This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
On a normal day, they’d be tutoring.
But Pamela Roy and her colleagues waved students away when the children tried to come into Room 202 during teacher lunchtime at Thomas Mifflin Elementary School in East Falls on Thursday.
It pained them to do it, but all last week, teachers at Mifflin and other schools around the city were making a point by “working to rule,” or refusing to do anything beyond what they are required to do by their contract.
So, no helping in the morning when students arrive or in the afternoon when they leave. No tutoring during their half-hour lunch. No buying paper and supplies. No afterschool clubs.
“We want to bring our struggle to the larger community,” said Roy, who teaches science and writing to 7th and 8th graders. “Usually, there would be 15 to 20 students here with us now.”
The struggle is a protest against conditions that teachers have been forced to work under the last several years. Decimated state funding has left many city schools with only part-time counselors and nurses and virtually no support personnel. Because of a protracted standoff between the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and the School District, teachers have worked without any raises for three years.
Although they had planned the action before Superintendent William Hite announced his latest school reform plans, the teachers were also objecting to that.
Hite proposed converting three schools to charters, "turnarounds" at three more that will likely involve extensive staff changes, and closing two others. The teachers say he should instead be fighting harder for more resources for existing District schools.
Roy, a member of the Caucus of Working Educators (WE), and her colleagues spent weeks communicating with parents and building community support for their action. They also worked to prepare students.
"We tried to explain that we have a larger mission to get the attention of the correct people in the form of a protest" so that school conditions would ultimately improve for all of them, said Noah Depasqua, a social studies and language arts teacher.
WE is putting up a slate of candidates to challenge longtime PFT president Jerry Jordan and his team under the banner of "social justice unionism."
In a memo to the PFT leadership in July, the WE caucus suggested weeklong work-to-rule protests as part of a campaign that would have lasted throughout the fall, with the union taking the lead. The campaign that WE had in mind would have been far longer and much more visible than last week’s action, with citywide rallies and extensive outreach to local communities.
Instead, at the September membership meeting, Jordan urged schools to participate in a one-week action in whatever way they saw fit. But for the teachers in WE, that was hardly enough – and the difference in scope between their idea and what the union supported exposed sharp differences between the two factions over how the union should use its power.
"Let’s be clear on the difference between deep organizing and shallow mobilizing," WE says on its website. "Deep organizing makes us stronger as a union. Deep organizing demands that we have solid relationships with each other as PFT members. Deep organizing requires that we develop authentic power-sharing partnerships with parents and community members as we fight for the resources our students and school deserve."
Anything less, they said, "does a disservice to our students and our schools."
Jordan confirmed that WE met with him and his staff last summer to suggest a broad, extensive "work-to-rule" action. "We had a conversation and I raised concern about implementation," he said. "I didn’t want for it to be something that would do any harm in educational programming for kids."
A PFT spokesman said that about 180 schools participated in some way last week. Roy, however, said that only about a 10th of that number, 19 schools, had a well-organized protest that adequately informed and involved the community.
"I would say, if the current leadership wanted every school on board, the current leadership should have rolled out larger supports for all of their members," Roy said.
She said that most of the schools that participated were elementaries: McCall, Southwark, Anne Frank, Barry, Webster, Juniata Park, Disston, Stanton, Key, Moore, Sheppard, Spruance, Fitzpatrick, Mayfair, Willard, Hartranft, and H.A. Brown, as well as CAPA and Lincoln high schools.
At Mifflin, in addition to not arriving earlier and staying later to help with students’ arrival and dismissal, the teachers weren’t doing any work, like lesson planning and grading, that they couldn’t finish during their regular preparation periods — which meant that work was piling up.
“I don’t want to talk about the numbers of things I have to grade at the moment,” said Meghan Kingcade, an 7th- and 8th-grade math teacher. Then she proceeded to do just that.
"I give a quiz to all my students three times a week (3 times 63), an assessment once a week (times 63), homework every night (63 times 5), and they also do independent work in the classroom."
Depasqua said he also often serves in his free time as a part-time counselor, because the school only has a counselor for half the week. There are many 8th graders who need help applying to high schools "and these students are excellent, they’re great, they deserve the opportunity" to try for selective high schools.
The teachers said they would catch up on grading and resume their usual routines next week.
‘Beyond the bell’
"The caucus has been helping support organizing where it has been rooted in authentic and deep work with parents and community," said Kelley Collings, one of four teachers who have put themselves up as candidates for the top PFT executive positions. "Mifflin is the best example of that."
She added that in a continuing effort to draw attention to the plight and concerns of teachers, WE has launched a "Beyond the Bell" tool on its website for teachers to log everything they do on their own time that is not required. She described this as "an effort to capitalize on people’s energy around work-to-rule and minimize their frustration with the top-down way in which the PFT leadership" urged rank-and-file to participation.
Though inconvenienced, parents at Mifflin were largely supportive, teachers said.
"The teachers let us know, they put it in writing at least twice as a group," said Tammy Murphy, the mother of a 1st grader. "My son’s individual teacher put it on his weekly assignment sheet. We knew in advance."
Murphy said her own routine has been disrupted slightly: "Getting them to school in the morning, you can’t show up too early, there’s just a couple volunteers for all those kids."
Still, she said, "I really support it. I believe in unions and their right to organize and stand up for themselves."
And on Thursday, more than 100 students from several high schools left school to march to District headquarters in support of teachers.
Principal Leslie Mason runs Mifflin, which has 300 students and no assistant principal. She said the extra work her staff does is considerable.
"They are volunteering all the time," said Mason. "They tutor at lunch, run clubs with no money, they do everything by volunteerism." As for the protest, she said, "Although it’s hard on me personally, I admire what they’re doing and the statements they’re making." But she added, "I’ll be glad when it’s over, because I’m tired."
Correction: The original version of this article misstated the length of the work-to-rule campaign proposed by the Caucus of Working Educators.