Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Elephant in the Room.

I've tried to ignore it--that elephant sitting on my morning paper. You know the story. It is about the teachers' strike in Kent, Washington. They have been on strike for a number of days and the district sued to get them back to their classrooms. The court ruled that they were in violation of their contracts and had to go back to class.

So they voted last evening as to what to do and according to the Seattle Times morning paper, they voted 74 percent to remain on strike. I can hear it now from some of my friends. "Get rid of the unions." "Put their leaders into jail for a couple of days--that will learn 'em." I'm always amazed by my friends reactions to strikes.

But first a disclosure. I was a fairly young teacher in a Seattle suburban school district when I was elected president of the local Teachers' Association. No, it wasn't a union. Then after a couple of years I became the president of the state teachers association. So I know a little about teacher organizations. There are teacher unions but they are not viable in the State of Washington. They are found mostly in the tech schools and some community colleges. Most K-12 school districts have an Educational Association of which teachers can join or not join. As far as I know it is still not mandatory to be a member. Most if not all do not have paid officers and only a few have some sort of office. Some have a paid staff member to do paper work and printing, etc. Most do not.

Most of the education associations have an agreement with the state educational association that when you pay dues locally, you also become a member of the state association. But not all teachers belong to the state group. The state EA does have a building with offices with an executive secretary. But not a lot of power. The main function of the state association is to monitor the state legislature as to education bills and teacher requirements.

Years ago when I was the state president, I would go to Olympia to testify for or against some proposed education bill. We had a simple decision point--if it was good for kids, then we were for it. Simple as that. Did we ask for more money for teachers? Certainly. But so were just about everyone else asking for money. Some years we would do better and other years we would do worse. But our main objectives were to improve the education system of the state.

I find it interesting that the Kent Teachers Association is striking for smaller class sizes as one of its primary goals. The KEA and the school administration have already agreed to the pay raise.....3 percent if I remember correctly. What teachers really want are smaller classes to do a better job of teaching the kids.

Okay, let's do some simple math here. Let's say that school starts at 9 in the morning and the kids go home at 3 pm. Six hours divided by 60 gives us 360 minutes. Take away 15 minutes for recess and another 30 minutes for lunch and another 15 minutes for slippage.....going to and from classes, going to the busses...etc. So let's say we have 300 minutes for teaching. Divide that by the number of children in your class--let's say 40 kids (I had 42 one year in a fifth grade) and you get seven and a half minutes per child. Not a lot of time. In todays world as a teacher you may have five kids who do not speak English as a main language, three kids who have a learning disability (like Dyslexia), and four kids who are hyperactive. You may also have a child who is handicapped in some way--has had brain aneurisms. This is not uncommon. I do not find it surprising that the Kent teachers want more time with their students in a smaller class.

Now take that 300 minutes and divide by 27 students. What do you get? Eleven plus minutes. Do you see why some private K-12 schools will keep their class sizes to ten or twelve students?

So we have teachers striking. Will the courts put them into jail? Who knows. I do know it bothers teachers greatly if they are breaking the law. But many think they are between the rock and the hard place-what to do.

As an aside and not on this subject for the moment. For all of you who want merit pay for teachers, how are you going to do it with large class sizes? Just asking....

If you see a teacher out on strike, give them a fist bump for me. They are there for your kids.

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