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School & District Management

Principals Are Taking Over Teaching in L.A. While Staff Is on Strike

By Denisa R. Superville — January 16, 2019 5 min read
At Vine Street Elementary school in Los Angeles, a teacher and two aides oversee classes held in the auditorium on the first day of the teacher strike.

The last time Los Angeles teachers went on strike 30 years ago, Gary Garcia was a young, newly married teacher on the picket line demanding higher salaries.

This week, Garcia, now the principal of John Marshall High School, was playing a different role, running a school building while the teachers joined thousands of their colleagues on strike over demands for smaller class sizes, additional school counselors, nurses and librarians, and higher wages.

Like other building leaders in the nation’s second-largest school system, Garcia is both teacher and principal this week, and he’s expected to wear those two hats as long as the strike lasts. The district has deployed 1,400 substitutes and 2,000 administrators, some with teaching credentials, to help principals.

Principals are doing the best they can, but it’s going to be tough for them to juggle both teaching and administration if the strike drags on, said Juan Flecha, president of the Associated Administrators of Los Angeles, which represents about 2,800 principals, assistant principals, some central office administrators, and middle managers.

“I think under ordinary circumstances what our administrators will tell you is that there aren’t enough hours in the day to get the work done—that’s administration alone, much less balancing everything they have to do now, including teaching. It’s a very heavy lift, and very unrealistic in terms of working conditions.”

Missing Content Experts

With principals leading classroom instruction, they are spending time away from the normal work they would have been engaged in—such as meeting with parents or dealing with discipline issues. And in many instances, principals are not content experts in the classes they are expect to teach, particularly at the high school level where deeper expertise is important, Flecha said.

“It’s difficult to be in two places at once, but I think it’s more difficult at the secondary level,” he said.

See Also: Teacher Strikes: 4 Common Questions

Only about a third of the 485,000 students in the district showed up to school on the first day of the strike.

The low attendance made conditions more manageable for principals and substitutes, but brought additional worries: Students who are not in school are not learning, and the district is losing daily attendance funding every day students stay at home.

Flecha worries that as attendance rises, which it did over the first couple days of the strike, it will “become challenging to provide a safe environment and a quality instructional program.”

“If teachers stay out and there aren’t enough substitutes, that’s going to become a big headache for administrators,” he said.

The principals Education Week spoke with this week said that creating a safe learning environment for students during the strike—whatever the duration—was their priority.

Joe Nardulli, the principal of Vista Middle School, where about 42 percent of the school’s staff was out on the picket line on Tuesday, said he, school administrators, and the remaining staff were working to ensure that students continued learning and had a safe place to go during the work stoppage.

“This has been a difficult situation to be in,” Nardulli said in a phone interview.

Students at Vista Middle School were grouped by grade level and spent the day working in large campus spaces, including the physical fitness room.

The district provided grab-and-go lessons for students, including online skills-based math programs and English language arts lessons, which will ideally allow teachers to pick up where they left off when they return, he said.

Still, Nardulli, who estimated that he is spending about 25 percent of the day teaching, left school around 9:45 p.m. on Monday—much later than normal.

But, he said, he did not want to dwell on that.

“Let’s be honest—teachers have a challenging job and so many responsibilities,” he said. “Administrators do also. There is really never enough time in the day to do all the things that we want to do because as teachers, and as principals, and as leaders, we are perfectionists.”

Up at Night Working on Lesson Plans

Garcia, the principal at John Marshall High School, taught a civil rights lesson on James Baldwin to 11th graders on the strike’s first day, and tackled a combined 9th and 10th grade world history lesson using Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies in the afternoon.

“The 11th grade went really well,” he said, during a mid-morning break.

The school’s four assistant principals were also on classroom duty: One worked on science projects, with seniors helping out freshmen, while another, who teaches math at a community college, took over math instruction.

The district also sent over three administrators to help, and most students said that their teachers had given them work to complete during the strike.

And the staff set up a study hall with computers in the gym for Advanced Placement students to work in groups.

Only about 12 percent of the school’s nearly 2,500 students attended.

And the strike wasn’t far from their minds. One of the first questions the students asked was, “How long is this going to last?’” Garcia said. He had no definitive answer to give them.

Garcia had spent all weekend developing lesson plans for the classes he intended to teach this week.

“Instead of doing administrative work at night, I’m doing lesson planning at night,” he said.

Although the lessons were standards-based, it was not the same as having regular classroom teachers, he said.

“They are not going to do much writing this week, that’s not good,” Garcia said. “And even though I am offering lectures, they are more college-style lectures and not high school teaching. My administrators and I cannot replace what classroom teachers do.”

While Garcia would not offer a position on the strike, he had discussed it with the teachers.

“I told my teachers I completely empathized with them,” he said. “If your union is making this decision, it’s an agonizing decision. ...I just hope that both parties come together.”

Administrators are stuck in the middle. Those that support their teachers can’t strike in solidarity, Flecha said.

“They have to toe the line as the face and the representative of the district on that campus,” he said.

Even when the strike is over, principals will have a new hurdle: rebuilding a collaborative environment in their schools.

Not all teachers are out on the picket line, and depending on how long the work stoppage lasts, some may decide to go back to work. That could lead to friction among staff members, and it will be up to the principals to recreate a culture conducive to student learning, Flecha said.

After the nine-day strike in 1989, it took years in some cases to smooth out lingering hard feelings, he recounted.

“If you were a teacher and did cross the line, you were effectively shunned by the faculty who struck,” Flecha said. “And in some cases, the harm was irreparable.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 23, 2019 edition of Education Week as With L.A. Teachers Still on Strike, Principals Take Over Instruction

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