Some Philly teachers plan a Wednesday strike

Half the faculty of a top city magnet school plans to skip class Wednesday, striking to send a message about the importance of women’s rights — and to underscore their contributions in education.

Nearly every female teacher at Science Leadership Academy in Center City plans on using a personal day to commemorate A Day Without a Woman, said Larissa Pahomov, an English teacher at the school. 

Science Leadership Academy teacher Larissa Pahomov helped organize a one-day strike among the female faculty of the Philadelphia magnet school.

Three-quarters of the faculty of Bayard Taylor Elementary in North Philadelphia plan to stay home for the same reason, teachers there said.

Like many others across the country, their efforts are an outgrowth of the January Women’s Marches in Washington and Philadelphia.  When the SLA teachers got word that their union, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, was planning an informational picket before school Wednesday, they wondered if they could go bigger.

“The more we talked about it, the more we realized — we could do this picket, and then we could keep going with the day,” said Pahomov.

In all, more than a dozen teachers — all but one, who needs to keep her personal days for a coming maternity leave — plan to participate in SLA’s Day Without a Woman. The school’s faculty is roughly half women, but the school’s male teachers agreed to the action and were involved in its planning.

The SLA women will show up at school before classes begin, participating in the informational picket, Pahomov said. They will then spend time readying messages for an afternoon of lobbying City Council members on education issues. Philadelphia schools have still not fully recovered from the crippling budget cuts of several years ago.

“We have one fewer science teacher,” Pahomov  said. “We do not have a librarian. We have an incomplete Spanish program, and that’s minor compared to what some schools are facing.”

Pahomov said the SLA women would also take messages from others who cannot take the day off.

Teachers have discussed A Day Without a Woman with students on an individual basis, Pahomov said.

“We agreed that it was important to personally share why we were involved,” she said. “We expect our students to attend school that day, but they’re welcome if they want to join us on the picket.”

The SLA faculty expects that substitute teachers will cover some vacancies but not all.

History teacher Dan Symonds said that men see their role as “holding down the fort” — he and others will pick up more class coverage. But the biggest gap, he said, will be going without what the school’s female teachers bring to the table.

“We’ll be missing the bulk of our teaching experience, the bulk of our pedagogical wisdom,” said Symonds. “We are bound to miss certain student needs that our female colleagues for various reasons can meet. We’re lucky that this is a one-day action, just to demonstrate the centrality of female staff in our school and every other school.”

Aggression toward teachers — and toward traditional public schools — must be fought back, Symonds said.

“We want to make the point that attacks on public schools are very specifically attacks on women, gendered attacks on what is historically a female profession,” Symonds said.

The Alexandria, Va., school system has canceled classes Wednesday because of widespread planned participation in A Day Without a Woman; those levels of participation are not expected in Philadelphia.

Michelle Gainer, a fifth grade teacher at Taylor, said that close to 30 of the school's 36 teachers plan on using personal or sick days to make a statement. Many will attend a rally in Center City, and they, like the SLA teachers, hope to draw attention to the fact that they have gone years without a contract or pay raise.

Teachers are underpaid, Gainer said, and that wouldn't happen in a male-dominated profession.

"We need to stand up — not just in Philadelphia — but across the nation," Gainer said. "Teachers deserve to make more. Philadelphia teachers deserve to make more. If our children are going to get the best possible education, we need to attract and retain the best teachers."

Lee Whack, a spokesman for the district, said that teachers must follow protocol for time off request, and that they are expected to be in class all day.

"The School District of Philadelphia respects the rights of district employees for self-expression," Whack said in a statement, though he said nothing can "deter us from our primary objective — the education of the children of Philadelphia."