By Bob Harris
The mayor, who is a businessman, wants to limit the UFT contract to eight pages, down from the current 205-page contract which ended on May 31, 2003. Under state law, the old contract is still in force in New York City.The mayor seems to feel that the contract is impeding his ideas about how to run the school system. One interesting thing is that the contract requires a maximum class size of 32 in elementary school, 33 students in middle school and 34 students in high school. Decades ago the UFT won this limitation through collective bargaining for which the teachers probably had to give up some salary. I just don't remember!Imagine how big classes would be today if these limitations were not in place. Yes, there are a few exceptions but it does prevent, for the most part, those 40 or 45 student classes some older people remember.A proposal that is being floated by the administration is to pay “better teachers a higher salary.” But how are we to determine who is a better teacher? A teacher with a “better” class has all or most students passing the uniform tests, which are so much in vogue these days. How do you reward the teacher who is dedicated, innovative, hardworking, sympathetic, yet has a class which is composed of poor readers, which often includes a few disruptive or emotionally disturbed students? There is very little improvement that can be tested in a class like this.However, since the foreign-born, non-English-speaking students are often put into slower classes, there may be some improvement by some students as they learn English and can pass the uniform tests they must take. Does this make a teacher “better?” What of the teacher who has no foreign-born students who can improve as they learn English?The UFT contract says that teachers who have “slow” classes one year must be permitted to have a “brighter” class the next year. This might be the solution to pay raises. Just continue to rotate the classes and give teachers “merit” pay raises every other year when they have the “better” class. But how do you reward the teacher who wants to teach the slow classes year after year, for various reasons, or the teacher who has a special education class of students who can't learn? While many special education students just have a reading disability which may be corrected over time some just can't pass reading tests. Some students are test phobic. Many of their teachers are very compassionate people. How will they receive pay raises?Fixing the schools means helping some students one by one. Children in homeless shelters, children with abusive parents, children whose parents use them as baby sitters, children who use different types of drugs, children being coerced by gangs or drug dealers, children with psychological problems, children in slums, all have problems learning. Most or all these children will not progress very much in school, so their teachers may not be “better” teachers and not eligible for a raise. How do you solve this problem?Teachers can get frustrated and burn out. The sabbatical is a way to give a teacher a chance to go to college and recharge his or her battery. The system wants to eliminate this academic activity. Yes, once in a while there is abuse, but I knew of a principal who took law courses in the afternoon instead of being in school and was just given a reprimand for this infraction.I know of a teacher who has a fifth-grader who is very hyperactive. The parent doesn't care and the student just can't sit still in class. The administration knows and the teacher tries, but the situation remains unsolved. I know of another teacher who contacted a student's doctor to work to lower the dosage of medication because the student was too lethargic. This can take a lot of time and means a teacher can't do other things he or she might want to do with the class. There are only so many minutes in a day.In my day there was always a shortage of paper for the spirit duplicator. Today we have copiers. Are there current books? Are there enough supplies? Are broken machines being fixed? How much of their own money are teachers spending? I believe that most paraprofessionals were let go in the past couple of years. Is the lack of these extra hands hurting the learning process of children who need someone to help them or have they been quietly rehired?Do parents care enough? Do parents make sure students do homework and study? Do parents provide enrichment for their children? Do parents check the report card? Do parents come to Open School Day or Night? If parents don't care, then why should children care? How can a classroom teacher overcome parental apathy?Five years ago the UFT contract provided high raises and the shortage of teachers suddenly disappeared. Is the lack of a contract and lack of a raise bringing back this shortage to New York City? Of course, everything might be settled just prior to the November 2005 mayoral election.Good and bad news of the weekMost school accomplish so much but the media and the city administration seem to dwell only on a few negative things.