Ted Kirsch started as a Philadelphia public schoolteacher, rose to the ranks of union president, and for decades has served as a key education labor leader, locally and for the last 14 years across the state.

In June, he plans to retire, just shy of his 80th birthday.

“It’s time,” Kirsch said Tuesday afternoon.

He will not seek reelection to his current post as statewide president of the American Federation of Teachers, he said. He will preside over his last AFT convention at the end of June in Philadelphia.

Kirsch started his career as a social studies teacher at the former Thomas Junior High School, then became president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers in 1990. He participated in multiple strikes — went to jail a couple times for his work on the picket lines — and led teachers under several superintendents, including Constance Clayton, David Hornbeck, and Paul Vallas. He also was at the helm during the tumultuous state takeover of the School District in 2001.

At a book giveaway, AFT Pennsylvania president Ted Kirsch (left) and PFT president Jerry Jordan talk with fifth grader Mikalya McDonnell.
RON TARVER / Staff Photographer
At a book giveaway, AFT Pennsylvania president Ted Kirsch (left) and PFT president Jerry Jordan talk with fifth grader Mikalya McDonnell.

“He has been a soldier in the fight for working families in Pennsylvania, as well as a leader in our movement and a fighter for public education," said AFT president Randi Weingarten. "Ted understands how to move our values to action and has left his mark on all of us.”

AFT Pennsylvania represents 26,000 members, including teachers, paraprofessionals, and support staff in public, private, and charter schools, as well as members in early childhood education and on college campuses.

Born in Philadelphia, Kirsch is a graduate of West Philadelphia High School and West Chester University. Both his parents were union members. Kirsch began his career as a union leader in 1965 as building representative at Overbrook High School. He was in the trenches during two major strikes, one in 1973 and another in 1983 that lasted six weeks.

Kirsch led Philadelphia teachers for 17 years, leaving in 2007, about the same time that Vallas departed. He served seven terms as head of the statewide union, beginning in 2005 after the death of Albert Fondy. He boasts he never lost a union election. And he says he’s been involved in negotiating more union contracts than he can count.

He has remained involved in local education contracts, noting that he worked “behind the scenes” in the most recent negotiations for a new faculty and staff contract at the Community College of Philadelphia.

“That was always my approach, to get things done without bluster,” he said. “Just commonsense approach, I guess.”

When he thinks about his career, he smiles. He’s interacted with political leaders at all levels — what he saw as key to successful contract negotiating. In his office hang photographs of Kirsch with leaders, including the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Edward Kennedy.

“I’ve been to the White House to meet presidents,” he said. “I’ve been to the governor’s mansion. I’ve traveled the world. I’ve met so many people.”

He loved teaching, too, he said. He’s been to two 50th-year reunions of students he taught at Overbrook.

“They invited me back,” he said.

Kirsch said he plans to stay active. His wife of 57 years died in 2017, but he has someone new in his life, he said. And he hopes to mentor new union leaders.

“I will find projects I’m interested in and keep busy,” he said. “I’m in the fourth quarter of the game, but I didn’t get to the two-minute warning yet.”