Palm Beach County public school teachers are crying foul after teachers at several schools were told that they must give up more than an hour a week of classroom planning time to attend mandatory staff meetings.
As teachers prepare for Monday’s start of school, the teachers union says that a push for mandatory team meetings could wreak havoc in classrooms, with teachers forced to reduce the hours they spend grading papers and communicating with parents.
Administrators say it’s an attempt to get teachers to help each other improve. But union officials call the new countywide initiative a violation of the teachers’ contract and threatened to file a federal unfair labor practice complaint if it isn’t rescinded.
“This will cause them to have to do even more things outside of their contracted hours, or they won’t be as prepared as they should be,” said Kathi Gundlach, president of the county’s Classroom Teachers Association.
But Deputy Superintendent David Christiansen defended the mandate and said administrators had no plans to drop it, pointing out that many schools have already implemented it. Increasing teacher collaboration has been proven to raise student achievement, he said.
“More than half (of county schools) are doing it and doing it well,” he said. “We are not going to back off that high expectation.”
Rejecting the argument that the teachers’ contract bars the district from mandating the meetings, Christiansen said he would work with principals to make sure that teachers have a say.
“We do expect collaboration,” he said. “It is non-negotiable for teachers to collaborate. But the ‘how’ is really at the school level. We very clearly communicated that this is a process, and it is our expectation that principals work with teachers and teacher leadership and define the ‘how.’”
As they returned to school Tuesday, teachers at several schools said they were told by principals that as much as an hour and a half of their planning time each week would be usurped this year by department meetings.
The department meetings are intended to allow teachers who teach the same subject or grade to get together to talk about best teaching strategies.
But teachers say that mandating those meetings at the expense of classroom-planning time is a mistake.
“Time that could be used to reach out to parents will instead be spent analyzing reams of data in a throwback to the worst days of Art Johnson and Jeffrey Hernandez,” said Mike Dowling, a sixth-grade teacher at Emerald Cove Middle School in Wellington, making reference to two top school district administrators who briefly imposed a test-heavy academic program in 2011.
District leaders had raised the idea of requiring more teacher collaboration during last year’s contract negotiations, but the proposal was eventually dropped, the union said.
Still, Christiansen sent a bulletin to principals in April calling for more collaborative meetings between teachers at all schools.
“There is an inordinate amount of research that supports teacher collaboration,” he wrote, citing a study that found that “successful cases of school reform efforts involve teacher collaboration.”
The union responded in July with a “cease-and-desist” letter alleging that such a push “constitutes a unilateral change in the terms and conditions of employment.”
“Absent negotiated agreement, the planning time changes proposed in the bulletin cannot be unilaterally imposed on teachers,” wrote Theo Harris, the union’s executive director.
In the letter, the union warned that requiring the meetings “establishes grounds for filing a charge of Unfair Labor Practice against the district.”
The union contract guarantees teachers a certain amount of classroom planning time, which varies depending on the grade level, Gundlach said. The union contends that the time to plan is protected by the contract.
“Normally we contact parents, we put in grades, we grade tests,” said one middle school teacher who asked not to be named. “That planning time is really important to us. And now they’re taking two a week. It’s going to cause a great problem in the workflow that they don’t realize.”
“They seem to think that on our planning time we’re sitting in the teacher lounge gossiping and drinking coffee,” the teacher added.
Teachers at many schoools already spend some of their planning time discussing classroom strategies, a practice that Gundlach agreed has been shown to raise student achievement.
But the union said mandating those meetings across the board could create far-reaching unintended consequences.
“If teachers want to plan together, that’s fine,” she said. “But to say that it has to be a certain way and it has to conform to what (administrators) want is not the purpose.”
Christiansen said he plans to meet with principals and union leaders later this month to discuss the plan further.
“I think it’s an interpretive issue and you know, I take responsibility,” Christiansen said. “It wasn’t for lack of effort. “