“Do you keep hearing talk about a riot?” a fellow first-year teacher asked me. “Something that happened last March?”
This conversation led me to Google “SWAT team,” “riot,” and the name of the high school in South Central Los Angeles where I’d been hired a few weeks before. The Los Angeles Times article I found used the term “brawl” to describe the face-off between law enforcement officers and hundreds of rock-and-bottle-hurling students. I could picture teenagers leaning out of my third-floor classroom window, green bottles of soda flying end-over-end through the air toward an officer crouched behind a shield.
I could picture it because my 9th grade English classroom often felt like a place on the verge of violence. Some classes did devolve into taunts, threats, and fights. I should clarify that the students were only partly to blame. An inept teacher, I had not yet learned how to foster an environment conducive to more learning, less hostility.
This week, I’ve been remembering my time there 15 years ago, as I watch the teacher strike unfold in the Los Angeles Unified School District. I’m watching from the other side of the country in North Carolina, still a public school teacher, but at a high-performing school unlike my South Central school in nearly every possible way. Despite my distance in time, geography, and context, the teachers’ demands are familiar: smaller class sizes, higher salaries, less standardized testing, and in addition to more teachers, more nurses and counselors. These are the demands—often unheard, almost always unmet—of teachers everywhere.
An argument against the strike posed by many, including the L.A. Times editorial board, is that low-income students like the ones I taught “have the most to lose.” While this is true during a strike, it is also true every day of the school year. People complain that, during a strike, students are warehoused in auditoriums and cafeterias, supervised by administrators and substitutes while feckless teachers prance about on the picket line. Striking teachers know that many of those students are also warehoused on non-strike days because their schools can’t keep qualified teachers in classrooms, or teachers were never hired for those classrooms in the first place, or the district eschews teacher creativity and autonomy in favor of scripts that promise to prep students for the all-important tests that will, inevitably, demonstrate these schools are failing.
After I learned about the brawl, I understood why so many families had fled our school and why enrollment was down. As a result, the district would decide later that fall to reassign more than 20 teachers, including me, to other schools. Dissolving dozens of classes two weeks before the end of the semester did not seem to be in anyone’s interest. What about student instruction? Class sizes? Despite our pleas to the school board, the faculty “displacements” were made in an unused classroom during lunch one Friday. The principal gave us a letter he had not taken the time to sign, and requested our keys and gradebooks by 3:30, after we finished teaching our afternoon classes.
Except the district did not reassign us to new schools, so on Monday we reported as usual. We were not supposed to teach, yet no subs had been called. Students, locked out of trailers, stood in the early morning fog. In a conference room, the teachers sat useless until the counselors tasked with creating new schedules asked us to hand them out. We went to our former classrooms to disperse kids, like so many unwanted seeds, to their new classes, some of which now had 50 names on the roster. Students were placed in Advanced Piano instead of ninth grade English, ROTC instead of gym.
“Do I really have to take biology three times a day?” one student asked, eyeing his new schedule.
“Not you, too!” my former students shrieked when they saw me coming. A week before, this phrase would have had an entirely different meaning.
“First my homeroom teacher, then Mr. Perez, and now you!” one girl shouted and burst into tears, even though ever since I’d called her house and her mother had taken away her cell phone, she’d done nothing in class but write notes, sulk, and glare at me. “It’s not fair! I know I wasn’t always nice to you, but I liked you! I’m not going to learn from any other English teacher! I swear on my dead daddy I’m not going to another English class!” She slid down the lockers to the floor, head in her hands.
I sat beside her and looked up at another displaced teacher for help.
“I’m on her side,” he said.
The question of sides is essential. School districts can make decisions that are absurd, wasteful, and even harmful to students. Though students see teachers as the face of the system, we are the interface, arteries between the messy humanity of the students—who may or may not have had breakfast that morning, who may or may not have ever finished a book on their own—and the clipped efficiency of the district, which is primarily concerned with budgets, class sizes, and those test scores. My students are the ones I work for. Or maybe I work for my students’ future selves or even the future selves of people I’ve never met, who will go on to employ, marry, or be the child of my current students.
After two weeks of chaotic limbo, I was offered my job back, in a rehiring as arbitrary as the displacement. My school was still a place of inefficiency, frustration, and sometimes violence. But it was also a place where I eventually staged a successful mock trial for Of Mice and Men, where students read their personal essays in proud, shaky voices, where one boy confided, “You know what? I actually liked The Scarlet Letter. I know, I’m shocked, too.” The people who know best what these schools need are the teachers and students. They are the ones who show up and do the work.
Yes, strikes cause upheaval, but many schools are already rife with upheaval. At least a strike is a purposeful disruption, with students the would-be beneficiaries of smaller classes and more counselors. Low-income students don’t just “have the most to lose” every day of a strike—they already are losing, every day. Every day they sit in overcrowded classrooms, every day they have out-of-date textbooks, every day more and more children learn to equate school with rote memorization, bribes, threats, and the hope that one day, maybe, they will be able to bubble in the correct answers on tests.
Who is advocating for better schools for these students? The teachers. Who will go back to these classrooms, once the strike ends, to stock them with tissues and Band-Aids, to fight against corporatized curricula, and to try to teach students how to think critically, read better, and use their voices? The teachers. The strike is the L.A. teachers’ voice, maybe their only voice. They’re speaking for their students. They’re also speaking for me.
In North Carolina, a right-to-work state, I couldn’t join a union and strike if I wanted to. Last year though, following the lead of teachers in West Virginia, Arizona, and Oklahoma in the #RedforEd campaign, my fellow teachers and I held a massive walk-out in Raleigh on May 16. The L.A. teacher rumblings remind me of the hand-lettered signs I saw that day, signs that distilled teachers’ collective wisdom, sense of humor, and cynical optimism: Can anyone here proctor? Dumbledore would never do this. And my favorite: Sorry for the inconvenience. We’re just trying to change the world.
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