By Jesse Gottschalk and Dan Symonds
As first-year teachers in Philadelphia public schools, it can be extremely difficult to find the time or the energy to assume any sort of responsibility outside our own classrooms. Lesson planning, grading, and parent phone calls often stand in the way of social lives, laundry, and basic attempts at nutrition and exercise.
And yet, on October 16th, we were blocking North Broad Street, along with thousands of other teachers, students, school staff, and allies, to protest the School District’s latest attack on democracy and public education – this time, its dubiously legal decision to cancel the teachers’ contract. Along with dozens of others (including many other members of the Caucus of Working Educators), we gave testimony before the School Reform Commission – the five member body, appointed by the Governor and Mayor, which exercises complete control over Philadelphia schools.
One of us (Dan) presented a citizen’s plea for courage from a body of politicians who have shown anything but. Dan spoke of the powers of the SRC, demanding to know why the SRC would scapegoat teachers and spending issues rather than attacking the real roots of Philadelphia’s educational crisis – the political decisions made to starve our schools and steer resources away from public education. When Mr. Green spoke up to tepidly reply, “This body does not have the taxing power...” Dan replied, “Yes, but you do have the speaking power.” Green’s reaction? Crickets.
The other one of us (Jesse) testified to the tremendous level of commitment and sacrifice that has become both a routine and necessary part of being a Philadelphia educator. Jesse declared it “shameful” that the caretakers of such a challenged system would make a calculated attack on teachers, and accuse us of not “sharing in the sacrifice,” rather than standing beside those of us on the frontlines committing our lives to providing our students a worthwhile education.
Two weeks later, we each received the same email from the SRC’s Chief of Staff. Chairman Green was interested in meeting with us, individually, to discuss our “concerns and [our] experiences as a teacher.”
It is not often that you are given the opportunity to meet individually with the person who essentially is our boss’s boss’s boss.
We turned the meeting down.
To be clear – we love the idea of having a School District leader who genuinely listens to teachers. Just like teachers should listen to students and families, it is essential for the leadership of an urban school system to be responsive to the people who actually work within the individual classrooms.
We think it is extremely important for the School District to take teacher perspectives into account when it comes to school conditions, employment policies, and other ways in which the School District influences the circumstances in which teachers work.
We are also aware that all of these things – school conditions, employment policies, and the circumstances in which teachers work – are part of the teachers’ contract. The same contract which the District has refused to negotiate, and recently threw in the dumpster.
And Chairman Green expects us to go behind our union’s back, to discuss the same issues he has refused to engage with our leadership about? We will not.
We don’t know Chairman Green’s motivations in calling a meeting with us. We can’t, since he declined to respond to our questions asking what he wanted to discuss. However, we refuse to take part in any action which might seek to divide or undermine our union, especially as we are calling on the District to negotiate with our union leadership.
Since Chairman Green refused to let us know his intentions in meeting with us, allow us to set forward one possibility. The two of us have something in common: we are new teachers. This distinguishes us from the other WE members who testified on October 16th – none of whom received the same invitation.
So why would Chairman Green want to meet with us? We fear that he might have in mind the day when he could say the following: “I recently met with some teachers – good, hard-working teachers, the kind we need more of in this District. But if we keep the old teacher tenure laws of the teachers’ contract, then these teachers are in danger of losing their jobs.”
So in case that is indeed Mr. Green’s message, allow us to say that, while we do care deeply about our jobs, we care even more about the job – restoring teaching as a viable, supported, and respected career option.
As new teachers, we believe wholeheartedly that experience matters to educators. Research as well as anecdotal evidence overwhelmingly bears this out. We want to work in a system that cultivates the profession of teaching – protecting and supporting teachers in order to make all teachers as effective as possible, rather than scapegoating them for problems and undermining their job security and working conditions.
Meanwhile, those oft-demonized protections like tenure amount to a requirement of due process – a necessary protection for teachers like us, who wish to remain politically active in advocating for stronger schools, against vindictive leaders. Further, in a school system where rampant teacher turnover is dwarfed by catastrophic levels of principal turnover, these policies protect teachers from attacks by inexperienced principals with little understanding of classroom instruction or effective practices. We unequivocally stand in support of these protections for our colleagues.
We stand ready to engage in public dialogue with Chairman Green as soon as he concludes his negotiations with our union leadership. In the meantime, if Chairman Green truly believes in being responsive and democratic, we encourage him to vote to dissolve the SRC and replace it with a democratically elected school board which will have no choice but to listen to the will of our city.
[In refusing our meeting with Chairman Green, we were joined by the other WE members who testified on October 16th, and released an open letter with support from the Caucus.]