected to do so. Any contracting should be done by the district. In the event you find yourself in need of a draft contract, check with your building administrator. They may have a template you can work from and/or a process you will need to follow.”

In short, DO NOT write your own contract unless you absolutely must. If there are truly no other options, do not start from scratch, resources exist to help you. 

I need to break my contract; how will this affect me?

One of the scariest aspects of contracts is breaking them, but it is not an unusual occurrence. If you have to break your contract, take Dr. Neff’s advice.

“Check with your union representative about how many days of notice you need to provide. This can vary from district to district and state to state. There are penalties if you do not provide the required number of days, so you will want to know this ahead of time. 

After you determine your final day, you will want to write a letter to human resources stating when your final day will be. You will also want to copy your building administrator and any other supervisors so there are no surprises. It would be wise to meet with your principal to decide when and how you will tell students, parents, and other teachers that you are leaving. Word travels quickly!”

Contracts may appear frightening from a far, but once you better understand them they are much more manageable. Contracts keep us honest and safe; but, more importantly, they help us grow!

Special thanks to Dr. Jenny Neff for joining GYP for another round of questions; your knowledge will keep us informed and help us grow!

Additional Resources:

American Federation of Teachers (AFT) –

National Education Association (NEA) – Information on health benefits and pay – Salaries and benefits

United Federation of Teachers (UFT) –