In November 2019, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) suggested a change to teachers’ planning time. It did not go well for them. The suggestion: remove 250 minutes of planning time from its administrative rules and leave it up to each school district to decide how much time to allocate to teachers.
When Sarah Regan, a fourth-grade teacher in the Mehlville school district, heard about the proposed change, fear, among other emotions, set in.
“It was scary,” she shares. “Our number one goal as educators is to provide students with the best education possible. Our planning time allows us to reflect on how things went, where we want to go moving forward, and what students need.
The proposed language change by the state of Missouri upset a lot of us. It felt like we were being stopped from doing our job effectively.”
While teacher salary normally makes the five o’clock news, planning time is often just as precious to teachers. Yet, in many places nationwide, planning time has become micromanaged or attempts have been made to reduce it entirely—as was the case in Missouri.
Regan uses her planning time to collaborate with other educators in what is known as professional learning communities. There, she partners with her grade-level team and administrator to talk about her students’ progress. She also co-teaches with the English language learner and special education teachers, and time is set aside to co-plan with them.
The four-year elementary school teacher says she works in a district that is “awesome” and a school building that allows for self-directed planning time—meaning teachers get to decide what to do with their prep time. Yet, Regan was still upset, discouraged, and disappointed over this proposal.
“I also took it a little personal,” she adds.
So personal that she and thousands of her peers statewide joined Missouri NEA’s (MNEA) “Planning to Succeed” campaign to push back against DESE.
Planning to Succeed
If someone ever asks, “what can a union do for you,” direct the person to MNEA’s “Planning to Succeed” campaign. What started from a typical no-frills state board of education meeting, turned into a full-scale organizing and mobilization effort of thousands of educators.
MNEA is the only education organization to send representation to the state board of education meetings—and that person back in November was Ann Jarret, teaching and learning director for the state affiliate. When she heard what the state board was planning, she immediately informed MNEA’s political director, Mark Jones, who then worked closely with the affiliate’s three UniServ directors (the union staff person members turn to when a problem arises), Alice Floros, Kristin Owen and Elizabeth Zerr to develop statewide organizing proposal.
And like dominoes, the pieces started to fall in place.
Within weeks, state affiliate staff built a successful campaign centered on a rapid organizing response from field staff and members, with vital assistance from program staff and leadership from MNEA governance.
“Planning time is about respect for our educators,” says MNEA’s Elizabeth Zerr, Uniserv director. “They use their 250 minutes a week to craft engaging lesson plans for the week ahead, prepare a room for hands-on learning, or update parents on their child’s progress.”
Organizing tools were built and deployed statewide for field staff and included online petitions, letters, and post cards—ll directed to the education department and its board members. In fact, Postcards describing how educators use their planning time were mailed to the homes of school board members. The numbers were impressive, and thousands of educators acted.
These actions started on December 6 and by the 13th, the education department walked back on its suggestion and kept in place the 250-minute standard. A victory, indeed.
Within seven days, more than 5,000 educators took some form of action.
If these changes would have passed, “we wouldn’t have had not enough time to effectively plan,” explains Sarah Regan, “and this would have been detrimental to our students’ education, exploration, and engagement. Every student deserves a well-resourced school that inspires their natural levels of learning and curiosity, and we have the responsibility to support our students in that—planning time allows for this to happen.”
Lift as You Climb
Missouri’s School Improvement Plan included language that excluded counselors and librarians from getting the 250 minutes of planning time. After teachers saw their power through collective action, they took their organizing efforts one step further and reached back to help other educators.
Planning time is about respect for our educators. They use their 250 minutes a week to craft engaging lesson plans for the week ahead, prepare a room for hands-on learning, or update parents on their child’s progress.” - Elizabeth Zerr, Missouri NEA
"Returning to the status quo wasn’t enough for our members,” says Zerr, “and so we pushed harder and asked for the exclusion to be removed for our counselors and librarians. Many elementary school librarians, for example, teach all day and so for them to not have planning time is criminal.”
They also asked for planning time to be self-directed so educators can decide how to spend their time.
Educators went from having no minimum requirement for planning time language to in just a few days of the campaign having the 250-minute minimum reinstated and new language on adequate self-directed planning time of at least 250 minutes per week provided to certificated and licensed educators.
“We got everything we wanted,” says Zerr, emphasizing that his victory was possible because of “the work of my colleagues, the other UniServ directors, and our members—without their work all across the state, this plan would not have come together.”
Wins Within the Win
While the overarching goal of Missouri NEA’s campaign was to reinstate 250 minutes of planning time for teachers, counselors, and librarians, the campaign also served up other wins:
• Nearly 1,500 educators, who are not members (yet!) of the state affiliate, took some form of action. They either signed a petition, sent a letter, delivered a postcard, or did all three. “MNEA turned a potential setback into an opportunity: We will use the victory at the state level to advance even stronger planning time protections in local contracts.” explains Elizabeth Zerr.
• In some locals, 60 percent of members took an action. Typically, 20 percent of membership will take an action. Getting more than half of a local involved and engaged on an issue is a victory worth noting, as it builds community.
• Educators are usually closely connected to their locals, particularly in rural areas. The “Planning to Succeed” campaign connected educators to their state affiliate and underscored how the state apparatus organizes, provides resources, and works on their behalf.