Maine teachers demand rights to negotiate over working conditions and to strike

With a significant teacher shortage, a proposed state budget that doesn’t fund local schools at the voter-approved level of 55 percent, and a power imbalance that teachers say has increasingly shifted control into the hands of administrators, Maine educators say they are feeling unsupported and unheard.

Teachers are advocating for two bills that they say offer a roadmap to overcoming “the erosion of power” they say is plaguing their profession and, in turn, hurting Maine students. LD 240 would allow teachers to negotiate involuntary transfers, planning periods, and workloads as working conditions in their contracts and LD 900 would allow public employees to go on strike, giving Maine teachers the right to join the hundreds of thousands of other teachers in states across the nation who have participated in strikes, usually wildcat actions in recent years to advocate for better working conditions.

Hardly a day when ‘you will not a see a teacher who’s wiping away a tear’

“Right now, in the country, half of all new teachers are leaving the profession within the first five years,” said Wendy Jacques, a fourth-grade teacher at Ash Point Community School in Owls Head who testified at the public hearing for LD 240 last month. “Working conditions are right there at the top [of their concerns]: inadequate planning time is always cited as one of the top five reasons for leaving.”

Currently under Maine law, involuntary transfers, planning periods and workloads are characterized as education policy, which teachers are barred from negotiating. School boards and superintendents, however, can have plenty of input. In order for Maine to retain the best teachers, Jacques argues that having teachers at the table negotiating these details is essential.

She calls workload stress the “common thread” that touches every elementary school teacher she knows.

“Not having adequate time [to plan] during the school day means you do it on your personal time,” said Jacques. “You miss your kid’s ball game. You’re up late. You’re not getting enough sleep. You’re stressed out because you’re not feeling your work has been completed adequately.”

As hard as teachers try to hold it in, the stress can spill over.

“It makes me sad to say it,” she said, “but there is hardly a day that passes in this profession that you will not a see a teacher who’s wiping away a tear, because they don’t know how much longer they can do [a] job that has become increasingly more difficult to do.”

Grace Leavitt, current president of the Maine Education Association and a Spanish teacher on leave from Greeley High School in Cumberland, has worked in the profession for 43 years. She’s observed the rules, expectations, and the needs of students become more significant over the years, with teachers often working more than 60 hours a week to keep up with everything their role demands.

“People think that teachers have this seven-hour day, five days a week, summers off,” she said. “It couldn’t be farther from the truth. That’s not been the case for decades [as] expectations have increased.”

In addition to the regular workload of planning and grading, teachers are now expected to complete  Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), attending a certain number of meetings, and more.

According to Chriss Sutherland, another Spanish teacher in Cumberland, teachers’ large workloads, combined with the expectation that they can be involuntarily transferred, to other schools — often to teach subjects in which they have no experience — contributes to teachers quitting the profession.

“That flexibility is beneficial [to the school district], but as a teacher, that could send someone into burnout quick,” he said.

The right to strike: A way for teachers ‘to claw back some power and some legitimacy’

Negotiations between teachers and administrators can drag out or break down, and teachers in Maine have few options to sway public opinion and advocate for what their students need.

Although  state laws often make it illegal for public employees, including teachers, to go on strike, in recent months teachers in states across the country have been picketing for fair contracts and better conditions for their students.

“The teacher walk-outs and strikes that have happened in West Virginia and Oklahoma, California, Colorado, Arizona — they’re trying to get the right learning conditions for students,” said Leavitt. “The bottom-line is, if we don’t stand up and advocate for what our students need in our schools, and for educators to be treated fairly, that may be our last resort.”

Without the right to strike, according to Sutherland, teachers attempting contract negotiations are “fighting a battle with no weapons.”

“With Mills as governor and the recent wave of teacher strikes across the nation, I think teachers are seeing that there is an option for them to claw back some power and some legitimacy,” he said, citing an “erosion of power” over the decades due to decreased funding.

To Sutherland, the fact that teachers are supporting LD 900 is evidence that they “still believe in the mission” of the job, which for him means providing an adult model of “patience, love, tolerance, hard work, respect” every single day for his students. When he’s unable to show up to the classroom as his best self, he says students aren’t reaping the benefits of their education.

Jacques, Sutherland, and Leavitt all agree that when teachers feel empowered, and when they feel that people respect them, they are going to do a better job in the classroom.

“We know, to survive and remain viable, we need to have some levers of power,” said Sutherland. “We need to get back what’s been stripped away from our profession. This right to strike is part of it. Part of rebuilding our power.”

(Top photo: Justin Sullivan | Getty )

Anyone wishing to be a citizen co-sponsor for either the right to strike bill or the teacher negotiation bill can sign-up here and here. The MEA will be holding a Red for Ed Day on April 17.

About Cara DeRose

Avatar photoCara DeRose is a staff writer for Beacon. A graduate of the University of Southern Maine, she served as writer and copy editor for the USM Free Press and interned at the Portland Press Herald.

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