The United Teachers of Los Angeles, of which I am a proud member, is on our second strike in about four years. This time we are walking out in support of Service Employees International Union Local 99, which includes the school system’s cafeteria workers, custodians, bus drivers, teachers’ aides, security aides and food service workers – who have worked without a contract for more than six months.
So have we, and if this three-day work stoppage doesn’t expedite a reasonable offer for teachers, we may have our own strike vote.
The high school students I teach reacted to the news with relief that they’d get rest from the hard work of their classes, along with apprehension about the whole mess. One student said it reminded her of when students were told school was going remote for a few weeks because of COVID-19. It turned out to be about a year.
There’s not a lot of trust among the adults in this conflict either, especially as both sides vie for public support, accusing each other of imperiling children and their families.
The workers say they’re looking out for the long-term interests of the next generation and the stability of schools. The school board and the superintendent seem to wish us to believe they are pursuing long-term stability through fiscal responsibility.
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I have too much interest in the outcome to deny any bias, but I do recall that the school district’s last superintendent warned, during the 2019 strike, that salary increases for teachers of even a miniscule amount could lead the school district to insolvency.
No one wants a strike – not the one we are supporting this week or a potential teachers strike later this spring if we still don’t have a contract. Distance learning and other disruptions of the pandemic have already eroded the education of this generation. So have a lot of other mishaps, small and large:
►Like the constant interruptions and disruptions in a system that fetishizes the aggregate measurements of student progress while disregarding the daily necessities of accomplishing it.
►Classes shortened so that teachers can be given useless training or barked at about test data.
►Standardized testing and all the nervous preparations.
►The ravages of social media and smartphone addictions that are making us all less smart.
►The threat of school shootings and the resulting fear, preparations and oppressive security policies.
►And the lack of talented and effective teaching professionals willing to endure insufficient pay and often unsupportive working conditions and show up every day for kids.
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There are conflicting claims about the severity of the teacher shortage, but I have experienced it firsthand. Not enough substitute teachers to cover when someone calls in sick. Students who have no qualified regular teacher for as many as half of their classes. Other students witnessing teachers quitting mid-semester or even midday.
There has always been attrition in our ranks. But I fear that many young educators who have the potential to be great teachers are repelled by a system that continually devalues us.
Perhaps there were once enough teacher applicants to treat the first years as a fitness test. But I doubt that attrition has ever been a realistic approach to getting an effective teacher for every student. Even if it were, the miseducating of students stuck with those doomed educators is shameful.
I could go on about a lack of coherent leadership and the politicizing of education – about the stunning lack of empathy, imagination and love for other people’s children – but blame is a dead letter unless it cuts a path to a better way.
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I hear so many people tout the importance of teachers and remember the teachers who made a difference for them. I wonder, though, how such a widely shared sentiment fails to inspire improved conditions for us.
Of all the political and social challenges we face, attracting and retaining talented people to classrooms seems so simple, if those in charge would listen to those who know.
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I’ll tell you the secret of longevity in teaching. I have been fortunate to have administrators who gave me the freedom to figure out what my students needed and trusted me to know when things weren’t working.
I have been fortunate to have survived budget cuts and layoffs until I had enough seniority to have job security and give my students continuity as a powerful force in their lives. I also had the good fortune to become a homeowner before the cost of buying or even renting a place to live in Los Angeles became impossible on a teacher’s salary.
My luck is of no use to the young, talented educators who are either being driven out of the system or dissuaded from even trying.
To solve this crisis and to have a well-educated workforce and citizenry, a collective appreciation of teachers will have to match the investment.
To prepare the next generation for the prodigious challenges that will face them, and to provide a path out of poverty, education leaders need to ensure that the important and challenging work of teaching is economically viable for well-educated people.
Treat us as professionals. Stop pretending that what happens inside our classrooms isn’t the most important part of what happens in the school. Dismantle the education hierarchy that devalues the classroom teacher.
Listen to us and support the work we do. And you won’t have to worry about another strike.
Larry Strauss has been a high school English teacher in South Los Angeles since 1992. He is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Students First and Other Lies: Straight Talk From a Veteran Teacher” and his new novel, “Light Man.” Follow him on Twitter: @LarryStrauss