Sitting in an elementary school classroom, picture how many times you were told to behave respectfully. To act responsibly, to be kind to others, to share. Surrounded by the brightly colored posters parading the alphabet, teachers practically drilled these phrases into us. But we’ve failed our teachers in this task. Instead of supporting those to whom we owe so much, we’ve spent the last few weeks denouncing them for behaving selfishly, as if a demand for better pay is something outrageous. Teachers have asked you to respect others, but you’ve failed to return the courtesy.
Say what you want about teachers, but don’t deny it: they’ve have changed your life. You wouldn’t be reading this if you hadn’t been taught how to. You wouldn’t be able to count how many words are in this sentence. You wouldn’t have any idea what a worker’s union is, or what a strike is. You owe everything to a teacher. This cannot be overemphasized and fortunately, many of my classmates know this. Kudos to all you on the picket lines. Yet many still continue to debate what teachers “deserve.” Common sentiments about teachers: They only work six hours a day; they get the whole summer off; they’re just glorified babysitters; they know what they’re getting when they sign up for the job. Oscar Wilde said, “Everyone who is incapable of learning has taken to teaching.” Despite this cultural phenomenon which sides against them, teachers taught you the basics you need to do everything. When will we understand what we owe to them?
On September 3rd, the Seattle Education Association voted to strike if an agreement with the school district was not reached. By the 9th, they had failed to reach that agreement, despite more than four months of negotiating. The teachers’ union wants an increase in pay to match high living costs, less standardized testing, and relief for overloaded educational aides. They’ve also asked for equity in disciplinary action, in an attempt to stop the institutional racism that permeates education.
I cannot claim to know the specifics of what is fair pay. Nor can I understand the technicalities of union negotiations and the politics of what it takes to reach an agreement. I can contribute knowledge of common decency. I’ve heard from teachers that district representatives failed to even show up to some of the meetings. They declined to propose anything until the end of August, and at this point, they proposed a half hour longer work day, but no additional pay. This is blatantly disrespectful. The district has now abandoned that idea, but continues to claim that they can’t afford the pay raise the union proposes. They claim that the teachers asked for too much, that they were unrealistic in their goals. Of course they were. What was their alternative? The teachers aimed high, and hoped to negotiate down to something reasonable. The district didn’t negotiate nearly as well. It gave proposals and refused to budge on them. It ignored the proposals of the union. Now, the district has suddenly begun to introduce new ideas. Apparently, the strike is working.
This idea of limited fiscal resources hasn’t seemed to stop the city from paying for other things they deem important. For example, a basketball franchise that we are willing to go into debt for, or the Kingdome, destroyed 15 years ago, but paid off only this year, or the 11.2% pay raise for state legislature. Said state legislature is still being rewarded for failing its students. In the 2012 McCleary decision, Washington’s Supreme Court ruled that our state is not even fulfilling the constitutional duty to provide ample funding for its students. It’s a chronic problem for our state, and the legislature still hasn’t made many efforts to solve the problem. Washington’s educational funding system is broken, and teachers are on the bottom of the list.
Teachers feel degraded. When they voted on a strike, the Seattle Times published numerous articles and opinion pieces condemning them. The Times continually sides against teachers. Immediately, the district approved legal action against them, though they currently have no plans to use it. In Washington state, strikes by public employees are not legally granted, though they also have no specific penalties. Teachers have very little recourse but a strike when they reach an impasse. The plan outlined in the Washington State Legislature succeeded; teachers were effectively vilified for choosing their only option. The teachers know that the strike is ruining their public reputation even further. They realize that the strike is delaying the education of their students. Teachers are determined to go back to school day after day despite everything we say about them, and this act is stopping them from doing so. They’re not getting paid. But they still voted unanimously to strike. The act of losing what they value so much seems drastic. Don’t underestimate what this strike means to them. This is a last resort, one they didn’t want to happen, and it should not be taken lightly.
Teachers have power. The strike is already national news, and since the district has finally begun to negotiate fairly, it’s clearly working. But the teachers aren’t abusing their power. They are far more dedicated than that. They’re so dedicated, that they continue to endure the hatred and flippancy we show towards them. They withstand a political system specially designed to deny them funding and the ability to act on their discontent. They stick around because they know that their work gives their students the power that comes from knowledge. We tend to abuse that power and then blame teachers for not teaching us useful things. Even so, their students will grow up to be doctors and humanitarians and parents, and those people probably won’t ever think of them. They rarely ask for thanks. We cannot expect them to endure so much for so long. When they ask for a pay raise, they deserve it.
I don’t mean to sanctify all teachers. Perhaps the union is being stubborn, and its demands are too high. Teachers make mistakes, and sometimes, they’re bad at their jobs. You may dislike your teacher, or maybe the class was boring. However, they probably are still teaching you. The real likelihood is that you’ve only had a few truly awful educators. I learned something else from teachers: individuals should not exemplify an entire group. Teachers are workers, like everyone else. The difference is that politicians and the school district treat them as unimportant laborers that just happen to shape the minds of the future. It should not be difficult to treat these people kindly. It should not be too much trouble to use respectful language. It’s incomprehensible that we can’t face those simple facts.
That we have the audacity to shame teachers is shameful in itself. How dare we look at teachers asking for a cost of living adjusted salary and better health care funding and call them selfish? We owe so much to teachers, and we should be able to endure some discomfort in order to help them. In any other circumstances, calling teachers the names we call them would be called “bullying.” There are so many out there showing their full support for our educators, but if we can’t influence policy it will be for nothing. Teachers should have earned your gratitude. Show them the respect they deserve. Visit a picket line and support them. Protest your political system’s disregard for education. Allow them this hard-fought strike, and have the dignity to treat teachers like human beings.
Featured Photo: Educators and their supporters pose outside of Graham Hill Elementary. Photo complements of the Seattle Education Association