Want to teach part time? It’s complicated…


English teacher Amy Morrissey picks up her son Gabriel from preschool. Morrissey is one of two teachers who were denied part time status this year. Interviews with nine teachers as well as former and present school and town administrators found that the process of deciding part time status is often confusing, non-linear and opaque. Photo by Sofia Tong.

In August 2011, English teacher Amy Morrissey gave birth to her second son, Gabriel. She took maternity leave during the first semester of the 2011-2012 year.

While her contract would have allowed her to extend her leave for up to two years for the purpose of childrearing, Morrissey wanted to return to teaching instead of having no income for two years. Her full time position was available the following September, but she wanted to teach part time to balance her job with the needs of her young children.

So she applied to the town to teach 0.75 time for the 2012-2013 school year.

Morrissey was denied a part time position but successfully appealed the decision. The next year, she applied for a second year of part time, was denied and then submitted a successful appeal once again.

Morrissey applied and was denied part time status a third time. However, unlike in previous years, her appeal was unsuccessful. Morrissey was told she had to teach full time for the 2014-2015 school year.

Morrissey and another English teacher, Jennifer Breen Rose-Wood, are the only academic teachers whose requests to teach part time have been denied out of a total of 10 who have requested to switch from full time to part time over the past five years, according to information provided by curriculum coordinators and teachers.

Data collection on this issue was difficult. Neither Superintendent Bill Lupini nor Headmaster Deborah Holman had data available on the number of part time teachers in recent years, the number of part time requests in recent years or the approval rate for those requests.

However, former headmaster Robert Weintraub, who left the high school in 2011, said he did not remember any teachers’ part time requests being denied during his 22-year tenure at the school.

Human Resources Director Angela Allen, who many teachers said had a major role in the process of granting or denying part time requests, would not comment and referred all questions to Lupini. And of the 16 teachers contacted for interviews, seven declined to comment.

However, multiple conversations with teachers as well as former and present school and town administrators revealed that the process of deciding part time status is often confusing, nonlinear and opaque.

Mixed signals

In order to become part time, a teacher first sends a formal request to Town Hall. The process ends when the human resources department notifies the teacher as to whether their request has been granted or denied. However, what happens in between is not completely clear.

According to Holman, the human resources department makes the final decision about whether to approve part time requests or not. Four curriculum coordinators agreed that, although the town asks them whether they approve of a request, it is up to the town to make the final decision.

But Lupini said he tries to give the headmaster and curriculum coordinators relative autonomy over the decisions.

Lupini said he gives the headmaster a structure in terms of budget and staffing for the upcoming year. From there, the headmaster and curriculum coordinators try to find ways to accommodate teachers’ requests while remaining within that structure.

“What we’ve tried to do over the last three or four years is say, ‘We’ll give you a framework to operate in, but the decisions are yours’ to the headmaster and department heads,” Lupini said. “‘As long as you stay within that framework, you tell us what you want to do.’”

According to English Curriculum Coordinator Mary Burchenal, the feasibility of having a part time position is a back-and-forth process between the superintendent, headmaster, curriculum coordinators and the human resources department. She said they weigh factors such as sectioning and budget, although sometimes those factors are not confirmed until after part time positions are decided.

Holman also said that the possibility of granting part time requests relies heavily on scheduling, which is discussed in conversations with the curriculum coordinators. She said she is committed to granting requests fairly for all departments.

“If I support part time, I need to be able to do that equitably, across the board for all departments, for all teachers,” Holman said.

Holman said there are usually few available positions for part time teachers.

“In rare circumstances, under some pretty extraordinary circumstances, we may consider a teacher who needed to go part time,” Holman said.

The outcome of the application process is different in different departments. In the social studies department, Jenny Longmire was able to resign 0.4 of her full time position and become a 0.6 time teacher starting this school year.

The only academic department in which a teacher who applied for part time status has been denied in recent years is the English department. According to Burchenal, this could be because full time English teachers teach four classes, while teachers in other departments teach four classes of their subject plus an extra, for example Tutorial. This makes English teachers more expensive to hire.

The English department also has the most part time teachers overall, with 10 part time teachers making up 33 percent of the department. The average percentage of part time teachers for the five academic departments is 15 percent.

In the Math department, Debbie Winkler said she applied for a part time leave of absence for the 2013-2014 school year and was initially rejected because she had applied after the deadline. But over the summer, a position opened up when another part time teacher retired, and Winkler was able to teach part time for the 2013-2014 year and was able to resign 0.4 of her position the following year.

But Morrissey’s application process went differently. Morrissey said that when the town denied her requests, their response was brusque and brief.

“The reply was a two-sentence letter letting me know that I had been denied and that I was expected to come back to work full time,” Morrissey said.

She said the response did not explain why her request was denied.

“The experience was incredibly impersonal, in terms of interacting with Town Hall,” Morrissey said. “To be issued a two-sentence reply with no opportunity and no invitation for follow-up was frustrating.”

Lupini said that if Morrissey was sent a form email, it would have been a mistake and apologized if she felt disrespected.

He said faculty members should contact him if they had issues with the process.

Sunday dinner and no cut corners

Of the 10 teachers who have gone from full time to part time since the 2010-2011 school year, all are women, and all but one applied in order to balance their jobs with caring for children.

Math teacher Danielle Rabina, who teaches 0.6 time, said there are benefits of being part time both for her and for her students.

“Being part time has allowed me to continue to devote a large amount of time to the students I teach, as there are fewer of them in total,” Rabina said. “It allows me to feel balanced and capable as a working parent.”

Winkler said that once she transitioned to teaching part time, she was able to devote more time to improving the quality of the classes she taught.

“I had all this time to be creative,” Winkler said.

School within a School English teacher Abby Erdmann has taught part time since 1975, when her first child was born. She said that since then, she has been able to find time for herself as well as her children, while also putting extra effort into her job. On a Sunday night in January, for example, she had dinner with one of her classes so they could read their papers for their parents.

“I don’t think I’d have the energy to do that if I were full time,” she said.

Administrators were understanding of the need for some teachers to become part time. Social Studies Curriculum Coordinator Gary Shiffman said that granting part time requests helps the school keep high quality, happy teachers.

“People who would like to be full time, I’d like them to be full time,” Shiffman said. “Teachers who’d like to be part time, I’d like them to be part time.”

Holman said that it was important to her that the high school be a positive environment for staff.

“I want the high school workplace to be a humane and supportive place for employees, and in particular a family-friendly place that is able to support teachers who have young families,” Holman said.

Lupini concurred and emphasized the need to evaluate both teachers’ and administrators’ constraints.

“We want to have good teachers,” Lupini said. “We try to work with them with what’s going on in their lives, what’s going on in their families, but we also have to balance that in terms of what’s best for the students and what’s best in terms of running a school and in terms of running a department.”

A strain on the community

One drawback to allowing teachers to switch from full time to part time is the potential expense for the town.

According to the Public Schools of Brookline website, staff who teach 0.5 time or above are eligible to receive the same benefits from the town as full time teachers. If there are more part time teachers in a school, more teachers must be hired to cover all classes. And if more teachers are hired, the town may have to cover benefits for more people, depending on whether or not teachers use the benefits offered to them.

“I think as our enrollment has grown, those issues have become more difficult for us as a system,” Lupini said. “The number of dollars we’ve been given in order to meet the growing enrollment need hasn’t kept up.”

Lupini said he thinks the town is generous in giving leaves beyond what is contractually mandated.

“Somebody has to make a decision,” Lupini said. “They can’t grant them all.”

Burchenal said that although having stressed and overworked teachers hurts students, overspending in the district hurts them as well. Shiffman said that some school districts never allow full time teachers to become part time because they cannot afford the possible benefits. Shiffman also said that having too many part time teachers can make the school more difficult to run.

“People come and go, they have weird schedules, they’re not here all the time, it’s hard for them to meet with each other,” Shiffman said. “And the fact is, part time teachers are part time because they have lots of other things going on in their lives.”

Holman said that 10 years ago, when she was the vice principal of Newton North High School, the school had difficulty working with a large number of part time teachers.

“We felt that the departments were fracturing a little bit,” Holman said.

The administration subsequently cut down on the number of part time teachers. She said that the departments became more cohesive and communicative. She also said she feels it is important that teachers are able to meet with students.

“In the end, you want a majority of full time people in the school, and in any department in general, because you want to maximize adult contact time with kids,” Holman said.

However, Holman also said that most part time teachers do spend much of the day in the building even if they are not teaching a class.

“Most of them put in a full day and they are present on campus and available to kids, and they are very dedicated professionals,” Holman said.

Screen Shot 2015-03-25 at 3.22.33 PM
Section 5.9 of the 2011-2014 contract between the Brookline School Committee and the Brookline Educators Union.

Stretched thin

Winkler chose to apply for part time because she was unhappy with her quality of life balancing a full time job with raising three children, who were nine, 11 and 13 years old at the time. She said she had been stressed when her children were born but reached her limit in 2013.

“When you’re functioning at 100 percent and anything goes wrong—your kid gets sick, you get a flat tire—and you’re so scheduled, it’s just really hard to get through the day,” Winkler said.

Winkler said she is grateful for her ability to become part time despite missing the deadline.

“I don’t know what I would’ve done,” she said of the possibility of having been denied.

Rose-Wood requested to teach part time last winter, when her daughter was 9 months old and her son was 2 1/2 years old. She took maternity leave during the first semester last year and then taught half time during the second semester.

Rose-Wood said that even teaching two classes gave her a 35-hour work week, including her out-of-school work such as lesson planning and grading.

“I was at max capacity, in terms of teaching just two classes with two young children at home,” Rose-Wood said. “There’s just not enough hours in the day.”

This year, Rose-Wood was denied part time status but had an assistant teach two of her classes during the first semester. Second semester, she has a full course load.

“I’m really scared,” RoseWood said. “My kids have been getting sick. I’ve been getting sick. I can’t take care of my family.”

Morrissey said there is a need for sensitivity from both sides in dealing with the question of part time teachers.

“These are deeply personal and complicated issues,” she said.

Holman said her goal is to minimize confusion and conflict between teachers and administrators. She said she hopes to discuss the issue some time in the future.

“I want to be able to have a healthy conversation between teachers, the curriculum coordinator and the HR office about when that is appropriate,” she said.

Rosa Stern Pait and Sofia Tong can be contacted at [email protected]
Jeremy Margolis and Eoin Walsh contributed reporting.