Determining fair compensation and work policies for teachers while simultaneously providing students with maximal instructional services is never a simple, clear-cut process, as the just-concluded D.C. teacher contract talks have shown. But the exchange of proposals, counterproposals and contract provisions did proceed well, albeit arduously at times.
Two nonmonetary provisions of the tentative agreement merit particular discussion--an extended workday and a lengthened school year for teachers. Of all the issues considered during the negotiations, these items will have a most direct effect on students' instruction.
Currently, teachers are required to arrive at school at approximately the same time as the students. Likewise, the present contract provides that teachers remain on duty only 15 minutes after the dismissal of classes at 3 p.m. The tentative agreement to extend the teachers' workday by a half-hour would allow for the performance of many necessary professional duties that currently must be squeezed in during or between scheduled classes.
These duties include, for example, consulting with the principal, answering student questions on a one-to-one basis, preparing instructional activities, conferring with parents and attending staff meetings. Added time at the beginning of the school day would allow teachers the opportunity to greet students as they arrive and to establish a "ready-for-business"--the business of learning--atmosphere.
Additional time at the close of regular classes affords teachers opportunities to give that perhaps small but vital bit of advice or encouragement to an individual student; arrange for needed equipment for the next day's activities; place a phone call to a concerned parent; or simply clear up the loose ends of their frequently nonstop days. Of course, countless teachers already spend many hours before and after school performing a job that often requires them to be part mentor, part confessor and extended parental figures to anywhere from 20 to 120 youngsters. For many, the extended workday provision will not alter their long-established patterns of devoting extra time to their jobs.
The key to the lengthened workday in practice will be the teachers' advantageous use of this time. The corresponding obligation on the part of the school system is to avoid viewing the time as an opportunity for added burdens of paper-and-pencil tasks. The school administration is well aware of the current paper-work overload on teachers and is taking steps to lessen that load. An extended workday, therefore, should be used for direct services to the pupils, parents and staff of the individual schools.
The prospect of a longer school year brings the school system an opportunity to respond creatively to a repeated request from the teachers themselves: more and better staff development work. Under the present schedule, teachers have few chances to devote concentrated periods of time to the sharing of ideas, the aquisition and renewal of skills, the exchange of successes and the building of school teamwork.
Extending the school year for teachers while classes are not in session will allow days to be reserved exclusively for these purposes. The extra days may be used for building-level planning and preparation prior to the opening of schools in September. The days may allow for system-wide training in innovative instructional methods during the school year. Alternatively, the extra out-of-class time could be used for June assessments of the concluding semester and plans for improving the upcoming year.
Additionally, more course work required for teacher certification, which must be renewed every five years, could be provided during the lengthened school year--saving many teachers a portion of the out-of-pocket expenses they now pay for such courses not currently offered by the school system.
The need for professionals to meet and work together as professionals, to discuss and air differing views, to learn new strategies and update older techniques holds true for all fields of endeavor. Teaching, with its rapidly changing technological advances and variety of applications, certainly is no exception.
The longer-day, extended-year provisions of the tentative teacher contract agreement might appear, at first glance, as merely further demands on an already taxing job. However, directed and specific use of the additional time offers not only the ultimate reward of improved instruction for students, but also the intervening benefits of professional growth and, consequently, the increased efficiency of daily school operations for teachers.