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Teachers’ strikes: education department faculty weigh in

Teachers in Oklahoma and Kentucky recently joined the ranks of educators on strike for better wages. The latest demonstrations come on the heels of success in West Virginia, where the strikes lasted nine days.

The protests are about more than winning raises for teachers, however. Participants are dedicated to increasing funding and support for public schools, and officials need to listen.

“I’m glad that people are standing up for their pay, because teaching is really hard,” says Cheryl North, who serves as program director for secondary education at UMBC.

Indeed, instructing a classroom full of students is a tall order even for a teacher in a well-funded school system. It becomes nearly impossible when schools are starved of resources.

“I think it’s reaching a boiling point,” says North. “You can’t just keep cutting, cutting, cutting … schools have been running on a shoestring for way too long.”

It is no coincidence that the states in which teachers are striking have seen some of the nation’s largest budget cuts to education in recent years. Textbook shortages, dilapidated facilities and overstuffed classrooms abound. In Oklahoma, twenty percent of public schools only remain open four days a week — as long as they can afford to.

While the problem is clear, debate surrounds the strike as a solution. The West Virginia protests shut down every public school in the state for nearly two weeks. Some wonder whether the demands for funding justify such a massive disruption.

Jonathan Singer, chair of UMBC’s education department, recognizes the complexity of the issue. “They don’t want to be disrupting education, or to be viewed as being harmful to the students or anything.”

He explains: “Teachers are at a point where they’re frustrated, and they feel like their voices aren’t being heard, and the only way to be heard, and to get the attention of the public, is to do something drastic.”

Teachers in three states now have come out in full force, and Arizona educators, among the lowest paid in the country, are threatening to strike if their demands are not met. The time for change is now, but the sheer magnitude of the situation makes it clear there will not be a quick fix.

In addition to meeting the teachers’ requests for increased funding and wages, Singer suggests a crucial step to preclude such widespread discontent in the future: “Voices of teachers at the decision table,” he says. “When it comes to … curriculum, and assessment practices, and a whole host of issues.”

As for steps teachers can take short of striking, Linda Oliva, associate chair of UMBC’s education department, has a few ideas. “I think that teachers can be really powerful advocates of their students,” she says, “… by being involved in local policy-making, their school board.” She also describes her firm belief in teachers encouraging student activism.

After all, students are at the heart of the strikes. Teachers deserve good pay, but the strikers have let the world know that this is about the education they can afford to give students.

As such, Oliva looks forward to the teachers returning to what  they do best. “That’s the most important thing,” she says. “How can we support teachers to get back to their classrooms as quickly as possible, and also… have been heard?”