Business

Nonprofits pressure McDonald’s to end ‘McTeacher’s Night’

 McDonald’s promotes McTeacher’s nights as popular fund-raisers for schools, but some do not like the association of teachers with fast food.
Mcdonaldseducates.com
McDonald’s promotes McTeacher’s nights as popular fund-raisers for schools, but some do not like the association of teachers with fast food.

Grade papers. Assign homework. Prepare lesson plan. Make Oreo McFlurry.

For some teachers, that’s a real-life schedule one or two days a year, and not because they need a part-time gig to supplement their day jobs. Instead, they’re participants in “McTeacher’s Nights,” in which they “work” at a local McDonald’s for a few hours in return for a portion of that evening’s sales being donated to their schools.

On its website, the fast-food giant describes the fund-raising events — hundreds of which have been held nationwide, including in Massachusetts, for years now — as an opportunity for students and their parents “to see their very own educators serve up hamburgers, fries, and shakes!”

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And that, said Geralyn Bywater McLaughlin, a kindergarten teacher at the Mission Hill School in Boston, “is disgusting.”

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“So much of our work is around teaching children to make good choices and lead healthy lives, and for teachers to be serving McDonald’s is a message that is really confusing,” she said. “It’s an implied endorsement of McDonald’s and all they stand for.”

McLaughlin’s view is shared by two Boston nonprofits that fight exploitive marketing and launched a national campaign this week to pressure McDonald’s Corp. to discontinue its “McTeacher’s Night” program. Backed by the National Education Association and more than 50 teachers unions across the country, the campaign argues that the fund-raisers use teachers to market junk food to kids and aren’t worth the modest amounts they raise — typically a few hundred dollars per event.

But many of the Massachusetts schools that participate in the program say it’s an easy way to make much-needed money, and although teachers typically wear McDonald’s-branded clothing at the events, they reject the claim that teachers are being turned into corporate pawns. They also point out that McDonald’s offers healthy-eating options. What’s wrong, they ask, with a teacher serving apple slices alongside Big Macs if that boosts a school’s financial health?

“It’s a fun night where kids enjoy seeing their teachers outside the school,” said Kara Fink, copresident of the parent-teacher organization at McCarthy Elementary School in Framingham, which held a McTeacher’s Night at a local franchise last week. “Is it the healthiest? No. Do my kids eat there on a regular basis? No. But do they have it sometimes as a treat? Yes.”

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The more than $600 the school made at the event is “not a small chunk of change,” Fink added, noting that the chain’s affordable prices enable families of all income levels to participate.

At the end of the evening, schools receive a percentage of the night’s sales, usually between 10 and 20 percent; the exact amount is up to the franchisee.

McTeacher’s Nights have existed for many years, but only recently did they land in the crosshairs of Corporate Accountability International and Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, the Boston-based groups leading the campaign to end the program.

It came to their attention, in part, through Mark Noltner, a teacher who lives in the suburbs of Chicago and became incensed when his kindergarten-age daughter brought home a school flyer advertising a McTeacher’s Night.

“I was very frustrated that teachers were being put in a compromising position of being recruited to sell food for McDonald’s,” Noltner said. “Kids are already exposed to a huge amount of commercialism outside of school, and now those media messages are infiltrating the school setting.”

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McDonald’s issued a statement to the Globe that said: “Teachers and parent-teacher organizations have a choice in how they seek to raise additional funds, and for years they have told McDonald’s and franchisees that, in addition to the extra financial support these events provide for their schools, they have a great time connecting with their students and neighbors in meaningful ways.”

Although teachers are described by McDonald’s as “working” at the restaurant on McTeacher’s Nights, several teachers who participate in the program say their role is much more informal.

“Teachers don’t cook food, but they serve food and pass out paper cups and take pictures of kids,” said Lori Hyland, a third-grade teacher at Louise Davy Trahan Elementary School in Tewksbury who has gone to McTeacher’s Nights for several years. “They’re basically scenery.”

Still, that’s troubling to Josh Golin, executive director of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.

“For a young kid to see one of their teachers anywhere outside of school is exciting and thrilling, and kids trust and respect their teachers,” he said, “and to leverage that to sell kids junk food is preposterous and egregious.”

Golin and others also argue that the funds raised by McTeacher’s Nights are relatively measly, and accuse McDonald’s of using the financial plight of many public schools as a marketing opportunity.

But many schools that take part in the fund-raisers say in an era when teachers often dig into their own pockets to buy school supplies, every little bit counts.

Matthew Castonguay, principal of Tewksbury’s Trahan school, has mixed feelings about the events. He said his school participates in them twice a year, with “a majority of staff going in shifts and working behind the counter or as greeters” on a “completely volunteer” basis.

“On one hand, in school we’re promoting healthy eating,” he said, “but on the other hand it’s a school tradition, it’s something kids look forward to, and it’s a moneymaker for our parent advisory council.”

Trahan’s most recent McTeacher’s Night, held last month, raised about $500 for the school, Castonguay said. Some parents, he said, declined to participate.

That doesn’t placate Richard Stutman, president of the Boston Teachers Union, which voted unanimously to join the campaign asking McDonald’s to end the program.

“It exploits children, it exploits the teacher-child relationship, it encourages bad eating, and I don’t think it’s the best way to raise money for schools,” he said.

Sacha Pfeiffer can be reached at pfeiffer@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @SachaPfeiffer.