All About Advocacy

Omaha Teacher’s Visit with Blomstedt Aids Push for Plan Time

In his roles teaching ESL for the Omaha Public Schools and as a building association representative for the Omaha Education Association, Lee Perez talks to a lot of people.

From those conversations and from personal experience, Perez knows that in this year of pandemic, teachers are struggling. He freely admits that he has struggled, too.

There are the difficulties that come with simultaneously teaching kids in the classroom and kids online, ever-changing safety protocols and the need to develop broader technology skills, among other issues. There is also the overall collective stress weighing on the school community as staff at every level work to move students forward while keeping every child safe.

All that is on top, says Perez, of shrinking blocks of plan time for teachers. Educators are spraying and scrubbing rooms between brief moments of teaching. They are giving up plan periods to fill in for ill or quarantined colleagues, as substitutes are in high demand or unavailable. In his conversations with other educators, Perez said teachers have told him they are tired and stressed. The weariness, he says, can be boiled down to a handful of issues.

“There is not enough time,” said Perez. “Teachers are doing something they’ve never been asked to do. And there’s not always a lot of clear guidance.”

So, when he had the opportunity in late September to bend the ear of the state’s top educator – Commissioner of Education Dr. Matt Blomstedt – Perez took on another role: that of advocate in search of more plan time for all Nebraska pre-K-12 teachers.

That opportunity also reinforced his belief that association membership and the association’s advocacy is essential.

‘A 12-Minute Talk’

Perez is one of 15 NSEA members serving on the Commissioner’s Teacher Advisory Committee, gathering virtually once a month with Blomstedt to talk about teaching and learning issues (see story, page 8). The committee usually breaks into small groups, with Blomstedt flowing in and out of those breakouts.

“He happened to come into my session, and I ended up having a good 10- to 12-minute talk with him,” said Perez. “I just mentioned that plan time and professional development time needed to be extended and instructional hours need to be lessened. I said during a normal school year, I can see why high instructional hours would be important. But this is definitely an abnormal school year.”

Within a few days, Perez began to see social media notifications indicating that Blomstedt would announce guidance encouraging school administrators across the state to extend plan time for educators. On Friday, Oct. 2, Blomstedt formally proposed reducing the number of instructional hours, giving educators more plan time (see sidebar, this page). The commissioner’s guidance was just that – guidance. The decision to expand teacher plan time is up to local school officials. And while Perez can’t be certain that it was his conversation that drove Blomstedt to issue the guidance, he is pleased. He said Blomstedt listened and did not disagree.

 “He listened, and that’s good,” said Perez. “Right now, we need leadership from the top guiding superintendents through this unknown territory.”

‘Exhausting’

Perez swims on a regular basis, and in the not too distant past ran 60 miles a week. Those workouts are nothing like the hybrid teaching – some kids in the classroom, some online – that he’s experiencing now.

“It is the most exhausting thing I’ve ever done,” he said.

His colleagues tell him they are experiencing similar exhaustion.

“I have never seen the teachers so tired and beat up,” he said. “They’re just at a loss for words, because it’s not easy to do what they’re being asked to do with the amount of plan time they’re giving us.

“I’m just hoping that a lot of the superintendents are willing to grant us more plan time, more professional development because what we’re doing is an incredible amount of work.”

Perez fears a “mass exodus of teachers” if there is not some kind of relief.

“It is a fatigue that I have never felt in my life, and everybody is experiencing it.”

And, teachers are willing to work; administrators are trying to do what’s right.

“Teachers just need the time to do the work,” he said. “I want to advocate for the administration and superintendents, too, because I know they’re put in tough spots. Our superintendent has done a pretty good job, based on the circumstances.”

‘Fighting for Teachers’

Perez is pleased that NSEA encouraged Blomstedt to form the advisory committee.

“I can be a voice, not just for Omaha Public Schools. I’ve told people on the committee that I want to be a voice for teachers all over Nebraska,” he said.

He also extended a personal thanks to Blomstedt for listening to the committee’s concerns. And he thanked NSEA for making the advisory committee possible.

“When people ask, ‘what are unions for?’ – this is what unions are for,” said Perez.

“I always encourage people to join the union. I tell them I am fighting for teachers. So if you’re a teacher, I’m fighting for your rights as much as I would fight for anybody’s rights.”