Mar 24, 2018
When I tell stories about the two years I spent as a public school teacher, I instinctively glance at my hands. I've learned to cover for it by stretching my arms out in front of me like I'm winding up to pitch, or sliding my hands into my pockets to strike my most casual conversational pose. What I'm actually doing is looking at the piece of graphite that's still buried in my right palm.
Every teacher has at least one class that they need to watch at all times, and mine was fifth period English in 2011. They were the class that made substitutes cry, and that once knocked down the temporary wall separating my room from the one next door. One day, after I passed out pencils, I tried to put the extras down on the desk behind me without turning around. I missed and hit the edge of the desk, driving the freshly-sharpened tips straight into my own palm.
I laughed when it happened. There was a hunk of graphite driven a quarter inch into my hand and a jagged flap of skin that I would later cut off with eyebrow scissors, and there was absolutely nothing I could do for the next sixty minutes. I stared straight into the bloody mess and let loose a cackle while the look on my students' faces shifted from shock to horror. Then I put my thumb over the wound to stop the bleeding, and kept teaching.
In between that class period and the next one, I had four minutes to run to the bathroom. I stared at the sign above the sink warning me not to drink the water, and wondered if getting toxic water in an open cut was dangerous. That's when I began to wonder what, exactly, I was doing with my life.
I hadn't planned to be a teacher. But when I went home for Thanksgiving my senior year of college and told my grandmother my master plan--to write freelance for a local arts website while I volunteered with advocacy groups--it knocked the wind out of her. Then, for the first and only time in my life, she gave me clear instructions on what she expected me to do next. I needed to go to graduate school, she said. I needed to get a masters' degree, and a stable job doing something that could actually support me.
Teaching was the most stable career I could think of. I got that masters' degree, and a job outside of Washington, D.C. My professors had warned me that the first year would be hard, but what they hadn't told me was that my brand new career was essentially a pressure cooker.
During my first faculty meeting, I found out that my new colleagues had not received a raise in three years. The administration gave the union a choice when the recession hit: either lay off teachers, or give up their raises for the foreseeable future. The union voted for the latter, not knowing that their wages would be frozen for the better part of a decade. Our school--one of the only low-income schools in an otherwise affluent district--was failing, and if we didn't raise test scores people were going to start losing their jobs anyway. But the new principal had some big ideas, she told us, and we were going to do this together.
Her first idea was ending all out-of-class discipline. Research shows that students of color and students with disabilities are punished too often and too harshly, so we were going to stop as much punishment as we could. Any behavioral issues were to be addressed in the classroom, no matter how severe.
The next was to use lunch periods as extra tutoring time. Administrators called names in the cafeteria of any student with outstanding work or low test scores, and sent them back up to their teachers. Our lunches were at the same time, so we ate with students while they worked through assignments.
Then the school implemented a universal breakfast program. Most of our students already depended on school lunches, so offering breakfast doubled their chances to get something to eat. We didn't have enough cafeteria staff to cover that, so breakfast happened in our classrooms too--our first-period students came in a half-hour earlier and ate in the rooms.
The new initiatives kept piling on: We added after-school tutoring, academic mentoring, and open office hours. Every single one of these ideas was good--every time we offered a new support, a few kids did a little bit better. But every single one of these ideas was also the sole responsibility of the teachers. By the end of the year I had students in my classroom for 12 hours a day, with no time to plan the next day's lessons or grade papers until the last kid went home.
In theory, that type of schedule is exactly what a union is supposed to prevent. Our contract mandated breaks, planning periods, and additional staff in the classrooms to support students with disabilities. But our union was doing its best to keep its members employed in the face of a budget crunch--dealing with contract violations was a luxury. So our list of responsibilities kept growing until teachers buckled under the pressure.
The teacher across the hall from me didn't even last through October. He quit in the middle of the week, and the rest of us took turns covering his schedule for two months while the district tried to find a replacement. That spring, the state was granted a waiver that exempted us from the punishments that we could have faced if the school didn't make enough progress. Even so, a third of us didn't come back the following year. Some, like me, switched careers. Others transferred schools, and some retired. The school administrators had the summer to scramble and fill all those open jobs--still for the same pay, because the salary freeze was entering its fourth year.
Seven years later, many teachers still haven't gotten relief. Districts across the country are still struggling to recover from the housing crisis that wiped out their tax base. On top of this, federal spending for K-12 education has been cut by almost 20 percent since 2011, and states have struggled to make up the difference. Seven states--Arizona, Idaho, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, and Oklahoma--poured gas on the fire by enacting income tax cuts post-recession rather than restoring education funding. With the exception of Michigan, teacher salaries in these states are among the lowest in the nation.
Now, for the first time in a generation, schools are being closed with a series of wildcat strikes. Because of course they are. Teaching has always been difficult, but years of funding cuts are making it impossible. After pleading with lawmakers for support, striking is the only thing left that makes sense. That's why West Virginia closed down every school in the state for 12 days, and it's why Oklahoma might follow suit.
Given how normalized mass protests have become under the Trump administration, it's worth remembering that this is genuinely radical: striking by public employees is forbidden by statute in 26 states. During the West Virginia strike, the state's Attorney General made it clear that he believed the work stoppage was "unlawful," though it seems superintendents have chosen not to punish participants.
That's because superintendents know something lawmakers still haven't grasped: Teachers make their living by getting people to pay attention. So when they say they can't do their jobs anymore without more money and more support, and state legislators respond by jamming their fingers in their ears and passing yet another tax cut, teachers will do what it takes to be heard.
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