Catholic School Teachers Wrestle With Faith and Obedience in Negotiating a Contract

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Wednesday morning, on the first day of the new school year at St. Paul?s Roman Catholic School in East Harlem, Gertrude Zagarella expects to arrive, as always, at 7:05. By 7:45, the children ? mostly Hispanic, black and poor ? will be done with breakfast, and then it is Ms. Zagarella?s responsibility to lead all the students, from kindergartners to eighth graders, into the gym for morning prayers.

The rest of Wednesday she will spend in Room 11, teaching the new first graders where to find the bathroom, when to wash their hands and how to properly stand in a lunch line. That first day, they feel smaller than they expected, but lucky for them, no one is more experienced at calming first-grade jitters than Ms. Zagarella.

Of the 56 years she has taught in Catholic schools, 55 have been in first grade. At 77, she can think of little that she does not love about it. First graders learn to read. First graders notice when she changes her hairstyle. First graders speak from the heart.

Ms. Zagarella once taught a boy who stood up in the middle of a lesson and announced he wasn?t going to grow up because he wanted to stay with her in first grade. ?That?s better than money,? she said.

Not completely. Ms. Zagarella earns $56,000 a year. When she retires, her annual pension will be $20,974. In New York?s public schools, teachers reach a maximum salary of $100,000 after 22 years, with a pension of $60,000.

Ms. Zagarella is a member of the Federation of Catholic Teachers, which is currently working without a contract. Members tend to be respectful of church leaders and not very threatening. ?I know the archdiocese doesn?t have a lot of money,? Ms. Zagarella said, ?but once in a while, if they could throw us something, the teachers would be grateful.?

Or as Patricia Gabriel, the union?s president, put it, ?When it comes to asking for more, it?s hard for our teachers to do it.?

Unions for public school teachers are sometimes criticized for wielding too much power, but teachers in Catholic schools suffer because theirs do not.

Alan Engram, 34, a science teacher at Monsignor Scanlan High School in the Bronx who makes $49,000 a year, lives with his father and brother and drives a 2004 Chevy Malibu. ?We?re not asking a lot,? he said. ?We?d just like them to meet us halfway.?

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