By. Zoe Broderick
Last Monday, hundreds of Virginia teachers walked towards the Capitol in protest. In the past decade, there have been an increasing amount of teacher strikes across the nation, most notably in California, West Virginia, Arizona, and now Richmond. Here are a few of the things they were protesting against: low wages that force teachers to get a second job, too short maternity/paternity leave, too large class sizes, budget cuts, old school buildings, outdated technology, and inequity between schools state and nation wide.The protestors wore red, the color worn in some of the first teacher strikes in the nation. Chesterfield county led the state in participation, and over 50 of our own James River teachers attended. President of the Virginia education association, Jim Livingston, had this to say: “We’ve got kids in crumbling school buildings. We’ve got students with textbooks 15 years old. We’ve got teachers and support staff paid far below the national average. We’ve got technology that either doesn’t work or doesn’t exist…It’s time to fund our future.” So, why the sudden influx of teacher advocacy? Well, the problem has been growing for years. According to the United States Bureau of Labor, the average teacher in the United States make $55,000 dollars annually. However, according to a chart from the news website Axios, teacher salaries have actually been falling, and in 39 states the average teacher earned less in 2016 than they did in 2010. According to the American Association of School Administrators, class sizes have been increasing since 2010. It all boils down to the simple fact that budget cuts and teacher layoffs create larger class sizes, which disadvantages the students as well as their educators. A quote from Gino Marie, a teacher from Texas, sums it up well, “How am I supposed to teach 80 kids art on a $200 budget?” This cry is similar to many felt by teachers all across the nation. This event in Virginia marked a long overdue turning point in the fight for teacher advocacy. One of our own James river teachers, Mr. Hannum, walked proudly at the event and gave his own perspective about it all.
What was your own personal motivation for participating in this event?
I had two reasons, one specific, and one overarching. The very specific reason was for all of my friends here at James River and throughout the county who are moms. I made a two fold poster, where one side clearly stated how I believe maternity leave and benefits for moms should be changed to at least give a little more time to teachers when they have a child. So many teachers, especially females, need to use their own sick days for when their kids get sick. I think as teachers, we’re the one profession that should understand what motherhood entails. The other reason was mainly for my students, and just the overall thought and mindset of a teacher. I do think that there is also something to be said for how we are paid, wage gaps, and just the overall financial stability of this job over the past couple of years.
What was the tone of the walkout?
The march was really uplifting and energetic. I certainly tried to bring a lot of energy to the march myself. All of the teachers from James River alone gave our little group a lot of hope. It wasn’t somber at all, in fact there was a lot of energy, and the speakers riled the crowds. There were chants from the entire mile march from the park to the Capitol. There were some comments from spectators, like “Are you kidding me you get your summers off what are you complaining about?” but we handled that very peacefully, so to speak. So, there was a lot of energy, but nothing crazy.
What speaker spoke at the event?
Mayor Stoney spoke on grounds of full support for our teachers, especially in terms of Richmond city, which is one of the main target areas that needs improvement financially. The Virginia State Teacher of the Year, Robbie Robinson, who was also in the running for the National Teacher of the Year, spoke. He was very inspiring and awesome, everything you would expect from a teacher of the year. We had the state secretary of education speak, who was pretty amazing. Virginia teachers also have an organization, called the VEA, Virginia Education Association, and the president of that organization spoke. He had a lot of statistics, a lot of things to get us riled up in terms of pay and wage gaps. There was a fourth speaker, who was a middle school teacher from Richmond public schools, and she was just very fiery, and energetic. So, those are the ones I really remember.
In terms of student benefits, what is the number one thing that you think the school system should alleviate or change to better benefit your students?
It's very layered for me, being a baseball coach for the school as well. The transportation issues that we have I think would be the number one thing. There should never ever be a limit on field trips or extra curricular activities because we can’t find a bus or funding for a bus driver. Trips in school to provide students with an experience beyond the classroom is limited more and more by these things called blackout dates where if the county can’t find a bus then they can't go. We’re becoming a more real world type of education environment, but what does that mean if you can’t travel?
Virginia is a right to work state, which means that you cannot be forced to join a union as a condition of employment, do you feel like Virginia teachers should unionize?
I think its super interesting. I have a lot of family and friends who teach in Pennsylvania, which is a pretty big unionized state. I think unions certainly help with benefits of teachers based off of their pay scale and what Pennsylvania teachers in particular are offered, but being a right to work state I think is fine, as long as legislators, and our government in general are in it for the right reasons to help us. I don't feel the need to unionize if we’re just being treated fairly. So no, because I feel like with unions teachers are also required to do more, which in a right to work state like Virginia we’re already required to do a thousand things beyond just teaching.
What inequalities have you noticed in the teacher workforce, between gender, school districts, private schools vs public schools, or inner city vs suburb schools?
It’s just super interesting, in terms of what private schools incentivize their teachers with, from coaching, to pay, to club sponsors. I did the math last year, if you put in the hours rightfully so in a sport you coach, you are making 3, 4, or 5 dollars less than minimum wage. I think private schools, which are probably unionized, take care of that extracurricular compensation better. As far as gender is concerned, the super cool thing about our profession is, especially in my world of education, I kind of take orders, and in a great way, from females teachers and administrators. They do a phenomenal job, so I think our world does a great job of equally distributing certain positions of leadership to males and females.
What is one thing that you want people to know about being a teacher that might not be common knowledge?
I would like people to truly understand how many roles teachers play. I teach five classes this year, all freshman, and I have over a 150 students, and I’ve talked to students about bad breakups, family stuff, siblings, to more extreme stuff about backpacks and school supplies. So you become this sort of guiding light to these students on top of teaching them. The coolest thing is the relationships you build with students who you taught that are either still in school, or out of school. For example I get thank you cards from past students who still remember the energy I bring and how much fun I make this place. So, you're never truly forgotten if you enjoy being here, which students definitely pick up on.
Do you understand why certain teachers in the building decided not to participate or do you think they should have?
There was certainly no discouragement from those who did to those who didn’t because if anything those who went had an appreciation for those who stayed back to manage the day on Monday. Again, I was there in support of five or six of my female friends who couldn't take the day because they needed to save that personal or sick day for unwarranted sick children.They needed that one day so badly to make their life easier in the future. They literally couldn't afford to take the day. There were various reasons why people went and didn’t. I would say that I’m disappointed that a few of our colleagues thought it wasn’t really going to make a difference, so they didn’t go, which I have an issue with, but that's always going to happen, so it is what it is. They have every right to think that, I’m just bummed that they did. A lot of the teachers who didn’t walk, however, were sort of paying their role of support in their own way by holding down the fort in everyone's absence.
Why do you think there has been a mass occurrence of teacher walkouts over the past few years?
A lot of the reasons that we were marching is because what you’re finding is in the private sector in other worlds you get added benefits when you do more things, where it’s the exact opposite in our profession. We get asked to do so many extra things that are mandated. There’s all these checkups and specific boxes to check. We’re just checking boxes to check boxes, and we’re just so uninspired to do that anymore.
What do you think the significance of this walkout was for the Virginia teacher community?
I think it was really good for a right to work state like Virginia to have such good turnout, and mobilize into an event like this. The fact that we finally got to this point means that there is some sort of issue. I mean, you don’t have 2,000 teachers marching just because we feel like it, If we felt like everything was fair, or at least close to being fair we wouldn't have done it, so obviously there was a reason why this happened.