The Meaning of Teachers’ Walkouts in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky

One indication of the power of recent walkouts by schoolteachers is that people who have traditionally delighted in criticizing teachers and their unions have been investing energy and messaging expertise to try to downplay what has been happening this month in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky.

The Guardian’s Ed Pilkington points to a messaging guide created by the State Policy Network (SPN), a formal organization connecting far-right-think thanks across the states and coordinating their work and messaging with the work of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC): “The ‘messaging guide’ is the brainchild of the State Policy Network (SPN), an alliance of 66 rightwing ‘ideas factories’ that span every state in the nation. SPN uses its $80m war chest—funded by billionaire super-donors such as the Koch brothers and the Walton Family Foundation… to coordinate conservative strategy across the country. Another financial backer of SPN is the billionaire DeVos family…. SPN’s previous campaigns have included a plan to ‘defund and defang’ public sector unions. Now it is turning its firepower on the striking teachers.” (SPN’s Messaging Guide is embedded in Pilkington’s article as a SCRIBD document.)

Here is how SPN introduces its new Messaging Guide: How to Talk about Teacher Strikes: “A message that focuses on teacher hours or summer vacations will sound tone-deaf when there are dozens of videos and social media posts going viral from teachers about their second jobs, teachers having to rely on food pantries, classroom books that are falling apart, paper rationing, etc.  This is an opportunity to sympathize with teachers, while still emphasizing that teacher strikes hurt kids… Independent research has repeatedly shown that time out of school disproportionately hurts low-income kids. Low-income kids already face serious disadvantages and they shouldn’t be punished because adults can’t agree.”

Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin clearly got the memo. Without any evidence—and apparently assuming that teachers’ primary role is babysitting—Bevin jumped to the conclusion that a teachers’ strike might endanger kids: “I guarantee you somewhere in Kentucky today, a child was sexually assaulted that was left at home because there was nobody there to watch them… Children were harmed—some physically, some sexually, some were introduced to drugs for the first time—because they were vulnerable and left alone.”

And Education Secretary Betsy DeVos sort of got SPN’s advice right about focusing on the students, although, as usual, she pretty much misses the point that what hurts schools and teachers also affects the children: “I think about the kids. I think we need to stay focused on what’s right for kids. And I hope that adults would keep adult disagreements and disputes in a separate place, and serve the students that are there to be served.”

Despite efforts by the far-right to message in a way that minimizes the impact of a month’s walkouts by teachers, the President of the United Steelworkers, Leo Gerard sees something else: “GOP politicians have so denigrated public school teachers that the educators in three states have engaged in wildcat strikes, mobbing their capitol buildings and demanding improved school funding for students and better pay and benefits for themselves and other workers.  Teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky, like the 1920s West Virginia coal miners, had nothing to lose… What these states have in common is Republican control and union suppression.  All are states that forbid labor organizations from charging workers who choose not to join the union fair share payments to cover the costs of collective bargaining… Parents, communities and educators in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona know that tax-cutting, labor-hating Republican politicians are to blame for the school disruptions.”

Economist Jared Bernstein agrees that repression of unions in the states where teachers have walked out is one of the reasons why teachers’ salaries and investment in public schools have declined dangerously: “First, by ‘what has gone wrong,’ I mean the erosion of institutions whose purpose is to even out inherent power imbalances that arise in all societies and are particularly steep in our current moment… While the union movement has always had its problems—no institutions are immune from their own internal power imbalances—it has always existed, back to the Middle Ages, as a counterfoil to dynamics that today take the form of rising inequality, the defunding of a government that is increasingly dysfunctional, nonrepresentative elections, and the unfettered rise of corporate power and finance.” Bernstein continues, describing striking schoolteachers: “They are pointing the way toward an essential and huge missing piece from today’s politics: middle- and low-income people organizing to fight for an amply funded, functional public sector that balances the scales that have been so sharply tilted against them.”

The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss published Peter Greene’s explanation of the month’s walkouts by teachers.  Greene is a career high school teacher in Pennsylvania; he also publishes the Curmuducation blog: “Teachers strike because they are out of options. They strike because the other side won’t negotiate in good faith. They strike because they feel dismissed and disrespected. They strike because their work conditions have become awful, with no relief in sight. They strike because they feel the future of their profession and their school are in peril. They strike because they can’t think of any other way to make things better. But a strike? Couldn’t they get their message across some other way? Guess what? They’ve been trying, and trying some more. In fact, teachers have been engaged in a slow-motion strike for about a decade, walking off the job one or two at a time. But instead of recognizing this as a work stoppage, we’ve labeled it a ‘teacher shortage.’ And instead of responding by asking how we can fix the job so that it is attractive enough to recruit and retain teachers, states have mostly responded by saying, ‘How can we lower standards so that we can put any warm body in a classroom?’”

Retired Michigan music teacher—and author of a regular column about teaching for Education WeekNancy Flanagan considers what teachers have been trying to accomplish this month: “It’s time to talk—again—about this myth that teachers need to run themselves ragged for the pure and holy aim of helping The Children learn. The cherished legend of the teacher who devotes 24/7 to being accessible to her students, never taking time to refresh her own intellect or spirit.  The martyr… Teacher walkouts are the ultimate outcome of wringing every drop of energy, patience and creative juice out of a well-meaning workforce. Ideally, teaching is fully professional work, involving a researched knowledge base, careful training and field preparation, induction and mentoring protocols and the rewards of collegial sharing and personal growth in addition to the satisfaction of knowing one is shaping the nation’s future citizens. An adequate salary and benefit package would help, too. Without all of these in place, we can’t expect high-quality candidates to be attracted to teaching…. What’s happening now is an unmistakable call: Suffering teachers need help to do a better job for the children entrusted to their care. Want better schools? Pay attention.”

Of course what teachers do matters in the deepest ways for children and families—which is why so many parents and students, even children in elementary school—have been marching to support their teachers this month. Education writer Mike Rose captures the essence of what teachers do in a recent blog post: “I value the small stuff.  The teacher who encourages a hesitant question; who remembers a student’s name outside the classroom; who in discussing a paper suggests a book, a podcast, a movie; who spends an extra five minutes in a conference…. These are everyday signs of commitment, micro-evidence of care. Over the years, I’ve interviewed a lot of students from kindergarten to adult education, and I’ve been struck by how meaningful the small stuff is to them particularly to those students who feel out of place, and in some cases, are having a hard time of it. These behaviors register, I think, because of their everydayness, because they seem to flow naturally from who a particular teacher is and therefore are experienced as real, authentic.”

Rose is, of course, describing teachers’ enormous contribution—the work for which they should be paid fairly and supported with an adequately funded, staffed, and supplied school environment.

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