Better Way to Police Teens




Note: This commentary was originally published in the Philadelphia Inquirer on January 25, 2008.  I’m reprinting it here on Chalk and Talk as a means to try to ease tensions between teens and police in light of the incident at Sayre High School last week.


 by Christopher Paslay

FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover once said that justice was incidental to law and order. Although there is some truth to this statement, when it comes to our police force, there is a fine line between keeping order on the street and fostering a culture of mutual respect.


The balance between order and respect is even more delicate when it comes to policing teenagers.


An alarming number of the adolescents I teach admit in class discussions that they don’t like cops. Many feel disrespected by police on a regular basis, and complain that cops are always “in their face,” when they’re talking on street corners, for example, or congregating at playgrounds.


I believe this hostility stems from a communication breakdown between teenagers and police. The majority of law enforcement officials in our city are good, hard working people, and so are most of our youth, even though some are quick to challenge authority figures. But when the two interact in our fast-paced society, relations can go sour.
As a
Philadelphia public school teacher, I understand the importance of being able to communicate effectively with teenagers. In my experience, effective communication boils down to three things: awareness, listening skills, and tone of voice.
Everyone—teachers, police, and teenagers included—are the star of their own personal drama. As human beings, we have the egotistical habit of taking everything personally. If a teenager gets mouthy with me in class, my first reaction is that she doesn’t like me. If she doesn’t immediately submit to my authority, I assume it means she thinks I’m a push-over.
In reality, this isn’t the case. When a young person acts out, the root cause could be anything—trouble at home, a fight with a sibling, a missed meal—none of which have anything to do with me. There’s no excuse for the behavior, but as a mature authority figure, I have the awareness not to take it personally.
I don’t have to argue, raise my voice, or become hostile. Most importantly, I don’t have to compete with the child. I can take a step back and become a neutral observer. I can note the emotion of the individual, and try to find a way to defuse it.
In order to do this, I must be a good listener. I must have the ability to listen to alternative points of view, even if it’s from a juvenile. And I must take this point of view to heart. Many times as a teacher, when I’m dealing with a student who rubs me the wrong way, I find myself shutting down and refusing to hear what he or she has to say. It’s during these times that I take a deep breath, close my mouth and open my ears and listen. Most times, I realize the student has something important to say. Either way, it builds mutual respect and keeps the lines of communication open.
Finally, I believe it is important for authority figures such as teachers and police officers to watch their tone of voice. Sure, there are times to get loud just like there are times when you must stop and listen, but either way, it’s important to have a respectful tone. I think the “golden rule” works well in this situation: Talk to others the way you expect to be talked to, even it’s a young person.


Police officers are not teachers; their job isn’t to counsel or educate. Their jobs are obviously more dangerous; oftentimes, in threatening situations, they don’t have time to reflect upon opposing points of view. However, a heightened awareness of teen behavior, coupled with listening skills and a respectful tone of voice, might make a world of difference when confronting adolescents. It might help dissolve underlying tension and cut down on violence against police.


The hostility teens feel toward law enforcement officials is unhealthy and must be addressed. Communication skills could be the first step in a new and improved relationship between cops and our region’s young people.


Philadelphia Student Union Fails to Hold Peers Accountable at Sayre

 by Christopher Paslay


I’m extremely disappointed with the Philadelphia Student Union.  They squandered a golden opportunity during their recent protest at Sayre High School to show the city that they truly value education and strive to hold each other accountable.         


I say this with all due respect, in light of the pleasant correspondence I had with the PSU earlier this week on Chalk and Talk.  But the PSU made all of us in the Philadelphia School District look foolish when they protested police instead of the unruly behavior of their peers.


The PSU missed the chance to highlight FIVE important student behaviors during their recent demonstration:


1.  The importance of coming to school on time.  The students who supposedly started the brawl at Sayre came to school almost two hours late.


2.  The importance of following the school dress code.  The Sayre students who came late allegedly started the brawl because they were turned away for not dressing properly.


3.  The importance of respecting police officers.  Two Sayre students were charged with assaulting a police officer during the brawl.


4.  The importance of respecting school teachers.  One Sayre student was charged with assaulting a school teacher during the brawl.


5.  The importance of respecting each other.  17 Sayre students were charged with disorderly conduct for fighting.      


The PSU was curiously mum on all five of these issues.  They did however protest the actions of Philadelphia police, the men and women called into the school to control the chaos started by unruly Sayre students.  Ironically enough, no formal complaint was ever filed against the police, nor was there any report of excessive force given to the principal or school officials.


And yet the PSU was there in force, waving their banners and shaking their fists, insisting Sayre students were unfairly labeled as trouble makers.  “We want people to know that we’re not animals, monsters and crack babies,” Candace Carter, a senior at Sayre said.  Who called anyone a “monster” or “crack baby”? 


After carefully pursuing their website, I’ve come to realize some of the PSU’s core beliefs contradict those of genuine proactive learners, and I find this troubling.  Despite the PSU’s record of peer tutoring and community service, members still subscribe to the notion that students are not ultimately responsible for their own educations.  They blame everything except the kitchen sink for their lack of academic success (teachers, schools, books, budgets, principals, politicians, etc), but nowhere in there mission and vision statements do they lay out the ways they can hold THEMSELVES accountable for learning; although I was highly impressed with the PSU earlier this week, a closer examination of the group makes me realize I was too quick to shower them with praise.


Motivation comes from within.  The PSU’s idea that a student’s yearning for knowledge is somehow “crushed out of them” by a failing system is dangerous.  In essence it is saying that it is okay to give up on school, that just because learning conditions aren’t up to par, teenagers are absolved of responsibility for their own schooling, and have the right to point fingers and place blame.


If students are going to be successful in Philadelphia public schools, we ALL must step up to the plate.  We ARE the system, and we must stop making excuses.

Philadelphia School District Officials Remain Out-of-Touch


Note: The author of this article is a Philadelphia public school teacher who requested to remain anonymous. 

After reading Ms. Dungee Glenn’s thinly veiled attempt to rally public support for a one year teacher contract (“School Progress and Contracts,” October 1), I am curious as to why she conspicuously omitted teachers from her list of stakeholders and strong education advocates. Who best knows how children learn and what they should be taught than we teachers with years of experience under our belts and more knowledge of what works in a classroom than the non-educators who dictate what we teach?  Who spends more hours per day with the students than their own parents?  


As a proud member of the only profession I know that does not govern itself, I challenge the plan created by the SRC to improve our city schools, once again dictated by non-educators who profess to know what teachers “should” teach and how they should do it under the misguided notion that anyone who attended school qualifies as an educational expert.  


We had hoped that the appointment of former educator Dr. Arlene Ackerman as the new superintendent would finally shift the school district’s management from the big business sector, so far removed from education to be effective at all, to someone who sees things from an educator’s point of view, knows where the real problems lie and is not afraid to hold all the stakeholders accountable. Sadly, this has not been the case. Since Dr. Ackerman came on board, we’ve seen the same old teacher bashing that we had before.  To coin a hackneyed, yet appropriate phrase, “That’s not change; that’s more of the same.”


Dr. Ackerman professes to be supportive of teachers, but her core beliefs fall short. In her agenda to increase adult accountability for the academic success of our children, she, like the others, has absolved parents and the students themselves of any responsibility and accountability in the equation. Education begins at home, and although it seems to be politically incorrect to say this, it needs to be said. Parents, teachers and students must all share an equal role in the academic success of our children. High school students, particularly, are responsible for their own actions and decisions that affect their academic success, but this is deliberately left out of the accountability equation.


It is far easier to “blame the teachers” for what is wrong with education than to admit that parents and students must also be called to task for the lack of academic success and that there are consequences when their responsibilities are not met. Although it is a hard lesson to learn, some students must learn the hard way that lack of work results in failure, both in school and in the working world.  To place the burden and blame on teachers alone is unfair and unrealistic. That’s not change; that’s more of the same.


As we begin a new school year under the leadership of Dr. Ackerman, city schools are fraught with unaddressed problems. Although the PFT has graciously consented to extend the old contract while supposed good-faith negotiations continue, some school administrators have taken this as a golden opportunity to ignore the contract at will. Contract-breaking tactics cause low morale among dedicated, but unappreciated teachers who seem to have to fight to maintain what is legally theirs to begin with. The PFT contract is the only thing that protects teachers from administrative decisions that are too often self-serving and frequently not in the best interest of our students. The contract must be worded very carefully and for this reason, among many others, it is important that we have a long-term protection.


Now Dr. Ackerman and the SRC are pushing for a one year contract for teachers. A short-term contract does not provide teachers with any certainty or job security, and will encourage the younger, desperately needed teachers to look elsewhere for positions in which they will be better paid and treated with more respect. The 3% raise offered does not even reflect a cost-of living increase and is insulting, to say the least.  Dr. Ackerman herself said that Philadelphia teachers are grossly underpaid and that our teacher salaries must better align with teacher salaries across the state. She wants a longer school day, although there is little documentation to support that students who spend more hours per day in school receive a better education.


Conversely, a longer school day may actually be detrimental to the learning process, and there are statistics that support this. What’s interesting is that increasing the school day would have to include a substantial salary increase for the already overburdened teachers, but that offer is not on the bargaining table. So in essence teachers would be expected to work a longer school day, pay more out of pocket for (reduced) medical benefits and higher co-pays for doctor visits in exchange for a 3% raise. Will we go for it?  I think not.   A one year contract does not benefit teachers or students in the least; it only benefits the administration, buying them more time to try to get more out of teachers while offering them less in return.


Additionally, instead of a concerted effort to offer incentives to attract and retain qualified teachers in all subject areas, the SRC and Dr. Ackerman have narrow-mindedly devoted themselves to looking for African American teachers, supporting the (racist) notion that black students are better served by black teachers. When justifiably outraged teachers of all races in my school surveyed their students concerning this matter, students unanimously agreed that they want good teachers and don’t care what color they are. It is not a coincidence that this notion of black teachers for black students is being promoted by Dr. Ackerman and Ms. Dungee Glenn, who are both African-American. It is difficult to teach and work in an atmosphere where each day we are given the not-so-subtle message that teachers of color would do a better job than the rest of our colleagues.


I think Dr. Ackerman and Ms. Dungee-Glenn should read the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, who I dare say would not have supported their mission.


One Year Deal for Teachers is a Lot of Tricks and No Treats


by Ed Olsen

I’d like to address a few additional points that I feel are worth mentioning in response to Dr. Ackerman’s statements as of late in the press. 

First, she claims that the district’s proposed one year contract is to bide time in order to “develop a strategic multiyear contract that tackles the tough issues that are key to student success.”  How can the PFT be so sure that this one year contract won’t set a precedent?  Has Dr. Ackerman even considered the costs of healthcare premiums?  According to the National Coalition on Health Care, premiums rose an average of 6.1% in 2007.  If the PFT were to agree to a one year contract, that would also mean that the contracts with the various healthcare insurance providers would only be one year.  This allows them to raise rates as they see fit as opposed to predetermined rates that would be negotiated in a multiyear deal.  Who, I wonder, will be asked to cover these increased costs?

Second, I’d like to review the five-year–that’s what I said, five-year–contract that Dr. Ackerman negotiated for herself with the SRC to the tune of $325,000 annually; and let’s not even get into the bonuses and perks: 20% annual bonuses for performance; $100,000 retention bonus after three years; $1,000,000 life insurance policy paid by the district; a late model sedan for business AND personal use; a blackberry; a cell phone; a laptop computer; a printer and a fax machine.  Oh, and I almost forgot, the district agreed to pay up to $15,000 to move her to Philadelphia.  That contract reminds me of my first contract when I was hired by the city on September 29, 2000; except now that I think back, they must have forgotten some things. 

I suppose it started with my salary.  They left off the last zero, and my retention bonus was only about $4500.  They didn’t pay to move me here, but they had me sign a new employee residency certification that required me to live within the city limits (eliminated from the contract in 2000).  I do have a life insurance policy, but that comes out of my pocket.  Same goes for the car and the cell phone.  My father-in-law was able to get my wife and me laptops and a printer from a business that was upgrading because I guess the district figured laptops are probably not useful for teachers, so they never gave me one.  You can see the similarities here.

I will admit that Dr. Ackerman certainly has more education, experience, and responsibilities that deserve higher compensation, but how about a little “trickle down economics”?  Shouldn’t we at least be given a fair, multiyear contract like our superintendent?

Now let’s turn to the issue of increasing the staff day to “provide a safer and learning environment.”  The current PFT contract already has provisions for allowing the district to schedule the teacher work day to start before and end after the student day.  It even requires, “in the elementary schools, the student day shall begin ten minutes after the teacher day.”  (Article XVII.B.1(b).)  The same is true of other staff such as NTAs, secretaries, and paraprofessionals.  The PFT contract allows teachers and NTAs to be scheduled between 7:00 am and 5:00 pm, while secretaries and paraprofessionals can be scheduled between 7:00 am and 6:00 pm.  What we really need to provide a safer learning environment is to hire more teachers, NTAs, and school police officers, not just make our staff work longer hours. 

As for absences, she wants to review the “practice of staff counting multiple consecutive days off as one absence.”  Well for starters, this policy is a school district policy that was reiterated in a memo by Paul Vallas a few years ago and the memo states that consecutive absences shall be considered one incident of absence, not one absence.  Staff is still required to take a personal illness day for each day of absence.  There is also a district policy that requires principals to issue a warning to staff after their third incident of absence and suggests disciplinary action after the fifth and seventh. 

While we will all agree that a substitute is no substitute for a regular classroom teacher, even the teachers and staff of Philadelphia get sick from time to time; it’s not like we are around hundreds of kids everyday.  I bet some of us even have children that get sick and can’t attend daycare or school sometimes.

Finally, the issue of the “current practice of staff to leave their classroom positions even after children arrive in September and throughout the year.”  Remember my first contract? I was hired by the school district on September 29th and didn’t start until October 16, 2000.  The PA Public School Employees’ Retirement System charges a penalty based on how far you are from a normal retirement benefit, which is 35 years of service.  PSERS reduces your retirement by one quarter of one percent per month for each month you are under normal retirement requirements.  In other words, if a teacher was hired after September 1, then they can not retire until that date or they will be charged a penalty.  Teachers have the option of continuing to work past their 35 year retirement requirement, but as many former teachers have told me on their last days, “When its time to go, its time to go.”  Does the district really want to force teachers to stay when their hearts are no longer in it?  This sounds a bit Draconian and harkens to the days of indentured servitude. 

I have been a bit harsh in my response to Dr. Ackerman and her one year proposal, but it feels like a slap in the face to me and thousands of other teachers and staff member that work tirelessly and volunteer extra time and effort to teach and nurture the youth of the Philadelphia School District.  As PFT President, Jerry Jordan, states, “Our working conditions are our students’ learning condition.”  The PFT contract expired on August 31 and was extended for 60 days.  That means it is set to expire again on October 31, Halloween.  I hope for the sake of the students that Dr. Ackerman has a treat for Jerry Jordan and the PFT, and not a trick. 

Ed Olsen is a Social Studies Teacher and the PFT Building Rep. at Swenson Arts and Technology High School.

The Philadelphia Student Union Answers the Call

by Christopher Paslay


Chalk up another victory for the Philadelphia Student Union.  On Thursday they held a rally on the steps of Masterman High School that gleaned the attention of the Inquirer, Philadelphia’s biggest newspaper.  Now this prodigious group of Philly teens strikes again with an impressive response to yesterday’s blog, “To Members of the Philadelphia Student Union: You Must Speak Out Against Truancy”.


Dan Jones wrote the official comment, and it was very well crafted indeed (I am a high school English teacher so I read student writing with a critical eye).  The thing that impressed me the most was the timeliness of it: his response came not even four hours after I posted the blog entry.  That’s great journalism. 


Well done, Dan.  Again, it’s refreshing to see students taking stock in their educations.  Not only that, but getting active in the community in a positive way.  To be honest, I didn’t know a whole lot about the PSU, but Dan certainly enlightened me.  And I give the PSU website two thumbs up!


To keep the lines of communication open (because that’s what this is all about anyway, right?), I’d like to further discuss two points Dan made in his response to yesterday’s blog. 


The first is that Dan faults the “system” for the lack of parental and community involvement in education in Philadelphia.  He stated, “we argue that these things are not the fault of the people, but rather of a broken system that is failing everyone . . .”


This is where I disagree.  There is no such thing as “the system,” some detached entity that exists in a vacuum.  People ARE the system—parents, teachers, students, etc.  If we work, than the system works.  Just as members of the PSU have distinguished themselves with their activism and thirst for knowledge, so must parents and community; I do not accept the arbitrary excuse of a broken “system”.


The second idea I’d like to discuss is the PSU’s idea that parents must choose between work and their child’s education (as stated on their website).  As the old saying goes, a mother doesn’t divide her love between her children, she multiplies it.  The same goes for education: Moms and dads must extend their days (by getting up a half hour earlier perhaps) in order to MAKE time in their schedules to help their children with school.


Thank you again Dan for your insightful comments.  I am thoroughly impressed with you and the PSU.  I hope I can establish a dialogue with all of you, and I’ll visit your website often. 

To Members of the Philadelphia Student Union: You Must Speak Out Against Truancy

by Christopher Paslay


On Thursday, October 2nd, two dozen members of the Philadelphia Student Union gathered on the steps of Masterman High School to voice their displeasure over the perceived lack of attention being paid to students’ concerns during contract negotiations between the School Reform Commission and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (“Phila. students voice concerns on teacher pact,” Inquirer, Friday, 10/3).


Candace Carter, a senior at Sayre High School, stated, “Although we have a lot at stake in the teachers’ contract, there is no way for us to know whether or not our concerns are being addressed.”


A major concern for members of the Student Union is teacher equity, and the fact that some of Philadelphia’s lowest performing schools lack educators who meet No Child Left Behind’s standard of “highly qualified”. 


“I’ve seen students cut class and come to my classroom to avoid bad teachers,” said Finesse Davis, a senior at Overbrook High.  “The system of teacher distribution in Philadelphia is broken.”


It’s wonderful to see our city’s students fighting for a stake in their own education.  If these same teens approach their future careers with as much gusto and fervor, I’m sure they’ll all be extremely successful; I look forward to hearing good things from them.


To address their main concern, teacher equity, I’d like to state that I agree with them whole heartedly.  Philadelphia’s lowest performing schools desperately need highly qualified educators.  Teachers and the school district must come together to find ways to attract highly qualified teachers to failing schools, as well as retain the ones they already have.


With that said, failing schools also need help from parents and the community, as well as from the students themselves. 


Members of the Student Union must raise their voices and bring public awareness to other issues as well. 


Student truancy is a great place to start.  According to the Department of Human Services, more than 12,000 Philadelphia public school children are absent from school on any given day.  Student Union members must put pressure on their peers not to skip school or cut classes; Finesse Davis might want to suggest to her friends that cutting class is a bad idea, no matter what her friends’ opinions of their teachers might be.


The Philadelphia Student Union must also put pressure on their own parents (and parents of their peers), to get more involved in their educations.  Parental involvement in the Philadelphia School District is tragically low.


I wish members of the Student Union much success with their fight to bring teacher equity to Philadelphia public schools.  If they can rally to get their peers (as well as their own moms and dads) to take their educations more seriously, I’m sure a more equal distribution of teachers in low performing schools will soon follow.

Sandra Dungee Glenn Addresses PFT Contract Situation

by Christopher Paslay

Sandra Dungee Glenn, the chairwomen of the School Reform Commission, wrote a commentary in today’s Philadelphia Daily News headlined, “School progress & contracts”. In it she touts the experience of Arlene Ackerman, the Philadelphia School District’s newly appointed CEO, and highlights the support the district is receiving from “strong public education advocates” Mayor Nutter and Governor Ed Rendell, and “pro-education members in City Council”.

Dungee Glenn also emphasizes the academic progress the school district has made since the SRC’s inception in 2002, and “is excited by the potential to catapult this district forward through strategic partnerships that bring resources and support to our children.”

With that said, I’d like to commend Miss Dungee Glenn for her enthusiasm. Although her commentary is not a direct response to the article I wrote last Thursday in the Inquirer (How about the teachers?), I do find the timing quite curious. I also find the content curious as well. Dungee Glenn’s piece is well written, and it clearly rebuts (if not defends) most of the points brought up in my Inquirer commentary.

I thank Miss Dungee Glenn for writing this. It means she is open minded enough to hear the voice of a Philadelphia public school teacher, a voice I believe echoes the sentiments of a large majority of Philadelphia’s teachers (and quite possibly the PFT).

There are issues in Dungee Glenn’s article that need to be addressed, however. One is the idea of having teachers come to school before students and stay after they leave. Let’s be honest here—this has little to do with school safety. In fact, there are teachers who might feel less safe being forced to stay in the building after the bell. If the SRC wants to extend the school day, then they should just come out and say so; regardless, I feel too much emphasis is put on the length of the school day. There is a point of diminishing returns. More isn’t always better.

Second: I don’t believe the SRC is being totally honest concerning their one year contract offer to the PFT. In my opinion, the one year deal is more about control than it is about finding long term solutions. Contract negotiations have been going on since February 1st. Why hasn’t the long-term deal been put in place yet?

I hope this exchange (and our recent articles in the press) have opened the lines of communication with the SRC and the PFT. I truly believe we all want the same thing—the best educational resources for students, teachers, parents and the city. Hopefully we can all get on the same page and work this out soon.