‘It’s not just teachers wanting a break’: In battle over contract, conflict arises over prep time

Special education teacher Natasha Carlsen has four hours a week of flexible preparation time, which she said is often eaten up by meeting the complicated demands of writing an IEP, or Individualized Education Program, for her special education students, or meeting with occupational therapists, speech therapists, concerned parents, and homeroom teachers. Most of her lesson planning, she does at home. 

So when Carlsen heard that the Chicago school district wants to give principals more control over how teachers spend their planning time, she was livid. 

“Right now, it is a precious time that is not really enough to get the day-to-day tasks and long-term planning done,” said Carlsen, a member of the Chicago Teachers Union’s bargaining team and a teacher at Marvin Camras Children’s Engineering Elementary School in Belmont Cragin. “The proposal is coming from a lack of teacher trust.” 

Many educators told Chalkbeat that their prep time is sacred.

That’s why, amid tense contract negotiations between the city of Chicago and the union that represents public school teachers, talks have centered not only on pay and staffing levels, but also how much teacher prep time should be dictated by principals.

“It’s offensive and tone deaf to what teachers do to suggest someone else should have more control over our time,” said Rebecca Reddicliffe, a second-grade teacher at Cesar E. Chávez Multicultural Academic Center in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood. “I am willing to walk out over it.” 

In an informal Chalkbeat Chicago online survey, more than 50 teachers from schools across the city told us how much prep time they get, how they use it, and why. Most respondents said their prep time is sorely needed, but it’s not sufficient for all of the student outreach, grading, and lesson planning their job demands. Some teachers reported waiting to go to the bathroom until they have more than a few minutes to themselves.

The flexibility to use prep time as they see fit is key, they said.

Currently, elementary school teachers have five weekly, one-hour prep periods, one of which the principal oversees. High school teachers have 10 weekly, 50-minute prep periods, three of which are principal-directed, meaning school leaders can demand teachers use that time for professional development, for example, or for grade-level meetings.

On average, Chicago teachers have an hour a day more prep time than do their counterparts in other urban school districts, such as Los Angeles or Houston, according to data collected by the National Council on Teacher Quality

The first contract proposal from Mayor Lori Lighfoot’s bargaining team offered that the five weekly elementary teacher prep periods would all be principal-directed. That has since shifted. Under the current proposal, three of five prep periods would be principal-directed for elementary school teachers and six out of 10 prep periods would be principal-directed for high school teachers.

The union, in turn, proposed that all elementary and high school prep times be teacher-directed, and that elementary teachers get an additional 30 minutes of morning prep time. They also proposed additional prep periods for bilingual and special education teachers. 

Teachers who filled out the Chalkbeat survey said their principal-directed prep times are often used to review network initiatives, to receive training on new school software portals like Aspen, to meet with other grade-level teachers, or to prepare for upcoming standardized testing.

As with many workplaces, how teachers see the possibility of more principal-led prep time also depends on their relationship with their school leader. Some teachers said they trust their principals to use the prep time well, or say it would likely be handed back to them to use how they choose. Others worried about being made to fill in for absent colleagues or to mandate standardized test preparation. 

Ashley McCall, a third-grade bilingual teacher at Chavez, said that even with a good boss, “it’s not remotely worth the risk” of teachers losing control over prep time. 

At schools that are struggling with their school quality rating —  a measure used in Chicago to rate schools according to their test scores, attendance and graduation rates —  principals place more pressure on teachers to use their prep time for additional professional development or test prep, said Aaron Bingea, a seventh- and eighth-grade math teacher at Brentano Elementary school in Logan Square.

“My first year I taught at a school that was very test prep-oriented and driven to improve their school quality rating,” he said. “At schools that are under that pressure, principals tighten the leash on teachers and require them to do more things outside of their principal-required time.” 

Troy LaRaviere, head of the Chicago Principals & Administrators Association, said he hasn’t seen a big push from its members for more principal-directed prep time. “It’s certainly not anywhere near the top of principal wish lists,” he said.

If principals did want more professional development time, he suggested that teachers get back the morning prep time they lost during the longer school day, a request the union has made, or that any additional principal-directed prep time be mandated to be used specifically for teacher collaboration, a need he said his members did recognize. 

More broadly, the conversation around principal-directed prep time is undergirded by teachers who are struggling to meet the demands of their job in the time allotted to them. One elementary teacher who wished to remain anonymous said they feel so much pressure to meet all the paperwork demands that even their flexible prep periods don’t feel fully theirs. The estimated hours of work they had to do outside of teaching students last week was 23 hours, but they had only four hours of prep. 

When the former mayor Rahm Emanuel pushed through a longer school day in 2015, he also got rid of teachers’ morning prep time. At the core of this issue is a broader way their profession has changed, teachers told Chalkbeat.

“Teaching high-quality, Common-Core aligned curriculum requires an immense amount of work and preparation,” Bingea said. “Teachers want to be doing that work and spending more time prepping better lessons for kids. It’s not just teachers wanting a break.” 

Teachers’ stress about getting enough prep time also depends partly on the students they are teaching.  

McCall, an elementary school teacher, said her prep time “doesn’t account for meeting with diverse learner teams — last week my entire prep was used for that,” McCall said. “People just severely underestimate the time it takes to prep for multiple subjects.” 

Special education teachers say they are under particular time pressure throughout the day. It’s difficult to complete the paperwork and multiple coordinating meetings needed for students to get services in Chicago’s complicated special education system, overseen by the state since a court ruled Chicago’s district was illegally denying services to students. 

At Carlsen’s school, she said it is not uncommon for special education teachers to forgo prep times altogether because there are not enough teachers to work with special education students in different grades. In that case, teachers can bank some of the time and use it at the end of the year, she said. 

As contract negotiations proceed, some teachers are looking to ease their workloads in other ways. A dedicated manager to handle special education cases, smaller class sizes so teachers are grading fewer papers, and more staff to help teach lessons would go a long way, survey respondents said. 

But without adequate teacher-led prep time, the work of teaching may not be sustainable in the long run, some teachers say. 

Carlsen said she can barely meet the demands because she is “a single woman with only two dogs … but regardless if I have a family at home, I should be treated as a professional that gets dedicated time in their day.”