1. An Epiphany
This happened one morning, many years ago. I was driving past one of my town's elementary schools, on the way to work in a neighboring district. The local teachers were embroiled in contentious contract negotiations, so I wasn't surprised to see them gathered en masse outside the building on a job action, waving signs and chanting. I honked my horn to show support, and, right at that moment, had an epiphany: "It's all women! It's like suffragettes protesting for the right to vote! This isn't a teacher thing, it's a woman thing!" Then I got to work and forgot about it.
2. A Creepy Resemblance To An Abusive Husband
For the last ten years, I've been a covert operative in Women's World, a.k.a. Public School. I am not a typical elementary teacher. I am male.
So writes Seth Nichols in a recent post titled: Why Teachers Are Walking Out. Here's Nichols on the recent uprisings in states like Oklahoma, Arizona, North Carolina, and West Virginia:
Women are done being taken advantage of. That's what this is about. Don't think that it's a coincidence that mass walk-outs are happening within a year of the #metoo movements, the sex abuse revelations, or the women's marches.
About 77% of the nation's teachers are female. In elementary school it's nearly 90%. I know exactly what Nichols is talking about; I was an operative in Women's World for 31 years. Nichols again:
The system, in many places, bears a creepy resemblance to an abusive husband. If she loses "him" (her job), she feels like she would lose everything. He constantly tells her she's not good enough, and has spreadsheets with scores to prove it. He blames her for the kids problems, and offers no real help in fixing them. But she stays and puts up with him--because she loves the kids.
The post triggered a memory. The memory of driving to work one morning, past a school similar to my own, and having an epiphany: "It's a woman thing!" But what was that thing? At the time I didn't know. I had honked my horn in solidarity. But it was in solidarity as a fellow teacher, not as a man in solidarity with women.
3. Standing In The School Parking Lot
I was a proud, dues paying member of the union my entire teaching career, and served many years as a building rep, with all the responsibilities that position entails. Although we never went out on strike, I participated in plenty of job actions: writing letters, wearing buttons and shirts, working "to the contract" by entering and/or leaving the building not a minute before/after the negotiated start/end time, showing up and speaking out at Board of Ed meetings, rallying outside central office during negotiation sessions. During all that time, even standing in the school parking lot, waiting for the clock to strike 8:35, when we all would march into the building together, a male amidst a sea of women, it never occurred to me to connect our labor unrest to gender.
4. A School Just Like Our School
On December 14, 2012, Adam Lanza shot and killed his mother, then drove to Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut and shot and killed 20 first graders and six adults. Then he shot himself in the head. Teachers and support staff died protecting their students from the gunman. This hit us especially hard, even harder than all the other ones. Previous school shootings seemed to take place in high schools or on college campuses; this one took place in an elementary school. Connecticut was close to New Jersey, geographically, culturally. Newtown seemed to be like our town. Sandy Hook seemed like a school just like our school.
As it happened, the 2012-2013 school year saw another round of heated contract negotiations between my union local and the Board of Education. One Board of Ed member had two children enrolled at our school. His work schedule allowed him to be home in the afternoons. During the days when I had dismissal duty, I would often see him standing outside, waiting to pick up his kids and walk them home. As the negotiations dragged on, reports of the Board's intransigence filtered back to us. I remember standing outside one afternoon, watching him hug his kids as they ran happily out the front door of the school, and, with Sandy Hook still so raw, thinking angrily: Every single adult in that school would act as a human shield, putting their bodies in front of your children. And you're trying to nickel and dime us on a contract. You should be ashamed of yourself.
In subsequent years I had occasion to work with both of his kids, and struck up a cordial relationship with him. He seemed like a very nice guy. But I never forgot the feeling I had that afternoon.
5. Before Or After Columbine?
When did we start having lockdown drills? Before or after Columbine? I think it was after, but I really don't remember. What's the difference between lockdown doors and lockdown windows again? When we shelter-in-place, we can go about our normal business inside but just can't go outside, right? And what's the all-clear code? I know we've been over it again and again at faculty meetings but could we review it one more time? When did we hire B. and F., the two women who took turns sitting at a desk in the front lobby to check people in? When did we replace them with shifts of retired cops, who we euphemistically called school resource officers? When did they build the outer vestibule onto the front of the school? When did we start carrying walkie-talkies? When did the back entrance get locked? When did we get photo IDs to wear? When did the IDs become swipe cards? When did they install the security cameras in the hallways? When did it start to hit us that our job, besides being really hard, could also actually be dangerous?
On February 14, 2018, Nikolas Cruz killed 14 students and 3 staff members, and wounded 17 others at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Two days later my former district announced it was hiring armed police officers to supplement the 71 retired law enforcement officers already present in the schools. According to someone I know still working in the district, there's now an armed officer in each building during school hours, although during Field Day last week the one assigned to his school was patrolling outside. In a bullet-proof vest.
Since the announcement there have been 10 shootings at high schools and 1 at a middle school, leaving 14 dead and 24 injured. This includes the shooting at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas. The shooter used a shotgun and a revolver, and authorities found multiple IEDs, Molotov cocktails, propane tanks, pipe bombs, and other explosives around the school and the parking lot.
6. ...And Be Prepared To Take Bullets For Them, Too
It's not about the pay. It's about all of the ways an entire sector of the country's most selfless givers have been complicit to a system that has evolved to bilk them every way it can: of their time, their money, their energy, and their emotions.
Pay for it yourself.
Create it yourself.
Stay late and put on that function yourself.
Meet during your time.
Work during your week-end.
Be kind to people yelling, ignoring, cussing, and hitting you. Then, make sure they pass the new standards.
...And be prepared to take bullets for them, too.
7. It's Also About The Pay
Kayla Melton (an Oklahoma kindergarten teacher) said she had brought in her tax returns returns to show her state senator that in the past three years she had spent twenty-six hundred dollars on school supplies. The senator, a Republican named Rob Standridge, "wouldn't even look at the returns," Melton said.
The Teachers' Strike and the Democratic Revival in Oklahoma, Rivka Galchen
The New Yorker, June 4-11, 2018
Is it a coincidence that the season of teacher unrest has coincided with rise the #metoo movement and the Parkland/Santa Fe massacres? Teachers are tired of being bullied and abused. (New Jersey teachers know all about that, too.) They're tired of being told it's all their fault. And they're tired of hearing about students getting shot. And they're tired of hearing about teachers getting shot. They want to be heard. And they want to get paid. They should get paid. It's also about the pay.
8. Even Though I Am Scared Of The World We Live In I Am Comforted
On December 17, 2012, three days after Sandy Hook, a grade 3 teacher at my school received an e-mail from the parents of one of her students. It was addressed to her, the school's student assistance counselor, the principal, and the staff:
...In light of recent events I felt it is necessary to just say thank you for all you do in a day. I would be a nervous wreck if I did not know that M. was in a school that had such great educators, support staff, and mental health workers. I am there enough to see how you help people, how you know the children who seem to have behavior challenges and social issues. I see how the women in the office seem to know exactly which kids need a little TLC and which kids need to be firmly reminded to go back to their classrooms quietly. I drive into the back parking lot at pick up to see about a dozen support staff, aides, and teachers helping children that need more attention onto busses with care and asking questions that show they know more about the student than their name and serial number. I truly feel blessed to be part of this school.
.....You are all doing the very best you can with a lot of students, people who seemingly constantly have an issue, parents that complain there is too much security and then turn around and say it is the school's fault when people are let in and let's face it there is never enough money to educate our children.
.....I want to take this horrible time in our country and let you know that our most precious gift is in your school every day and that even though I am scared of the world we live in I am comforted knowing the the people of C____ School would be heroes in a time of crisis and are the everyday heroes in an average day.
In closing, we as communities ask so much from our schools. We rely on them to be parent, caregiver, educator, behavior modifier, lunch room monitor, and the list goes on and on. From the art teacher...who remarkably ALWAYS knows exactly what is going on when, to the Phys Ed teachers...who seem to know exactly what to say to a kid when they are being too wild, to the music teachers who are listening to the horrible noise of those recorders all day and still are smiling at the end of the day, to M, in custodial care who always wishes me a good afternoon, and makes sure that the building looks like a place the kids can be proud of...THANK YOU!!!!!!!
If anything positive came out of the tragedy in CT. In our house it was reminding our daughter that you are all part of her team. THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU!
With more love and appreciation than there are even words for,
SDN and BN
(And M. too even though she won't know how much you are doing for her till she gets older.)
I saved the e-mail.
Now I know why.