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Know your rights as a speech teacher

New speech teachers have many questions. Here are some of the issues you have raised at meetings, with answers that should help you understand your rights and responsibilities.

Q: HOW DO I KNOW WHETHER OR NOT I AM DOING WELL?

A: Read about the teacher evaluation system. At the end of each school year, you will receive a rating from your principal. It will reflect an evaluation done jointly with your speech supervisor. Unless you have received unsatisfactory observation reports or letters for your file, you should receive a satisfactory rating for the year. If you have been getting poor ratings on lessons or other matters, you should have already met with your chapter leader to discuss the possible remedies. If you get an "unsatisfactory" rating for the year, it will be delivered to you 10 days before the end of the school year. At that point, your options depend on your status. Therefore, immediately contact a U-rating Advocate at your nearest UFT borough office and also call the speech chapter hotline.

Q: WHAT ARE THE RULES REGARDING ABSENCES?

A: As you work, you earn one sick day each month, and you can use up to 10 sick days a year, including three for personal business (if the principal approves in advance). Your sick days can be self-treated, and a doctor's note is not a requirement for illnesses of 10 days or less. Any sick days that you do not use in a school year will accumulate in your Cumulative Absence Reserve (CAR) for future use.

Q: CAN ABSENCE OR LATENESS BE A FACTOR IN MY RATINGS?

A: If you are ill, you have a right to stay home, and your absence should not be used against you. However, principals have been known to use alleged poor attendance or a pattern of absences before and after holidays and weekends as a factor in rating staff members. (Lateness due to a major weather or traffic problem is usually excused, but a pattern of lateness can raise questions and can result in your being docked part of a day's pay.) If a principal thinks a teacher's record of attendance or lateness may lead to a U-rating, he or she should send a warning letter.

Q: CAN A WARNING LETTER GO INTO MY FILE WITHOUT MY KNOWLEDGE?

A: No. Your file should contain only items that have your signature, which shows that you have seen the material; by signing you do not concede that any allegations in the letter are true. If you receive a warning letter that does not ask for your signature, then it cannot be put in your file. You have the right to examine your file at any time, with a day's advance notice to the school secretary or principal. You are also entitled to free copies of the file contents. If your file contains unsigned items, especially those that could be used for disciplinary purposes, see your chapter leader or contact the Speech Teacher hotline at (212) 598-7742, Monday through Thursday, from 3:30 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. You may decide to file a grievance in order to remove such improper materials.

Q: BESIDES LETTERS, WHAT ELSE ORDINARILY GOES INTO MY FILE?

A: Observation reports are among the key items to go into your file. As a speech teacher, your speech supervisor writes the observation report after watching you at work with your students. In a collaborative, professional relationship like the one the UFT is trying to promote, your supervisor lets you know in advance when an observation will take place, though this is not required. You may ask for a pre-observation conference and may use that meeting to clarify what the supervisor expects. After the observation, your supervisor should have a post-observation conference with you to go over your lesson's strengths and weaknesses. Later, when you receive your observation report, sign it - even if you do not agree with it - to acknowledge that you have seen it before it goes into your file.

Q: WHAT IF MY OBSERVATION REPORT IS NEGATIVE?

A: Not every supervisor understands how to encourage new teachers, even if they need lots of support. So be prepared to receive a share of negative comments. However, the bottom line is the lesson's rating. If a lesson is "satisfactory," even with many negative comments, it is still considered "satisfactory." A report with no rating or something vague like "doubtful" is technically incorrect. Call the chapter hotline if you get an "unsatisfactory" or questionable rating on an observation.

Q: WHAT IF I DISAGREE WITH THE OBSERVATION REPORT?

A: That depends. The main thing is - don't do anything in haste! You have the right to grieve an observation report or respond to it within 30 working days - about five weeks. Your status as a PPT, CPT, or appointed teacher and other circumstances in your case may make one or another direction advisable, so call a chapter executive board member or our hotline to help you decide how to proceed. If the observation report was unfair or inaccurate, you may decide to file a grievance. If you want to state your point of view without challenging the rating, you may decide to respond in a letter. Your letter is attached to the observation and placed in your file. Your supervisor cannot respond to your letter.

Q: WHAT DOES IT MEAN IF MY SUPERVISOR VISITS TO LOOK AT LESSON PLANS OR PAPERWORK?

A: Sometimes supervisors visit for administrative purposes and do not see you working with students. They may check how well you handle paperwork and maintain your daily lesson plans. While the UFT eliminated the abusive practice of mass collection of lesson plans and won for teachers the right to decide on the lesson plan format, supervisors often focus on new teachers' ability to manage these administrative chores as much as on their clinical abilities. You can get help with lesson planning from a mentor or other experienced colleague. In general, it should include the date, each student's name, the day's goal, the materials you may use, and a brief evaluation of the session. You are not required to do a task analysis or use a specific lesson-plan format. Also, maintain some kind of clinical record book and keep it up-to-date.