As teachers at Amherst Regional High School and other district schools readied to vote to “work-to-rule” in early February—in response to growing frustrations after a year of stalled contract negotiations and mediation with the school committee’s lawyers—I paid careful attention to the conversations that began to crop up during my short lunch block, one of the only times more than a handful of teachers join together in one place during the day to talk.
Work-to-rule, for anyone who doesn’t know the term, is when employees, often as part of an action backed by their labor union, work only the minimum required by the rules of their contract. If you’ve heard of “quiet quitting,” work-to-rule is kind of like that, but it’s a lot less “quiet” when it happens in your local public school. Not one single teacher I know works only between 8:15 a.m. and 3:45 p.m.
Hence the lunch conversations. One by one, the questions emerged: “Would work-to-rule mean we couldn’t email parents at night?” “Would we cancel or truncate our weekly club meetings?” “Would we really have to try to plan and teach everything and grade all those papers with only a little over an hour of prep time a day?” “Would we put off the field trips we scheduled?” “What about that all-day conference we just signed up for, taking place on a Saturday?” No one talked about how awesome it would be to bust out of school when the bell rang and get home by 4 p.m.; instead, each and every teacher I spoke to worried about how they would continue to excel at their jobs under work-to-rule, which sort of defeats the purpose of the action. One person finally put a fine point on it, admitting, “This would be hard for us. There’s no way we could everdo our job well within those limits.”
So why did over 90% of ARPS staff (across 7 schools) vote yes to work-to-rule, beginning Monday February 27? Beyond the obvious, that a 2.5% salary increase for two years followed by 2% in the third year (between $1,000 and $2,000 more per year for the lowest and highest paid teachers) is not only ignorant of the economic realities we are facing, it does not honor the collective wisdom and professionalism ARPS educators hold and the landscape educators have found themselves in over the last few years.
The economics are obvious. Gas, groceries, and electric bills are all on the rise; many teachers and paraeducators live paycheck to paycheck, and most people I know accept amassing debt as inevitable. While Social Security benefits and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments will increase by 8.7% in 2023, our projected salary increase sits at 2.5%. You don’t have to be a math teacher to realize this means your local educators are living in the red.
And for anyone out there who still thinks teachers have it easy because they get paid to “relax” all summer, our salary is only for our work from late August to June; most of us opt to spread it out across 26 pay periods, and many of us work other jobs in the summer—sometimes more than one—to make ends meet. I personally set aside at least 45 unpaid hours in the summer to write college recommendations, on top of all the unpaid planning I do for new classes. Last year alone, I spent over 100 unpaid hours developing a new Disability Justice Literature course that 50 seniors enrolled in this year.
At 48 years old, I have devoted myself to ARHS for 25 years—more than half my life. In order to be the most present, efficient, and loving educator I can be, I have created an endless slew of daily rituals. I prepare my entire week of healthy lunches on Sundays. I no longer drink alcohol. I go to bed by 10:30 p.m. every night, and walk 2 miles each morning. I meditate for 1.5 minutes at the start of each class just to catch my breath. These practices help me to work extremely long hours year after year—typically starting my first class at 9 a.m. and staying in the building until 6 p.m. or later (even on Fridays!) to tie things up for the next day. Still, I love my job, and I wouldn’t change much about it, with the exception of how much I am paid for the work I do.
And what we do matters more now than ever. Across the country, students are being policed in schools; critical race theory and queer-inclusive curricula are being censored or outright banned, even though BIPOC and trans students face incredible hurdles to their physical and emotional well-being. We are living in the midst of an environmental crisis, a youth mental health crisis, and a global pandemic. Tasked with too much, paid too little, and scapegoated for just about everything, American teachers are fleeing the profession in record numbers.
Despite this, in Amherst, educators are trying to stay in positions many of us have held for decades. While the College Board is stripping critical curriculum from its African American Studies AP class, our African American Literature and Contemporary Literature courses are expanding. While Florida says “Don’t Say Gay or Trans,” our ninth graders are engaging in a required unit about nonbinary identity and juvenile justice (The 57 Bus), and students can take LGBTQ Literature electives in 11th and 12th grade. As the English department head for the last seven years, my two biggest goals have been increasing the number of texts our students read about racial, social, and gender justice (we are now up to 75 novels and nonfiction texts in our required curriculum that fit the bill) and making our classes more accessible to all.
I am not an exceptional educator; people like me are the norm in our district. I work in a building teeming with the most talented, passionate people on earth—artists and writers in their own right, scientists, mathematicians, anthropologists, and linguists, counselors and restorative justice practitioners who bring their all to serving youth every single day. We create groundbreaking curricula, win Fulbrights, take part in international educator exchanges. We hold endless other honors and awards, including the local Robert Frost Teaching Chair and the Pioneer Valley Excellence in Teaching Award.
My colleagues have created new dance classes, adaptive PE classes, fiber arts classes, STEM and video production classes, and Chinese language courses. The theater company is booming. Clubs abound—from People of Color United to the Sexuality and Gender Alliance to Model UN to Best Buddies to a brand-new poetry club focusing on slam and spoken word.
For people who love their work so much that it’s hard to pull themselves away from it, going work-to-rule is a really big deal. But I’m not surprised by how many of us rallied around it. In the last few years, I’ve had a surprising number of conversations with teachers who feel dissatisfied and disillusioned in their jobs, and there is a direct correlation between teacher pay—especially among teachers who work as hard as we do—and teacher satisfaction.
Work-to-rule is one way we can say all of the following: We have dignity. We have needs. We deserve more than what we are getting. We are the ones, from kindergarten through senior year, who have helped our town’s children figure out not just what they want to be, but who they want to be, and who they are.
Our students know what we are worth. They collectively write hundreds of appreciative letters to us each year acknowledging the pivotal role we play in shaping their lives. But now it’s time for a contract that does the same: reflects our economic reality, recognizes the work we do, and affirms the impact we have.
If ever there was a time for the school committee to say “I see you,” “I thank you,” “I know 2.5% is not enough,” the time is now. We have waited long enough.
Sara Barber-Just is the English department head at ARHS, where she has worked for over 25 years. She created the first LGBTQ Literature course in a public school in the nation in 2002 and was one of four finalists for the Massachusetts Teacher of the Year in 2022.