Instructor's Story Tells Both Sides of Denver Teachers' Strike

Instructor's Story Tells Both Sides of Denver Teachers' Strike
At 7 a.m. today, members of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association union are scheduled to begin demonstrating outside select Denver Public Schools complexes in the first Mile High City teachers' strike in a quarter-century. Yet many parents and guardians remain unclear about what is keeping the two sides apart.

The story of one teacher offers an explanation.

What happened to this teacher neatly encompasses the major issues cited by the district, which is fighting to retain aspects of the ProComp system that supplements salaries with an assortment of bonuses, and the union, which wants the premiums to be de-emphasized in favor of across-the-board pay increases.

A last flurry of negotiating sessions between DPS and the DCTA failed to produce the sort of breakthrough that might have prevented a walkout. After a sit-down on Friday, February 8, the union released a statement from Henry Roman, its president, that reads in part: "Teachers were stunned when DPS proposed hiking incentives instead of putting that new money into base pay where it could make the entire district more competitive.... The bizarre proposal proves what we have said during this entire process, that DPS is not interested in listening to the concerns and needs of its teachers and special service providers."

After another meeting on Saturday, February 9, failed to make progress, either, DPS touted the generosity of its proposal, which "offered an additional $2 million in base pay for teachers and specialized-service providers," with funding coming "from the elimination of an estimated 150 positions in the Central Office," as well as "an increase in incentive pay for educators who teach in schools with the highest poverty rates, revisions to pay increases based on professional development and the elimination of performance bonuses for Central Office senior staff."

The district also stressed that it would show up for additional negotiations on Sunday, February 10, even though the union previously noted that it would not take part in more talks until Tuesday, February 12 — and because the folks at DCTA were serious, the strike is on.

This outcome makes our source (whom we are not identifying, but know well) feel guilty. But the teacher won't be on the picket line.

A photo from the Denver Classroom Teachers Association Facebook page. - FACEBOOK
A photo from the Denver Classroom Teachers Association Facebook page.
The teacher was hired by DPS four years ago to work as a classroom instructor at a high-poverty school — one of the most at-risk in the district. Because of this, the teacher received two $2,500 bonuses, resulting in a $5,000 bump above average first-year pay.

This extra money was important for the teacher, particularly given the rising cost of rent in Denver. But it didn't make up for the detriments at the school.

As this teacher tells it, the situation at the struggling facility was, in a term familiar to employees in a wide variety of professions, "a shit show." Administrators were so overwhelmed dealing with assorted troubles at the school that they were essentially unavailable to help teachers at the classroom level, even when scenarios involving students, parents or guardians turned potentially dangerous. This lack of support extended to coaching that was intended to help young teachers better handle the sort of drama that crops up in modern classrooms. For this reason, the teacher felt isolated and lacking the tools needed to adequately help students with significant academic and behavioral issues.

Circumstances like these can lead to tremendous turnover — a problem noted by both the district and the union. Plenty of instructors left the school, and while some moved to other schools in different districts, others abandoned the profession entirely.

Our source chose a middle path, leaving the school after two years and taking twelve months for different pursuits before accepting a new teaching position at a Denver charter school in the DPS system. At that institution, the teacher is receiving the support and coaching that wasn't available at the other school, and believes the students are being much better served as a result. And while the pay is less than at the other school, the teacher was able to negotiate for a salary that was at least competitive with previous compensation plus the bonus.

Clearly, that extra $5,000 wasn't nearly enough to keep the teacher at a school that was so overwhelmingly dysfunctional.

Denver charter school educators aren't part of the union, so they won't receive any raise as a result of the walkout, and neither will they get the sort of support that striking teachers will receive from the DCTA if they refuse to work in solidarity with strikers. Hence, the teacher will be on the job today, but with thoughts directed toward the instructors who've managed to stick it out at the previous school, most of whom will be part of the protest. Yet our source acknowledges frustration that many striking teachers seem to view educators at charters as the enemy rather than professionals who, like them, just want the best for the kids in their care.

And that's what's at stake at the start of the 2019 Denver teachers' strike.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts