#55strong: As Strike Continues, Teachers Reflect on Their Roles as Educators
Final Day 5 of Teacher Walkout
Note: I am a substitute teacher who works part-time in Monongalia and Preston counties. I’m also writing a book about the recent shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. This book will look at our culture and the state of failing education—and examine what contributes to such tragedies, while exploring how we can stop them.
Update: As of noon today, teachers meeting with officials in Charleston are so angry that it’s possible the strike may continue tomorrow, Thursday, March 1, even though I wrote this based on media reports saying it will end today. If you are a parent, I’ve included a link showing state school closings. If you need food for your children, please reach out to the local agencies mentioned below. As I learn more, I will update my blog accordingly.
Update: At approximately 10:44 p.m. the last holdout fell, and all of West Virginia turned red. The statewide strike continues.
As of 10:39 p.m., only Jefferson County schools remain open tomorrow. As of 9:50 p.m., only schools in Hampshire, Morgan, Berkeley, and Jefferson counties remain open. As of 9:28 p.m. schools in only 7 counties remain open. As of 9:05 p.m., public schools only remain open in 17 counties tomorrow. As of 9 p.m., public schools in 18 out of 55 counties are now closed tomorrow. As of 8:37 p.m., public schools in 33 out of 55 counties will be closed tomorrow. I look for that number to grow, as the night continues.
* * *
Having a shortage of more than 700 teachers throughout the state means it isn’t uncommon for a substitute to receive six calls a day to teach. My own phone begins ringing at 5 a.m. But in a simple case of supply and demand, where the demand greatly outweighs the supply, there aren’t enough substitutes to meet the need, either. This leaves classrooms without teachers.
What happens to the unsupervised students? They’re sent to other classrooms, increasing the teacher to student ratio. That may not seem like a problem—until you realize that some of those overfilled classrooms contain students with behavior problems.
Behavioral disorders are on the rise, leading to high rates of troubling behavior in public schools. As details emerged about the school shooter at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, the world learned of a very troubled young man, who before that was an extremely troubled child. After being struck by a violent student while working in one of my substitute assignments, I began reflecting on the various factors that must have coalesced, long before Nikolas Cruz became a school shooter.
Sadly, I’m not alone. Many teachers and aides who work with this population leave school sporting scratches, bruises, broken glasses, or worse. This is one reason teachers are in short supply—and why more might leave the profession.
Li Cheng is one such teacher. Before coming to the Mountain State, she taught in her native Taiwan. Cheng has 15 years experience. “It’s very challenging . . . I have more kids and their behaviors are so difficult to deal with,” Cheng, a Chinese teacher at Mountainview Elementary, said. “I love the kids here, and the people . . . (but) the kids here deserve a better education.”
As a long-time crime reporter, I know that verbal threats meet the legal definition of assault. Battery is when a student physically strikes a teacher. Every day teachers are victims of assault and battery in West Virginia schools. As they are in all 50 states, leaving the nation with an acute shortage of teachers—and substitutes.
If an average citizen filed criminal charges after such an assault, the accused could wind up behind bars. Rarely does that happen to students, though. They’re simply sent to the office—where administrators often send them right back to class. Time and again, one Mon County teacher told me Tuesday. Why? In part, because there’s a lot of red tape involved in dealing with this population. Red tape that few administrators have time for these days.
Take one principal who texted me. This man, who requested anonymity, has already accumulated 182 uncompensated work hours this year. Last year he accumulated 243. This doesn’t include the two hours per work he spends working from home—a limit he set “to save my marriage.”
So teachers aren’t the only ones whose salaries are sharply reduced, by continuing to work long past a normal 40-hour workweek. Principals likewise suffer.
Given this, and the fact that—hour for hour—teachers here earn less than the state minimum wage, that they are regularly attacked by students, and don’t always have support from administrators, why do they do it?
In a word, love.
In spite of all the above and more, teachers dearly love their students, whom they view as their own children. I know this because I’m a fourth-generation teacher. Before the onset of Parkinson’s, my mother was a regular classroom teacher, as were her mother and grandmother. Mom was in her late 40s when she began her teaching career at West Virginia Schools for the Deaf and Blind, driving all over the state to help preschoolers who had special needs. I recently met the mother of one of my mother’s former students in a local school where I was subbing. “We loved Miss Eileen,” this parent told me.
And “Miss Eileen” loved her students right back. As do most teachers. I already knew this, but when I asked fellow teachers to send me personal stories testifying to that love, one teacher’s words stood out. In telling what her workday is like, she speaks for all teachers. That teacher, who requested anonymity, sent me the following raw and unedited text message:
“I arrive at work up to an hour early each day. I spend most of my planning period answering emails, following up on notes from colleagues, or preparing for the afternoon classes so I do planning and grading at home, usually an hour each week day, and I set aside 5-10 hours on the weekend to finish it up and review the prior week’s progress or what needs reviewed. Some grading sessions are longer than others because of the projects I like to assign. I have graded papers during my daughter’s lacrosse game. I have held parent conversations via text message while sitting in a thin hospital gown with an IV in my wrist and a monitor on my unborn child. In fact I’ve had parent conversations everywhere from standing at a gas pump to the checkout aisle of the grocery store, from waiting in line to watch my kids in a parade to literally having to shush someone because they wanted to talk about their kid while we were in church. My husband often laughs when we go to local football games because I never see the game… I am always talking either to parents or students and making sure to be there for them all.
But the thing is…I do not mind any of that. I only begin to mind when told how teachers are lazy and don’t deserve reasonable health care or an adequate income. During the summer I regularly review my lessons and standards, researching additional things of interest, shop for kids and classroom, stockpile some things I keep on hand, such as snack packs of crackers, feminine hygiene items, and deodorant. WV does not require parents to provide supplies, so each summer I keep an eagle eye on every possible back to school sale. I purchase no less than 100 spiral 1-subject notebooks. I also purchase pencils, highlighters, my own copy paper, sanitizer, clorox wipes, kleenex, index cards, etc. A local church often supplies some things when we have a severe deficit, for which we are grateful. I have also purchased posters, resources, videos, and games related to what we are learning. I also pay for a quizlet teacher account, along with planbook, and a few other things. My classroom has over $1000 of my money on bookshelves, invested in scholastic books and yard sales so I can provide reading opportunities for my kids. I like using scholastic, because accrued bonus points can be spent on special items or supplies. Until recently I worked a part time job in addition to make sure what I spend didn’t impact my family negatively.
Also as for time spent- I have begged on donorschoose for books and supplies. Many teachers I know go to World Vision (at least an hour’s drive, after working all day) up to 4 times a year to take advantage of their free supplies for teachers and we share freely with teachers, students, counselors, and programs that need them. I can’t calculate what I spend in money or time, but my kids are worth it. However, my colleagues and I are worth more than our lawmakers think, too.”
That educator is far from alone.
Teacher Stacy Borror works “at least 55 hours a week at my teaching job if not more . . . I rarely leave before 5 most days, even Fridays.” She does lesson plans at home during weekends, and researches “better ways of presenting lessons to my students.” In addition, Borror spends an annual $300-400 out of her own pocket on students.
“Our students are like our own children. We care deeply and want the very best for them,” Borror said. “This is killing me to be out of school for the reasons that we are. I’m not sleeping well and I have a high level of anxiety right now. By no means is this fun, exciting, or something we look forward to . . .”
Kristy Shinkovich is just as dedicated. So dedicated, in fact, her young son, Casey, joined her on the picket line in Sabraton. Among the ways she has gone above and beyond is to replace a student’s broken book bag; pass along all of her own and her children’s outgrown clothing for less fortunate children; bring in items to use for Halloween costumes; and buy popcorn, hot cocoa and other supplies for “sharpen the saw” parties—designed to reward good behavior in the classroom, and based on Franklin Covey principles.
“The things I do are not unusual at my school,” Shinkovich said. “We all are there for the right reasons—all 760 of them.”
The following account of real-life educators who are heroes to their students comes from Mon County teachers who wish to remain anonymous.
“One of our students at Mon County Technical Education Center didn’t have running water for a few days during . . . the frigid cold days,” one teacher said. “Our carpentry teacher and building maintenance teacher went to his house and tried to fix it. They couldn’t get the hot water fixed. But they could get the cold water so (the family) could use the bathroom and brush their teeth.” Those two teachers were so concerned, she said, by “the conditions the student lived in, we had a food drive and clothing drive for him and his siblings.”
Another teacher has taken “papers to grade, lesson plans to write” to doctors’ appointments, soccer games, and even her own child’s basketball games.
“As a school we collect money from the staff so we can buy Christmas gifts for students. The ones we know won’t have any thing to open,” said one teacher. “We always have bread and peanut butter at school, for those students that may not get lunch.”
Our teachers “helped a student a few years ago go to prom. I contacted a local business and they donated the tux. Then we asked for donations from (fellow) teachers to help him buy a corsage, get a haircut, and pay for . . . dinner and gas.”
Such love for students is what prompted WV teachers to make sure their young charges were well fed during the work stoppage. “West Virginia is known for generations of hardship and poverty, and many children simply don’t have enough food,” Julia Hamilton, director of Monongalia Extended Day Learning, said.
After their father was laid off from the coal mines, my four children qualified for free hot lunches. Those meals were crucial since my own kitchen cupboards were then almost bare. This national program has grown in recent years, especially here in West Virginia. In 2011, according to the West Virginia KIDS COUNT program, 53-percent of West Virginia schoolchildren received free or reduced meals. (In Mon County, that number is 37-percent; in neighboring Preston, it’s 49-percent.)
But we also have an abundance of people who can and do help the less fortunate among us—especially when children are involved. Appalachians do not let children go hungry.
“It’s been phenomenal to see the support we’ve received from the community because,” Hamilton said. “It takes a village and this particular community has proved that we can provide for, not only our students and families, but our staff members who are struggling at this time.”
When it became obvious teachers would walk out, the first thing they did was begin collecting foodstuffs to prevent hunger. Here in Monongalia County, that effort began one week ago. “Donations of food came from parents, from teachers, from other students. As the food was collected, teachers were responsible for bagging and distributing that food the Wednesday before we left,” teacher and Mon County Education Association (MCEA) rep Heather DeLucea-Nestor said. Westwood School collected 55 bags of food; South Middle rounded up another 69 bags. “After we knew we had a surplus of food and kids had what they needed, the rest of the food was taken to (local churches to hand out),” she added.
Hamilton took the lead in getting all that food to where it needed to be, dropping it off at places like Scott’s Run Settlement House, Pantry Plus, and Kingdom EMC Church. While other Mon County teachers drove to the statewide rally in Charleston held before the walkout began, Hamilton was a one-woman food maven.
Several schools contacted her last week, saying they had a surplus of food that “most of (the) elementary and middle schools could distribute. We’re very fortunate here in Mon County, that we have . . . four extra boxes of fruit (so) where are we going to take this?” Hamilton said. “But UHS (University High School) had about 900 meals they were unable to get out before school dismissed (last) Wednesday,” the same day Hamilton posted the distribution locations on her agency’s Facebook page, so parents would know where to find free food.
On Thursday morning, on day one of the walkout, Hamilton, UHS administrators, and maintenance staff transported those meals to her office. “We had boxes and boxes of (perishable) fruits, so I contacted (local agencies, churches, and food pantries) so they could give out to students in their care, or students who came in specifically so they would have a lunch meal.”
One of the distribution points is Atomic Grill, located at the Kingwood Pike and Greenbag Road intersection. The restaurant, under new ownership, is a favorite spot for many locals who favor farm-to-table cuisine and gluten-free fare. Owner Teddy Edwards was happy to help. “I’ve always been a supporter of the teachers . . . especially in Morgantown, and I wanted to show my support and this is my way of doing it.” Edwards said. “We teamed up with them to have a centralized location at Atomic Grill for parents to come by and for (teachers) to distribute the food.” That distribution site will continue until the work stoppage ends
tonight. As of 9 p.m., Mon County schools remain open tomorrow. That is subject to change, however.
Edwards also wanted to help because he’s father to two sons who have their own opinions about the strike. In addition to wanting West Virginia teachers to have healthcare that’s “on par with the rest of the country . . . (my boys) do feel like teachers are underpaid and they should be paid a wage that reflects their civic duty and … their dedication and obligation to the schools and kids.”
Edwards pointed out that many teachers are a family’s primary breadwinners, unlike how society views the profession. “It’s almost looked at as an alternative income in some places . . . That’s what’s sad about it,” he said.
Unlike teachers here, Edwards said, “with their tips, (my staff) earn much more. They average closer to $16-18 an hour with us.”
The four-day work stoppage has finally resulted in what looks like a decent pay raise for teachers. But the last week has also reaffirmed some vital lessons about Almost Heaven itself.
“West Virginia is a state that’s pretty well known for its struggles and Appalachia is a place that’s routinely suffering, most notably economically,” Hamilton said, “but it’s encouraging to see our state leading the charge in … addressing labor concerns and economic inequality.”
Too, she said it’s “heartwarming to see not only that, but the response from the communities we served. Because the Appalachia I grew up with is one that had endless neighbors that are willing to pitch in and help when times get tough, even if they themselves are struggling.”
Hamilton speaks for many of the business owners, parents, and even students who have shown support for the state’s educators. The last week “has been no exception. We’ve had endless lines of parents and community members who are dropping off breakfast and coffee and ponchos to our teachers who are standing on the picket lines or calling our office to see how they can support kids during their time away from school. So no matter what kind of struggle it is that we’re facing—and it seems to always be something—we do have a tendency to face it together.”
* * * * *
My seventh book, Shatter the Silence, a love story and the long-awaited sequel to my memoir was released May 2016. That’s on the heels of Tales of the Vintage Berry Wine Gang, a collection of my newspaper columns from 1988-91, which came out in April 2016.
For an in-depth look at the damaging effects of the silence that surrounds abuse, please watch my live TEDx talk, given April 13, 2013, at Connecticut College.
Have a great day and remember, it’s whatever you want to make it!