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1970 Strike in Philadelphia

August 7, 2014

As noted in earlier posts, my niece, who is a follower of this blog, is about to begin her second go-round as a high school math teacher. Since I will be unable to maintain my blog for a couple of weeks, I thought I would share some stories from my first go-around as a junior high math teacher in Philadelphia.

Here’s a description of the Philadelphia teachers strike in September 1970 as seen through the eyes of a new teacher: 

As a newly assigned teacher to Shaw Junior High School, I was given the opportunity to teach summer school algebra at the school along with a group of Penn graduates who were fast-tracking their certification. The students in the class were much more motivated than the ones I encountered as a substitute but not as motivated as the some of the students I encountered as a student teacher at West Philadelphia High. Their primary motive for attending summer school was to gain promotion to high school. In most cases they were students who skipped too many classes or missed too much school, but in a few cases they were diligent students who just struggled with grasping the subject.

I mention this because my participation in this summer program may be one reason I was not approached to join the union. Indeed, as a “rookie teacher” to the Philadelphia School system I do not recall ever being asked to join the Philadelphia teachers union or ever being given an information packet from the union describing the benefits of joining. I was surprised at this because the newspapers were full of reports about a pending strike and about the steps the district planned to take to staff the schools with new recruits and substitutes in the event the strike occurred. In retrospect I think the major issue at Shaw Junior High was the fact that they were going to be effectively doubling the size of the school by expanding to two shifts and it was probably unclear to the union who was moving to the school and where the teachers were moving from.

The net effect of all of this disarray was that despite the strike, when Shaw Junior High opened, I found myself walking past a line of teachers with picket signs into the auditorium at Shaw Junior high where I was joined by a group that included some of my summer school colleagues, some other newly appointed teachers, some substitute teachers, and a handful of experienced teachers who were not union members by choice. Ms. Hawkins, the mathematics department head, was among the group of experienced teachers on hand and she met with me and the others who crossed the picket lines to learn about the math curriculum and the procedures for procuring textbooks, materials, and AV equipment.

When I returned home after my first day of orientation I was surprised to see media reports of how the strike was playing out In other schools, accounts that included angry pickets shouting at the top of the lungs at “scabs” who crossed picket lines. After my “Fishman” experience I wasn’t entirely certain that these were not staged events… but I learned when I attended my first graduate school class at Penn a few weeks later that the angry picket lines were real and Shaw Junior High was the exception.



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