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The prep time wars

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Prep time, the daily 45-minute preparation period that is a key feature of the Philadelphia teacher contract, is once again a matter of contention in the current negotiations. The School District wants to be able to control how teachers use their prep time. Nothing new here, as the District has made this an article of its contract program for decades. What’s different this time is that CEO Arlene Ackerman may use her authority under the state takeover law to impose an agreement that could include control of the prep period.

For the PFT these are certainly fighting words. A little history is in order. Before the PFT won election as the bargaining agent for Philadelphia teachers in 1965, there was no prep time. Teachers did hall, yard, and lunchroom duty instead. It took the second longest teacher strike in history to win prep time for elementary teachers. The 1973 strike lasted over 11 weeks, hundreds of teachers went to jail, and it was settled only after the city’s labor movement threatened a general strike. Prep time thus has significance as a symbol of union power and sacrifice.

Apart from any symbolism, it’s not hard to figure out why teachers get worked up about any threat to their prep time. It is critical to being able to do the job. In my experience, most teachers use prep time to get ready and make adjustments for the next series of lessons they will teach, put new material on the board, reproduce needed worksheets, get the overhead you share with a teacher down the hall, sign up for the computer lab that you will need the following day, check the microscopes to see if they are working for the afternoon lab etc. Its also a time to work on updating bulletin boards, correcting papers, meeting with colleagues, conferencing with a parent or a student who has been troublesome, and handling countless other demands. Some of these things can be done before or after school; others can’t. Typically you’re on the run, and keeping one eye on the clock.

And, yes, prep time is occasionally a chance to catch your breath, grab a quick cup of coffee, and catch up on some news with a colleague.

In some schools prep time is constantly lost because there are no substitutes. One year in 180 days of school I lost 46 prep periods because I had to cover other classes. There was little advanced notice, and I had to scramble to be prepared. Years into retirement, I still have nightmares about the roster chair arriving at my door with a coverage slip.

Given all this, teachers are rightfully opposed any additional tasks being added to their work day that need to be done during their prep time. This is certainly what administrative control of prep time would mean. Some of this work, I suspect, would be of dubious value. Already teachers are expected to do all kinds of additional paper work and documentation. But at least now, teachers can pick and choose when they do it. In some schools aggressive administrators already exercise some de facto control over prep time by directing teachers to perform various tasks during their prep.

On the other hand, other things, like collaborative meetings to look at student work, evaluate data, plan thematic projects, and do student interventions have clear value. Mandating these activities during prep time would generate resentment, poor team process, and negatively impact teacher preparation. Instead an additional planning period is needed with administration and staff collaborating to figure out how it should be used. The existing prep period should continue to be used at the discretion of the teacher.

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