Emily Ide recalls a student in her third grade class at Edmunds Elementary in Burlington, Vermont, who dreaded lunch time. A sensitive, quiet girl, she found the cafeteria too loud and she had trouble finding someone to sit with.
“I would have loved the opportunity to invite her to have lunch in the classroom so she could escape the fray of the cafeteria, but when she had lunch, I had lunch duty,” Ide says. “There are so many students like this who would benefit from a little TLC from their teachers, but we’re stretched too thin.”
More Time for Planning, Student Meetings
Throughout Burlington, elementary teachers are expected to cover “supervisory duties” like lunch and recess monitoring, morning door duty, dismissal duty, and breakfast duty – often more than one a day – despite a lack of planning time or time to meet with students. The duties could range anywhere from fifteen to nearly forty minutes, making a teacher’s ability to plan and prepare for student contact impossible.
That’s a primary reason why Ide, a member of the Burlington Education Association (BEA) and a negotiator on the bargaining team, joined her colleagues in a four-day strike earlier this month when the team couldn’t reach an agreement with the school board on terms for a new contract.
“The board continues to claim that it wants to work collaboratively with us to address the achievement gap, but their actions say otherwise,” Fran Brock, a Burlington High School History teacher who serves as president of the 400-member union, said the day before the strike. “They had an opportunity to work with us to address the achievement gap in our elementary schools. They did not take that opportunity. They had an opportunity to work with us to stem the exodus of teachers by reaching a deal that attracts and retains the best for our city’s students. They failed to do so. And they continued their years-long quest to institute top-down approaches that do nothing for our students.”
Board Wouldn’t Budge
Brock said the union compromised on health insurance and salary, going along with the recommendations of a neutral fact-finder, but the union couldn’t get the Burlington School Board to understand that elementary teachers are having too much of their time drawn away from one-on-one interaction with students. For more than three years, she said, they wouldn’t budge.
“As would be expected, salary and health insurance were issues, particularly since Vermont is undergoing state-wide changes to the healthcare program for teachers,” says Brock. “But more importantly, the teachers needed the contract to protect planning and collaboration time for teachers, particularly elementary school teachers.
Teachers, who increasingly need to plan and provide for one-on-one teaching of each student, need time to plan and collaborate with a team of teachers/specialists and non-teaching duties like recess and lunch needs to be the responsibility of trained para-educators or someone other than a teacher.”
At Ide’s school, the students arrive at 8:10, and go home at 2:50, and if educators can’t get a meeting in with them during that time, it’s not likely to happen. A rare few have families that can facilitate staying after school for help, but most of the time, the kids who need the most help are the ones whose families can’t arrange that time. Teachers are left scrambling to find time to provide that one-on-one, often sacrificing critical planning time.
Kids Deserve Quality Instruction
“Having more planning time allows teachers to improve the quality of their instruction, plain and simple,” Ide says. “Teachers who spend more time planning are able to teach with more intention and clarity. That’s what kids deserve. Much of what we use now for curriculum requires a lot of planning and preparing. When teachers do this work in a vacuum it’s not valuable. As a fairly new teacher (less than 5 years) it’s invaluable for me, and others like me, to be able to work with my colleagues who have 10,15, even 25 years of experience. They provide insight when I struggle.”
Finally, after four days, the strike ended. Ide worked with her colleagues on the contract language and they were able to include some changes to scheduling for elementary school teachers that will go into effect in the 2018-19 school year.
“And all we could get right now was the promise that no teacher will be assigned more than three non-teaching duties per week, and that at least one time block would be available for team work,” says BEA president Brock. “It’s a start.”
Radical Actions Move Us Forward
In a statement she provided the day the strike ended, Brock thanked the citizens of Burlington.
“I know the teachers’ strike was stressful and all were anxious. But sometimes it takes a radical action to move us all forward.”
She also thanked the hundreds of people who helped, “the folks who made sure there was water and lots and lots of apples for the teachers; the students who offered babysitting to parents who needed child care; the neighbors who let teachers use their bathrooms; and the army of community members who made sure their voices were heard by both school board members and the teachers.”
Ide says she was very proud of her fellow BEA members for banding together and showing strength through unity.
“People worked very hard to keep the mood positive and optimistic in a situation where it would have been very easy to have things become toxic,” she says.
Collective Bargaining Works
This year’s strike was only the second to occur in Burlington in forty years. The system works, but according to Brock, the crucial aspect of collective bargaining is having two sides that respect one another.
“Our board, and some of the administration, clearly made it known that they did not respect the union, thought little of teachers and really had no interest in understanding how schools need to function in today’s world. Going up against that sort of arrogance and obstructionism will be problematic regardless of the system used,” she says. “But to borrow from Winston Churchill, ‘collective bargaining is messy but it is better than any other alternative.’”