Teachers union boss and longtime Northeast Philadelphia resident Ted Kirsch has announced that he will be retiring this summer.
Kirsch, 79, has been president of the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers since 2005. He previously served as head of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers for 15 years.
“I’m in the fourth quarter right now, didn’t get to the two-minute warning yet, but in July, I’m going to be 80,” Kirsch, who lives in Torresdale, said. “There comes a time. I’ve always felt that too many union leaders wait forever.”
“I’ve been lucky. I’ve had a great career as a teacher, which I loved, and then working for the union, which I loved,” he added.
Kirsch settled in the Northeast after getting married in 1959. He lived in Bustleton and moved to Baker’s Bay in 1988. His wife, Roberta, who spent many years as a special education teacher at Edison High School, died in 2017.
As AFT Pennsylvania president, Kirsch presides over a union that represents 26,000 school employees in Pennsylvania and Delaware. His successor will be elected at a convention in June.
Kirsch, who grew up in West Philadelphia, ascended through the ranks of the union after becoming a member in 1965 while teaching at Overbrook High School.
On a couple of occasions, he was arrested on the picket line and packed into the Roundhouse along with other teachers during contentious strikes in the 1970s and 1980s.
That spirit and his interest in the labor movement began at a young age. Two of his uncles were union officials, and his dad tried to organize workers at his factory during World War II.
“As a kid growing up, we had family dinners,” Kirsch said. “We would sit around, and I’m just a kid sitting on the floor listening to this conversation of all these guys. They talked about unions and social issues. I literally grew up with that background.”
He joined the union’s staff in 1970 but took a break to teach at Washington High School for two years in the early 1980s.
As always, there’s been a lot of talk recently about the School District of Philadelphia and its struggles. Kirsch said he believes returning the district to local control has been a step in the right direction. Until last summer, the system was run by a state-appointed board.
“I think they’re trying to change the direction,” Kirsch said. “To me, nothing’s going to really change until they start listening to the teachers. The teachers are there. They know what needs to be done.”
Kirsch credited the PFT with raising awareness about the deteriorating conditions in many of the city’s aging school buildings.
Current PFT President Jerry Jordan took over after serving as Kirsch’s director of staff when Kirsch left to lead the state union.
“Ted has always believed that educators know what’s best for the children they serve every day, and he dedicated his entire career to ensuring that teachers and school staff have a voice in their workplace,” Jordan said in a statement to the Times. “Ted will be remembered as a staunch advocate for education funding, and as a union leader who spent decades fighting to give all of our children the schools they deserve.”
AFT President Randi Weingarten called Kirsch a “mentor, friend and colleague for over three decades.”
Kirsch said he plans to spend most of the summer at his shore house in Ventnor before returning home to draw up a “game plan” for his retirement. ••
Jack Tomczuk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org