An open letter concerning the Medford, Oregon teacher strike

In a press conference held last night, our local superintendent of schools declared our school district in a ‘state of emergency’. No, unlike regions across the country today, we do not have a speck of snow on the ground.

Instead of ‘snowmageddon’, my kids are on strike, along with nearly 100% of their teachers. Today marks the seventh consecutive school day I’ve kept my middle schooler and high school out of school. I’m joined by the parents of over half of the 12,000+ student body in a 22-school district.

Reports of conditions inside our schools are shocking: overcrowding to the point of fire marshall warnings, walk outs en masse, visibly upset students and substitute teachers, and chaotic schedules. High school classes—including AP classes and honors classes needed for graduation—have been abandoned and replaced with glorified babysitting, while teacher-prepared lesson plans sit untouched. Elementary school students stand at their playground fences calling to their picketing teachers on the other side, and secondary school kids are escorted outside school grounds and asked not to return for showing open support. Security guards stand at all entrances to all schools, unheard of here in rural Oregon.

Parents are rightfully horrified—myself included—but you know what? This crisis has been a long time coming. Teacher union and district negotiations have been ongoing for a year, and other Oregon districts are approaching crisis-level disagreements as well. As I’ve commented on this week’s situation on social media, I’ve heard the same thing over and over, from parents like me all over the country: Same here, they’ve said. We have problems, too. That happened to us; wait until I tell you about our strike. So many parents have a horror story of their own to tell. While difficult and long and stressful, these past seven days ‘off’ have forced me to take a long, hard look at Oregon public education, now that the curtain has been pulled back to expose the full extent of the shambles behind it.

I already had an inkling of what I’d see: as a previous classified staff member in Medford School District, I’d seen firsthand the pressures current educational practices have placed on teachers, administration, and students. I am, unfortunately, no stranger to the need to be my child’s advocate in the public school setting, where a standardized ‘no child left behind’ curriculum doesn’t work for everyone. In the past year, my husband and I have made what we believe to be necessary changes to our own children’s education, namely requesting advanced mathematics instruction for one child (which was granted), and enrolling another child in private school (a post unto itself). For the most part, however, I acknowledge these changes have been band-aids placed on larger problems left to fester.

We do this with everything, don’t we? We fail to make a dentist appointment until the tooth is throbbing. We neglect the roof until it’s leaking. In Oregon, and especially in Medford, we’ve been patching up holes for far too long. Everyone has a different answer for how to fix things—from a full overhaul of education in America to district-specific adjustments—and that’s fine. Thank goodness, actually, because we can use all the ideas we can get. However, no matter how we envision public education in this country, one thing seems obvious to me: teachers are the heart of our system.

If you’ve gone through school—any school—you know this is true: for a student, a good teacher can make any school situation bearable, and a bad teacher can mar the best of institutions. You can have all the ‘extras’ you want: money for athletics, art programs, and gyms, and even a healthy budget (what’s that?), but if you don’t have well-qualified, talented, inspired, and happy teachers, you have nothing.

Here in Medford, everyone from the school board to parents to my hair dresser to my hair dresser’s dog is debating the nuts and bolts of the specific contract on the table. I understand why. These issues are worthy of debate. Many points in the contract are valid, on both sides. We can argue all day about the bottom line, but I have my own: we must do what it takes to keep (and attract) quality teachers in public education. They need to feel respected and valued and wanted in order to do their best job in the work place. This is true for any employee in any profession, of course: as a writer, for instance, if I don’t like the pay or benefits or lack of respect at my work place, I can quit. So can our teachers, and that terrifies me more than all the other educational issues combined. These people are charged with my children’s education, and they are not easily replaceable. In Medford, we’ve seen this truth in action this week as attendance has plummeted. Therefore, I want my tax dollars to be invested in my students’ current teachers. Not toward additional, lower-cost teachers, even to reduce class sizes. Not even toward creating a healthier budget. Certainly not toward more band-aids like emergency ‘guest’ teachers who require hotel stays and travel stipends. I want my kids’ teachers—the ones standing in the rain holding signs outside their classrooms—to be able to re-enter their schools feeling valued and respected, because when they do, my kids, your kids, all our kids, win.

15 thoughts on “An open letter concerning the Medford, Oregon teacher strike

  1. Thank you for your beautifully written words and sentiment. I hope others in the community who can physically show up to be seen and heard by the board will do so and have the chance to read this. The teachers have taken a big leap in faith to take this stand, but it will be the parents who will bring the suppport to bring this to a close. Thank you.

  2. Amy, You have put it very well. This situation has been building for over 20 years. The attitude of the district has caused may to leave and many more to endure. This situation has been, from my point of view, Is shut do what you are told and don’t question anything. Professional knowledge has not been a part of the disctrict’s policy for many years.

  3. Thank you, Amy. As an English teacher in the North Clackamas School district, I appreciate so much what you’re saying here, and I am so grateful for community members like yourself who support their schools and understand how absolutely crucial it is to value our teachers. I know I would not be where I am today without all of mine. Again, thank you, Amy. The best wishes toward a quick, fair, satisfying resolution.

  4. Just 2years ago we were on strike in Eagle Point. Not as big as yours yet just as devastating. I feel for you. We need the truth. Not what they think we wanted to hear. In my opinion it was a political red tape waste of time, tell the truth district, stop the beating around the bush.

  5. I’m so sad our school failed Toby but certainly glad he is happy. He is such a great kid, it really bothers me that no one was helping him with this. Toby is fortunate to have parents who really listen to him and are willing to do what is necessary. Good for you!

  6. Thank you, Becky. People like you in public school have always been part of the solution and a positive influence. Toby (and I) were lucky to have you. Many wonderful individuals were part of his public school experience, and will be again, I am sure. Hope you are well!

    • I hope the Portland district can learn from the mistakes made by 549C and you won’t end up actually walking out. If you do, you will have the support of Medford! Thank you for your support!

  7. I have one granddaughter in the Medford School District, at South. When I asked her, on Friday, how school was going, she said “it’s okay”. I did not see any “relief” or “wonder” in her eyes regarding school, however, I believe the teacher’s strike was definitely in her mind. Unfortunately, if the Teacher’s don’t get back into their jobs, more and more students will just leave. Some may leave because of their friends doing the same, but there ARE students who intend to work towards their diplomas! Come on, District……”we need our teachers”!

    • Laura, as convenient as that sounds to me as well (as a working parent), it’s not a strike if it occurs when school is not in session.

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