The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Those unseemly teachers’ strikes

Thousands gathered and marched in a pitcket line outside the Oklahoma state Capitol building during the third day of a statewide education walkout on April 4, 2018 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Teachers and their supporters are demanding increased school funding and pay raises for school workers. (Photo by Scott Heins/Getty Images)

Teachers have walked out recently in several states and the District of Columbia to demand livable wages, more funding for resource-deprived schools and/or school buildings that are not falling apart.

Traditionally reluctant to make waves of any kind — at least at work — the teachers have surprised the education world with their actions, in part because they are happening in Republican-led states and were not organized by teachers unions.  Another surprise: in Tulsa, the school district’s superintendent, Deborah Gist, supports the striking teachers.

Others, of course don’t. In this piece, veteran teacher Peter Greene addresses critics, explaining that educators felt like they had no choice but to walk out. Greene teaches English in a small town in Pennsylvania and writes the Curmudgucation blog, on which this critique first appeared. He gave me permission to publish this.

By Peter Greene

When teachers strike, there are a number of predictable responses, ranging from rock throwing to pearl clutching.

For rock throwers, you can expect folks from places such as the Center for Education Reform, who took to their newsletter to explain that teachers have been duped by their unions (who are to blame for low wages because they extract union dues from teachers) and that pensions are also to blame (so teacher pensions should be gutted). Never mind that these have been wildcat strikes. Over pension gutting. There will always be folks who say that teachers just don’t deserve to be paid a bunch of money and that public schools should be as cheap as possible.

But when teachers strike, we’ll also hear from those who find a teachers’ strike, well, unseemly. Undignified. Inappropriate behavior for educated professionals.

Derrell Bradford, executive vice president of the reform organization 50CAN, dropped some tweets of this sort: “College educated people striking, imposing hardship on parents and students in purpose to impose political tension…it feels beneath them.” And this one:  “I am for well-compensated educators who are excellent. The strikes feel very line worker to me.”

There was also Oklahoma legislator Kevin “Go Ahead and Be Pissed at Me” McDugle, who said: “I’m not voting for another stinking measure when they’re acting the way they’re acting.”

You also may hear things like this: It’s just not the right time and place…. You’re really hurting your own cause through this unseemly behavior…. Don’t you want to set a better example?… I agree that you have a point, but this just isn’t the way to make it…. All this unrest is just taking attention away from your cause.

This sort of tone-policing concern trolling dismay has been raised against teachers’ strikes, against Colin Kaepernick and taking a knee, against the Freedom Riders and lunch-counter sitters of the Civil Rights movement, against the suffragettes demanding the vote for women.

Can’t you do something less disruptive? Something that’s not so unseemly?

The proper response to this complaint is always the same: What else would you prefer we do?

There’s never an answer. Well, there is, but nobody in power wants to say it out loud: “We would like you to just accept things as they are and not complain about it. Just do as we say, take what we give you, and be happy about it.”

There’s an interesting thing to note about the criticism that teachers’ strikes are unseemly and unnecessarily disruptive and not a proper activity for college-educated professionals: Teachers mostly agree with some of that.

I’m willing to bet there has never, ever been a meeting of a teachers’ union in which leaders said, “We think they’re interested in sitting down and having some good faith negotiations to settle all this,” and the members said, “No, no, we want to strike. Let’s strike instead.”

Nor do I believe the myth of the outside agitator, popular since the civil rights movement. Union locals invariably put their local interests ahead of the state or national union; no group of teachers would walk out just because the National Education Association told them to strike.

Teachers strike because they are out of options. They strike because the other side won’t negotiate in good faith. They strike because they feel dismissed and disrespected. They strike because their work conditions have become awful, with no relief in sight. They strike because they feel the future of their profession and their school are in peril. They strike because they can’t think of any other way to make things better.

But a strike? Couldn’t they get their message across some other way?

Guess what? They’ve been trying, and trying some more. In fact, teachers have been engaged in a slow-motion strike for about a decade, walking off the job one or two at a time. But instead of recognizing this as a work stoppage, we’ve labeled it a “teacher shortage.” And instead of responding by asking how we can fix the job so that it is attractive enough to recruit and retain teachers, states have mostly responded by saying, “How can we lower standards so that we can put any warm body in a classroom?”

In other words, we’ve been in the middle of a not-unseemly work stoppage, and it has yielded zero positive results for teaching.

If you want teachers to pursue other not-unseemly avenues, you have to provide not-unseemly avenues that are not dead ends, but which lead somewhere productive.

People, in general, want to be heard. If they can’t be heard when they speak, they’ll keep raising their voices. If someone is screaming at you, it’s probably because you refused to listen to them when they were talking to you.

I cannot say this enough: Teachers don’t want to strike and they don’t like to strike. But they will strike if you make it clear to them that you intend to do them harm, and that you won’t listen to them any other way. If there are no not-unseemly options, unseemly is what you get.