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Brookline teachers draw the line on paperwork

Contract negotiations between the Brookline public school district and its teachers have stalled, but union officials say the sticking point is not salary or benefits.

Instead, teachers say they are fighting for relief from an overwhelming amount of paperwork that leaves them little time for the creative lesson planning and individualized attention to students that drew them to the profession.

“Brookline teachers are defending the best of what we do in Brookline against the erosion of time to teach in creative, individualized ways,” said Jessica Wender-Shubow, president of the Brookline Educators Union. “It’s becoming more about ticking boxes than actually spending time teaching our students.”


The teachers have been working without a contract since August, and the two sides have had more than a dozen negotiating sessions with little progress made toward a settlement.

In recent weeks, teachers have stopped decorating hallway bulletin boards, refrained from returning telephone calls or e-mails outside of work hours, and canceled their participation in school trips that were not already paid for — including the Pierce School’s annual eighth-grade rafting trip.

School Committee member Rebecca Stone, who chairs the negotiations subcommittee, did not respond to requests for an interview. In a negotiation update dated Feb. 29 on the Public Schools of Brookline website, she wrote that the committee is continuing to bargain in good faith.

“The School Committee has given serious and detailed proposals to the BEU, and we have discussed at length the issues raised by the BEU in order to understand and try to address them,” she wrote.

Stone also addressed what she termed the union’s “work to rule.”

“Our top priority continues to be the students who attend school in Brookline, and we are distressed by any actions that involve students with these contract disputes,” Stone wrote. “Our students deserve to spend their school days focused on learning.”


Wender-Shubow said that while teachers are refraining from certain activities, they are not “working to rule.” She said they are continuing to do many things beyond what is detailed in the contract, from writing college evaluations to participating in breakfast meetings with parents.

In negotiating a new contract, Wender-Shubow said, the union is prepared to draw a line in the sand on the issue of additional “top-down teaching mandates” from both the district and the state.

“We feel that Brookline, with its tremendously strong history of being out in front with progressive, creative educational programing, has to be a leader in this fight,” she said.

Wender-Shubow said the union presented a proposal March 24 to establish a Workload Oversight Committee — made up of equal numbers of teachers, administrators, and School Committee members — that would meet publicly to discuss new requirements of teachers’ time.

In addition, she said, the union asked that teachers get 10 minutes at each faculty meeting to discuss their issues.

Both proposals were rejected by the School Committee’s negotiating subcommittee, she said. The union, in turn, rejected a proposal to create a Joint Labor Management Committee that would discuss teachers’ concerns and make recommendations to the superintendent.

Barbara Madeloni, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said she is seeing time constraints on educators eroding the quality of instruction in schools across the state. She said schools are becoming increasingly stressful for students and teachers because of the demand for certain benchmarks to be constantly met.


In addition, she said, teachers feel increasingly powerless because the way they teach is being dictated by people who are not present in the building, or the classroom day to day.

“This is going to be a key piece in how we reclaim our public schools,” Madeloni said.

David Weinstein said he has spent the past 29 years teaching first grade at the Pierce School, and loves nothing more than helping kids learn to read. But over the years, he’s able to spend less and less time actually doing that, hastening his decision to retire at the end of this school year.

There are eight-page assessments he has to fill out twice a year that require judgments in 73 different categories for each of his students, and other types of evaluations, reports, e-mails, and special education assessments that take time away from lesson planning and actual teaching, he said.

But perhaps the final straw was the mandated reading assessment system that was implemented for every first-grade student in the system in 2011.

The Benchmark Assessment System, which “seamlessly links assessment to instruction,” according to its website, requires teachers to sit individually with students for 30 to 60 minutes to assess their reading skills, taking them away from the rest of the class.

“Is it important to know how every kid reads? Of course. Is it a good tool? Yes. But do I need to use it for every single child? Absolutely not,” he said.


Lawrence School first-grade teacher Jonathan Norwood said forcing teachers to use this assessment for every student also takes away from the momentum of reading lessons geared toward the whole class.

“I get loaded up with doing these assessments, rather than teaching a lesson to the whole class that might really excite them, and inspire them to be independent readers,” Norwood said.

Ellen Ishkanian can be reached at eishkanian@gmail.com.