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Remote Parent Engagement: Analyzing the Fine Print
Teachers are happy to now be able to conduct parent engagement from home. But some of the fine print has put a damper on things - to say the least. Repost from the NAC blog at https://newaction.org
During the 2023 contract campaign, UFT leadership opted not to fight for better pay. They did, however, push hard on reducing micromanagement. And, when—out of the blue—a final contract draft was dropped on us for a rushed ratification vote, many of us were happy that at least we’d get out of the building for about an hour a week—that we’d be able to do our parent outreach in peace. As a bonus, 20 of those minutes at home were repurposed from our weekly professional developments. We’d now have less time in meetings – and get home a little earlier on Mondays too.
For the rest of America, many of whom are working from home anywhere from 50 to 100 % of the time, 55 minutes of work-from-home time may seem like an unlikely ‘ace in the hole’ to get members to vote yes to a sub-inflation contract. But, truthfully, the rallying cry of ‘parent outreach from home or your car’ worked. One of the worst UFT deals in history, financially speaking, passed with about ¾ of the vote.
Then, we saw the fine print.
A Glimpse at the Fine Print
Even back in June, some of us noticed a couple of issues in the way the contract was written when it came to remote work. There was a new emphasis on documentation, for one thing. And documentation usually means more micromanagement. Worse still, there was distressing language allowing for principals to take away your right to work-from-home without due process. All administrators had to do was ‘feel’ that teachers and paraprofessionals weren’t doing enough outreach, and with a week’s notice and no hearing to plead your case, you’d have to do those 55 minutes of outreach from school for the rest of the semester. That kind of unchecked power, like a new emphasis on documentation, also fuels micromanagement. But UFT leadership never mentioned the fine print in their promotional materials. And they left precious little time for us to read the contract ourselves—so little, that despite writing copiously with analyses of the contract, I missed some of the fine print myself.
The Cracks Widen
By 9/18/2023, just a few weeks into working under our new contract, enough of a stir was made on social media and in the schools that UFT leadership felt the need to make reports at the executive board on remote work. A new document had just been sent to principals about parent outreach and other ‘work from home’ guidelines for functional members. Cambria and Collins said it was mostly fine, but the subtext was that there were absolutely issues. Some Unity members even admitted to me later that the document contained tons of things that we never agreed to and some aspects perhaps missed the spirit of why we’re doing this work remotely. Indeed, functional members were scrambling as some of their supervisors began weaponizing this document to deny their requests to work from home (for functional members they don’t get 55 minutes – they only get up to 55 minutes). Teachers began being threatened with losing their right to work from home or finding that the new emphasis on paperwork was leading to a new era of micromanagement. All of a sudden, 15 extra minutes of parent outreach seemed to make many principals think teachers had unlimited time to call (and only call) parents. Teachers were getting quotas—to call a certain number of parents by a certain date, often with unreasonable timelines. The trouble was that, while yes, parent outreach is now supposed to be entirely self-directed, and there is a menu of options to choose from in how we conduct said outreach, many principals disagree with that stipulation. And after all, we conceded them the right to judge teachers as not doing enough outreach without any guidelines—and the right to punish them for that without a hearing. In many schools, in short, things weren’t going so well.
It was after the reports by Cambria and Collins at this week’s executive board that I asked a series of questions. At the time they may have seemed a bit arcane and pedantic, but what I thought were earnest and politically neutral questions had by accident clearly touched a nerve – LeRoy Barr didn’t even let me finish asking my final point of inquiry, making a scene while threatening to rule me out of order. What I discovered through that sequence though was that we must do 55 minutes of outreach every week, no matter what. It’s no longer tied to Tuesdays. The problem here isn’t parent outreach itself – it’s that this difference negates the flexibility we thought we had. Instead of having 55 minutes on Tuesdays but getting to do it whenever you want during the week, we now know that we must work 55 minutes of remote outreach every single week, even if say there are holidays and Friday is the only day that week. What we thought was going to save some minutes during the week is therefore sometimes going to add minutes to our week relative to what we would have worked under the previous contract. This is compounded by the fact that some of the time that turned 35 minutes of parent outreach into 55 minutes of outreach comes from Mondays – and Mondays are the days that UFT members are most likely to have off. So, while in former times, we would shave 80 minutes of time off our schedules on a common long weekend with a Monday off, now we only shave 60 minutes off and have to do 55 minutes of outreach even if we get the Tuesday off too. This may seem like a small difference to some, a bigger difference to others, but it’s still a difference.
One place this difference has already been a problem is for people who are sick for a few days. Say you are out with the Flu from Monday to Thursday and return Friday, not exactly working at 100% but scraping by on enough energy to get through the day. Maybe, usually you would have done all your outreach by Thursday, because you can’t work after school on Friday for religious or other reasons. Because outreach is framed as ‘weekly’ you owe that time now, and a vindictive principal can now say you haven’t successfully done your outreach and remove your right to do any from home. If that seems bad enough, imagine the reverse situation: you’re fine on Monday, plan on doing outreach on Wednesday, but end up out with COVID for the rest of the week. Technically, you were there this week and owe the outreach, despite being too sick to do it. And some principals will hold you to that, with contractual language that technically supports them. These are the types of situations that clearly are not in the spirit of our contractual agreement, and why I think the UFT needs to go to arbitration rather than just accept the bad-faith interpretations of ‘weekly-no matter what.’
Ending with Some Good News:
Even with the three major problems on parent outreach—(1) new emphasis on paperwork, which is collected and monitored weekly rather than just potentially spot checked once in a while, as in previous years; (2) the ability for principals to take away your right to do outreach at home and/or on your own time without due process; and (3) having to work extra minutes relative to how much we would have last year, including on days we didn’t anticipate and may not have time—there is still a silver lining.
The silver lining is that: (1) outreach does not have to be done consecutively; and (2) principals don’t have the right they used to have to occasionally direct how we do our outreach. Therefore, teachers and paraprofessionals can log extra outreach in weeks when they come into some time and prepare for weeks where they won’t be available on Friday. And at many of the schools where principals aren’t getting the memo that we choose what outreach we do (not necessarily phone calls to a long list of parents), all it should take is a simple conversation in consultation to get them to understand. For some principals, that conversation won’t be enough. And stronger chapters can fight back – going to an operational complaint or grievance hearing to get those principals to comply. The list of schools where even this won’t be enough, or where executing this fight will lead to so much retaliation that members won’t think the fight is worth it, is hopefully small.
Principals will still have the right to take away teachers’ rights to do outreach from home without due process, and that’s an ace we never should have handed them, especially with the aforementioned outreach issues we still have. I would have liked to see UFT leadership insist on fixing issues like this before they rushed through the contract vote in June. But they didn’t—they pretended everything was hunky dory, leaving out many of the fine print they did know about, because they knew it would get them a yes vote. And I believe they missed some of the fine print too.
The least we can do now is make sure to reel the City in from bad-faith interpretations of the contract – and go to arbitration for some of the more egregious bad-faith interpretations. Teachers voted for a sub-inflation contract because they were told that they were at least getting less micromanagement and more flexible schedules. We owe them to try and make that true.
-Nick Bacon, UFT Executive Board Member and Co-Chair of New Action