As contract negotiations for the coming year get under way between the Shawnee Mission School District administration and teachers union, some instructors are urging the board of education to support a return to a lighter teaching load for high school instructors.
Early in Superintendent Jim Hinson’s tenure at Shawnee Mission, the administration shifted teaching schedules for high school educators from five periods per day to six.
Teachers at the time understood that arrangement to be temporary, a way to get through the funding challenges of the block grant years. They also believed that in most cases secondary teachers would essentially be taking on the same number of students as they had before, and would be teaching six smaller classes instead of five larger ones.
But in the intervening years, many teachers have seen those class sizes increase, meaning their total student load has grown beyond what it was when they taught five classes a day. The reduction in non-teaching time and the increase in student load has hampered effectiveness for many educators, two high school teachers argued on Wednesday.
Samantha Feinberg, an English teacher at SM East, used the public comment portion of Wednesday’s meeting to present the board of education with a letter signed by more than 220 high school teachers asking for the district to consider a return to five-period teaching schedules.
Teaching five out of seven sections is the standard work load for high school teachers in other Johnson County school districts and beyond, Feinberg said. With loads of around 180 students across six periods and only one 50 minute planning period open per day, teachers are hard pressed to devote time to individual students’ needs or to build the relationships that can be key to improving outcomes, Feinberg said.
“We take pride in our schools, our district, and our work. We are not here to complain,” she said. “We are here to ask for your support in order to do the job we love with the pride of knowing we have done our absolute best for our students. Sadly, our current teaching load limits our ability to do this.”
Her sentiments were echoed by Susan Hallstrom, an SM East science teacher, who said the six-period workload has led promising young teachers to look for work outside Shawnee Mission despite the relatively high pay compared to other local districts.
“In my building, we had a great student teacher this fall. He had everything that it takes to positively impact students,” Hallstrom said. “He was offered a position in our building. After teaching six classes, he recognized what a burden that was. He took a position with one of our immediately southern neighbors for less money because he would rather do that than teach six. He knew what it was like.”
The teachers union has proposed an eventual return to the five-period schedule for high school teachers over the next couple of years as part of this year’s contract negotiations.
The negotiating teams for the school district and the teachers union met for the first time on Wednesday and have another session today that began at 10 a.m. at the Center for Academic Achievement. The negotiation sessions are open to the public.
CORRECTION: The original version of this story indicated that the move to six classes from five had been agreed upon between the teachers union and the administration. In actuality, the teachers never agreed to the change. It was a move enacted by the administration alone.