Friday, March 30, 2012

Boston Teachers Reject Uncompensated Longer School Day

The Boston Teachers Union (BTU) and the Boston school district have reached an impasse after 21 months of bargaining, the Boston Herald reported this week. The next step is mediation. Should that fail to bring the two sides to an agreement over the teachers’ contract, the union could call for a strike.

Superintendent Carol Johnson blamed the impasse on the failure of the two sides to find a “middle” ground. However, Johnson hadn’t even bothered to show up for the majority of bargaining sessions, which is the reason BTU President Richard Stutman said the union filed the impasse.

Furthermore, her claim that the two sides have failed to find a middle ground is based on the fantasy that both sides had reasonable and realistic demands in the first place. In reality, the district wants teachers to accept a longer working day without extra compensation, a ridiculous and unreasonable demand. Teachers were asking for a 10.3% pay increase even without the lengthened work day, which quite reasonable considering their pay has been stagnant over the past few years. Their demand for additional compensation for a longer work day ought to be seen as a very generous compromise since it accepts the unreasonable demand that they work longer hours.

However, the district claims it does not have the money to support this. Thus, the only reasonable “middle ground” would be to drop their demand for a longer work day until they have the resources to “fairly” compensate teachers or simply drop the demand.

Longer School Days are Bad for Teachers AND Students
I use the term “fairly” in quotes because there is no fair way to overwork someone. Even extra pay cannot justify compelling a person to work longer and harder than is safe or effective. It is important to consider that teachers are already expected to do far more in the workday than is realistically possible. A typical secondary school teacher, for example, is expected to work 7 ½ to 8 ½ hours per day. In that workday, 5-6 hours are spent in the classroom teaching. In the remaining time they are expected to design and write curriculum; set up and break down lab, art and other projects and activities; contact parents; meet with colleagues and collaborate; write and grade exams and quizzes; grade essays, term papers and lab reports; keep up with administrative paperwork; address discipline issues; as well as a host of other teaching and bureaucratic responsibilities.

While lengthening the work day could provide more time for these responsibilities, in reality the longer school day movement is about increasing the instructional minutes for students, not easing the work burden on teachers. Thus, teachers are expected to use that additional time to teach an extra class, take on additional collaborative or school reform responsibilities, or provide additional remediation and support for students, rather than fulfilling existing responsibilities.

Additionally, the act of teaching itself is tremendously tiring and stressful. In no other profession is an individual expected to deal with 150-180 different personalities in 45-90 minute spurts, understand each student’s individual needs, tailor services to support these diverse needs, and provide support and empathy for those coming to school hungry, depressed, anxious, frightened, bullied, sick and angry.

In order to maintain sanity, patience and effectiveness, teachers need down time in between classes and at the end of the day. Lengthening the school day without hiring more teachers will increase the likelihood of teacher burnout and reduce teachers’ effectiveness in the classroom. Overworked, burned out workers are more likely to make mistakes. It is harder to notice when a student is struggling, sick or anxious. One reason that bullying often goes unnoticed by teachers is that large class sizes and overwhelming workloads prevent them from being aware of every student interaction that occurs in and near the classroom. Increasing the length of the school day will only worsen this.

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