While the language varies from school to school and state to state, "contract" time is always an anxious point in the year for both sides of the table. While it used to be that "contracts" were issued prior to spring break and expected to be returned sometime in late March, that date has been moved back, and in some cases far back. This presents a challenge for both faculty and schools since earlier contracts impact each group differently.
For schools, an earlier contract return date allows them a better understanding of who is on board for the upcoming year and who is hedging towards making a career change. This is sensible, as "the early bird" will have access to first-tier candidates and be able to solidify the school's faculty for the upcoming year at an early date, thus reducing the end of year scramble to fill open positions at a time when many of the best candidates are long since taken. This holds especially true with hard-to-fill positions or in a time of a large amount of faculty turnover at a particular school. As well, an early contract return provided returning faculty a sense of stability in that they can begin the spring term knowing what the upcoming year will hold for them. While all of this is positive, an early contract return does present challenges to both schools and faculty.
First, an early contract conflicts with the traditional March hiring fairs. This, in turn, creates an awkward situation for faculty, as they may have to decide to sign a contract before they even know what other jobs may be out there or even if they truly know what they are planning. As a result, faculty are faced with an ethical dilemma. Do they sign a contract they know they may not honor? Do they tell their head they need more time and be seen as disloyal? For schools, the early contract presents challenges as well. For faculty not offered a contract, this means the school will need to manage someone who is not returning. In some cases, this could mean having a faculty member continuing to work for five months after not having a contract offered. Early contracts also force schools to grapple with the reality of the aforementioned "signed but looking" situation. Do schools allow for faculty to be honest about the fact that they may be looking even though contracts are supposed to be returned?
To be clear, there is no fault in early contracts, as they benefit both schools and teachers. The challenge rests in the openness of dialog between faculty and schools. Honesty is best in this situation but is that honesty supported in a way that faculty feel comfortable saying "I really like it here but want to see what else is offered elsewhere?" As well, are schools honest with faculty regarding the challenges of an early contract return date? Again, internal communication and culture are what will allow both groups to be honest and open in a way that benefits both parties and ultimetely the students they sereve.