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.