From Sick Day Payout to Raises, Why Teachers Don’t Like Contract Proposal

A Philly teacher explains why William Hite's approach starts contract negotiations off on wrong foot.

As a fourth-year math teacher with a masters degree working in the School District of Philadelphia, I make $56,531 a year. This information is readily available on the Salary Schedule page of the SDP website. Unfortunately, based on the first teacher contract proposal shared recently, my salary will be reduced by 13 percent, bringing me to earning a grand total of $49,034. Essentially, to stay in the district for my fifth year—the year a majority of teachers leave—I will take a $7,000 pay cut.

In an era where education has become more important than ever, the district seems to have taken aim at the primary implementer of that education: teachers. With contract negotiation season beginning in earnest, district leadership seems to have chosen a negative campaign instead of treating the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and its union membership with respect.

Superintendent William Hite Jr., missed the point when he recently defended the first-round proposal: “Just because we’re eliminating a provision in the contract doesn’t mean we are eliminating the thing that is being provided,” he said. “In a professional contract, those kinds of things don’t belong there.” Unfortunately, he does not realize that there has been little to no historic trust between administration and teachers. While he may think he is proposing something more professional for teachers, the reaction is incredibly negative.

There are some provisions in the proposal that make sense. As the technology teacher leader of my school, I support the idea that electronic devices can be used for educational purposes. Administrators who must document teacher observations could find it much easier and purposeful if using a tablet; then the feedback might be more immediate and benefit teachers and students alike.

Additionally, it does make sense to have five days of emergency lesson plans at beck and call. Parents and community members would be pleased if they knew their child’s learning time was not wasted just because a teacher was indisposed.

But, if one of the goals of the contract negotiations is to create a document that would entice teachers to stay in (or move to) Philadelphia, Hite’s vision is misguided. As the authors of the popular book Freakonomics discovered, there are unintended consequences to seemingly logical policies. Here are just three specific examples.

1. Increase in pay due to evaluations from principals. In my experience there are good leaders and bad leaders, especially in the realm of education. Depending on my administrator, I am certain I would be labeled a “bad teacher” in some years and a “good teacher” in others. If the U.S. government has checks and balances, shouldn’t teacher evaluation?

2. Termination pay limited to $160 per day. While this may seem logical on the surface because of seemingly exorbitant amounts of money given to teachers when they retire, consider the alternative effects. If I were not able to gain much more from saving a sick day or personal day, I would be more likely to take it during the year (probably during May/June), detrimentally affecting my students.

3. Teaching six classes per day instead of five. If you think teaching 165 students is tough (five classes, with 33 students per class), imagine teaching 198. All of the potential individualized attention for a student is lost after a certain number—something I am already edging toward with my current load. Increasing that number will only serve to make it more difficult for me to truly teach children.

It is truly unfortunate that the conversation between the union and the district leadership has already started out with negativity and lack of trust. Instead of dwelling on the past, I would recommend looking toward the future. However, the only way to guarantee a future bright in the world of education would be to start at the foundation: Build trust with teachers so that they are willing to work for you. We truly need these resources and believe we will not get them unless they are specified.

Everyone in the community recognizes that students should be the focus of school, but if the teachers are not able to do their jobs properly, the students will suffer.

Brian Cohen is a public school teacher at Academy at Palumbo. He blogs regularly about education in Philadelphia.