family matters

‘We will get this done’: Union chief vows to fight for paid maternity leave after teachers take up the cause

PHOTO: Courtesy photo
Emily James is one of the New York City teachers behind a petition for paid maternity leave.

Last week, Emily James took the stage at a teachers-union meeting and described what it’s like to work in a school system where teachers get no paid maternity leave.

“My decision with my husband to create a beautiful family of four,” she said, “has left me with my life savings depleted.”

James and Susan Hibdon, a fellow high school teacher in Brooklyn, created a viral online petition calling attention to New York City’s lack of paid leave and demanding that the teachers union negotiate with the city for it. More than 80,000 people have signed on and shared stories about missing rent payments, dipping into savings and even leaving the profession because of the financial burden.

“I wanted to print out the petition comments so you could read all of the stories yourself,” James said during her speech. “But the document was 684 pages long.”

James and Hibdon made their case during the United Federation of Teachers’ executive board meeting on Sept. 25. Their demands drew applause — and a promise by United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew.

“He looked me in the eye,” James recalled, “and he said, ‘We will get this done.’”

City and union leaders were scheduled to meet Thursday to negotiate paid leave — just as the women’s petition had called for.

In the past, the union has said the city “failed to come up with a meaningful proposal.” On Tuesday, Mulgrew said that the union continues to press the city on paid leave — and is waiting for a response.

“We are trying to determine if the city is actually serious about getting this done,” he said in an emailed statement.

In an email, city spokeswoman Freddi Goldstein called paid parental leave “very important to the mayor.”

“But it has to be negotiated as part of collective bargaining, which is ongoing,” she wrote.

The de Blasio administration has already extended paid leave to non-union city workers, a benefit that came at the cost of a scheduled raise for managers and fewer leave days for veteran employees.

But New York City teachers do not receive any paid leave after having a baby. Instead, teachers must use their sick days.

In her speech to union leaders, James highlighted the financial burden that creates for families. The policy creates gender inequities, she said, since only birth mothers are allowed to use sick days after having a baby — leaving women less able to save up time that could be cashed-out at retirement.

Mulgrew called James after her speech to assure her the union is committed to negotiating for the benefit, she said.

“I’ll be skeptical until the day something happens,” James said. “But I’m happy to work with him.”

For James, a change in the policy would amount to “the biggest accomplishment of my life so far — and probably Susan’s too,” she said. “Other than giving birth to all these kids.”

Here’s the speech James made at the recent UFT executive board meeting.

Thank you for having me. I’m here to shed light on an issue that has long been important to the parents and children of the DOE. In 2012, I got pregnant with my first daughter. I was so excited, like most first time mothers are. But I didn’t realize then what I know now: that pregnancy marked the beginning of new life for me, not just because I would become a mother, but because I would embark on a long financial struggle that would continue with me for years. My decision with my husband to create a beautiful family of four has left me with my life savings depleted, and in a constant state of panic over not being able to get out of my negative balance.

My story is not unique. Back in May, I started a petition to ask our union to help fight for paid parental leave. Since then, it has exploded: receiving almost 80,000 signatures, and still growing. When I began this petition, I had no idea how many thousands of other women and men were affected by this poor policy. They wrote story after story of how much they have struggled and are still struggling. Women wrote that they are scared to begin a family at all because of this policy, and keep putting it off out of financial fear. Some wrote about missing rent payments and fearing eviction because they had medical complications before birth and just did not have a cushion to lean on. Some wrote about leaving the profession all together because they could not fit motherhood into their lives with this lack of support; It was easier for them to turn somewhere else. I received email after email of story after story about people who were so horribly affected. I wanted to print out the petition comments so you could read all of the stories yourself. But the document was 684 pages long.

This should not be a thing! It should not be a choice for women to be excellent teachers to the students of NYC or to be mothers for their own children. As you know, when we become mothers to our babies, we have to use our sick days in order to be paid for up to 6 weeks, 8 weeks if a C section. Most of us do not have enough days to cover that time, and if we already had a child, then forget it. Having a baby is not a sickness. Borrowed time is not maternity leave time. It is a loan that many women are never able to pay back. I have been buying back one day a month for a whole year and am still in a negative balance. I need that money to help with my two daughters, my mortgage, my life. This also becomes an issue of gender equality. Men are able to retire with many more days that they can cash in. When we retire, if we have decided to have and raise children, or stay with them until they are 6, 8 or 12 WEEKS old, we will have so many fewer days than most men.

Have you seen what a 6 week old baby looks like? Have you held one? Most of us have to drop that tiny child off to strangers and return to work, and we have had to pay out of pocket just to stay home with them for that short time. They do not sleep through the night. They are still breastfeeding. And then we return, in the negative balance, we are further penalized when we get sick, or when they get sick. Sending a mother of a six week old back to work to teach America’s youth, financially strapped, ridden with anxiety, exhaustion, isn’t just bad for that mother. It’s bad for everyone.

I’m sure I don’t have to point out the irony here. But I will. We dedicate our lives to taking care of other people’s children, we become second mothers to them, sometimes first. The system expects that from us, and we deliver. But when it comes time for us to do the bare minimum for our own children, the system forgets us, makes it impossible for us, tells us we are on our own.

This petition is not for me: I am done having children, but this needs to be changed for all of the mothers and fathers of our future.

There are close to 80,000 signatures for this petition. It has gained media attention, national attention, international attention. People are watching us, they are expecting more from us. Studies have shown time and time again that babies benefit immensely from being home with their mothers for the first year of life. The teachers of the DOE need more.. They deserve more time, they deserve to be paid for it. Why aren’t we fighting for them? Let’s not let them, or their children…who become our children…let’s not let any of them down.

We pay you our dues dutifully month after month, year after year. You are the only voice we have. We are here in numbers, 80,000 strong, demanding in the most polite way we know how, that you stop ignoring us, that you help us begin this fight, and don’t stop fighting for us until we make the situation right.

In the Classroom

How an Indianapolis teacher is making fourth grade more like a video game

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Guillermo Perez, right, finished nearly all of his assignments from their class game at home in his free time.

The tension was rising in Amanda Moore’s class. Fourth graders were facing off against a dragon-like Sea Raptal, and it was a close fight. Victory hung in the balance.

“What is the universal theme of our text?” asked Moore, calling on a boy to explain a story students had been reading in small groups. His answer — to treat others as you want to be treated — was correct, leading to the defeat of the monster, and causing the class to erupt in chatter and cheers.

All this excitement is because of “gamification,” a new approach Moore recently began using in her fourth-grade class at Chapelwood Elementary School in Wayne Township. With the help of an online platform called Classcraft, which allows students to inhabit characters, earn points, and complete quests, Moore designs adventures that entice students to practice math and reading skills.

Gamification is a growing trend in education that aims to use games to engage students in school work. Critics, though, raise concerns about students spending too much time on screens and the quality of the games. But games are becoming increasingly popular among teachers, and research suggests that games can improve student scores in subjects such as math and history.

Moore, who has taught at Chapelwood for a decade, learned about gamification recently while completing a master’s degree in curriculum and education technology at Ball State University. Since she started using games to teach in January, it has totally transformed the class, Moore said. Now, she is building positive relationships with students because she is playing games with them.

“We forget that kids are kids, and they want to play. And they are motivated by play, and they learn through play,” she said. “Gamification allows us to get back to that a little bit.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Characters from an adventure that’s helping Chapelwood elementary school students master reading skills.

This week is spring break, so Moore is working with a group of students who are slightly below grade level in reading for intersession. When the week began, Moore told the students that they were on a magical boat that was shipwrecked. As a class, they must collect enough crystals for their ship to set sail again.

In part, the game is based online, and students can bring laptops from school and keep playing at home. There is an adventure map, and every student has a character. Students can earn points online by completing assignments where they practice making inferences and identifying themes, and Moore can see how they are progressing. But the game is also the backdrop for other work, and the class sometimes comes to a halt when students face random events, where they can win or lose points.

“It’s fun because you can learn while you are playing a game,” said Lilly Mata-Turcios, a student in the class.

Since Moore started using online gaming, students have been more engaged, and they’ve continued to do school work at home so they can win rewards such as new armor for their characters or pets, she said. The class has built a strong community because students have to work together to defeat monsters like the Sea Raptal, Moore said.

“It’s a model of what personalization can look like in a blended classroom,” said Michele Eaton, the district director of virtual and blended learning.

During most weeks, students spend about an hour each day completing math and reading assignments through Classcraft. Moore also works with small groups and does instruction with the whole class. But everything they do takes place against the backdrop of their adventure.

“I think it’s just a really powerful way to teach,” Moore said. “It is absolutely worth the time.”

thrown for a loop

Elementary school teachers sometimes follow a class of students from year to year. New research suggests that’s a good idea.

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Student Jaela Manzanares gets reading help from substitute teacher Colleen Rys in her third-grade class at Beach Court Elementary School in Denver.

When Kim Van Duzer, an elementary school teacher in Brooklyn, had a chance to follow her students from third to fourth grade the next school year, she jumped at the opportunity.

“It was such a positive experience,” she said. “One of the big advantages is starting in September hitting the ground running — you already know the kids and the things they did the previous year and the things they need to work on.”

Now, a new study seems to confirm Van Duzer’s experience. Students improve more on tests in their second year with the same teacher, it finds, and the benefits are largest for students of color.

Repeating teachers is “a beneficial and relatively low-cost policy that should be given due consideration,” write the researchers, Andrew Hill of Montana State University and Daniel Jones of the University of Southern Carolina.

The paper focuses on North Carolina students in grades 3 to 5 who had the same teacher two years in a row. That usually occurred not when a whole class repeated  with the same teacher — what’s often called “looping” — but with a small share of students ending up with the same teacher twice, for whatever reason.

How much did that second year with a teacher help? The overall effect was very small, enough to move an average student from about the 50th to the 51st percentile. But even this modest improvement is notable for several reasons.

First, it’s a policy that, at least in theory, doesn’t cost anything or require legislation to implement. Schools, if they choose to, could make looping a habit.

Second, the gains were larger for kids of color than for white students, suggesting that this could make a slight dent in longstanding test-score gaps.

Third, the students who saw the biggest gains had teachers who were lower performing overall, suggesting that having the same students twice may be particularly useful for helping teachers improve.

Fourth, it’s an idea that could affect a lot of students. Just being in a class where many peers were repeating with a teacher seemed to benefit kids who were new to the teacher, the study finds. The researchers think that could be because those teachers’ classroom environments improve during that second year with many of the same students.

That aligns with Van Duzer’s experience, when she had a handful of new students in her looped class. “The other kids were really welcoming to them, and they became fully integrated members of our class community,” she said.

Fifth, there may be other benefits not captured by test score gains. For Van Duzer, being able to pick up existing connections with students’ families was another perk. “It takes a school year to fully develop a relationship with kids and their parents — for everybody to get to know each other, to develop trust, to be able to speak really openly,” she said.

One important caveat: the study can’t prove that if looping were expanded, that the benefits would persist. Past research also isn’t much of a guide because there’s so little out there, but what exists is consistent with the latest study.

A recent analysis found students in rural China scored higher on tests as a result of the approach. Here in the U.S., the best evidence might come from what amounts to the reverse of the policy: having teachers of younger students focus on a single subject, and thus not have a single class of students. In Houston, this led to substantial drops in student test scores and attendance.

These studies suggest early grade teachers do better when they “specialize” in a small group of students, rather than a certain academic subject.

To Van Duzer, who now serves as a math coach at her school, having a firm understanding of what students learned the previous year is crucial and helps explain the findings.

“A lot of times when kids move into a new grade, the teachers are like, ‘You learned this last year!’ and the kids are like, ‘We did?’” she said. “But then if you say certain words … you remind them of certain experiences, like ‘Remember when we studied China and we talked about this?’ and then they’re like ‘Oh yeah, I do remember.’ But if you haven’t been there with them for those experiences, it’s harder to activate that knowledge.”