The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why I am on strike in West Virginia

We know we'll never get rich as teachers. But after 29 years of teaching, I'm still living paycheck to paycheck.

Thousands of West Virginia teachers attend a rally on Feb. 26 in Charleston. (John Raby/AP)

The West Virginia teacher strike of 1990 took place during my first year of teaching. Now, in my 29th year of teaching high school mathematics, I’m on strike, again.

The average teacher’s salary in West Virginia is around $45,000, among the very worst in the nation; our last raise was $1,000 four years ago. It’s not uncommon for teachers in our state to work a second job. I have a master’s degree and nearly three decades of experience, and I make $49,950. My two sons and I live paycheck to paycheck, and I work admissions for sporting events for additional income. I actually make less now than I did in 2012 because of increases in premiums for our public employee insurance.

Like all educators, I didn’t go into education for the money. It’s a sentiment I’ve had thrown back in my face during the strike. But it’s true. We teach because we love watching our students learn and knowing that we are giving them the chance to someday be whatever they want.

I generally start my day an hour before my first class, arriving before 7 a.m., and stay after school to prepare for the next day or help my students. I’m a hands-on teacher; you rarely find me sitting at a desk. I offer my students retakes on every grade that they complete in my class, because math builds on itself. They complete these retakes during homeroom but also during my lunch break and after school.

Some of my students have very little, and an education is their chance to get out. Sadly, by “get out” I mean out of our state. My mother, a West Virginia teacher herself, told me to leave in 1989. I did not heed her advice. I started out in Jefferson County, intending to leave, but before I knew it, I was coaching, working extracurricular positions and building a family. I moved back to Harrison County within eight years to draw on family support. Without the support of my parents, I couldn’t provide my boys their home. This is a difficult statement for a 52-year-old mother to make.

I never dreamed that I would have to stand up almost 30 years later to Gov. Jim Justice and the Republican-led West Virginia legislature. Our state ranked 49th in teacher pay in 1990, and here we are again, still at the bottom. Teachers are not standing for it. The masses filling Charleston to protest are far beyond anything the state capital has ever seen. The language used by the governor and the leadership in the legislature toward teachers has done nothing but fuel the fire. It’s time to address a true cost of living increase on a regular basis to keep good teachers from moving to border states. Someone in the state government needs to be the hero for education and realize that a great education system is the backbone of a great state. The state’s current proposal would cap raises at $808 next year and $404 for two years after that, which doesn’t come close to lifting our salaries to the point where many of us wouldn’t need a second job.

This is not an easy fight. A month ago, when I could see the strike coming, I told my older son, a senior at West Virginia University, to tighten his spending. We are in it for the long haul, and we could easily get to the point where we go without pay. Luxuries like having a personal phone, Internet and television would be the first things to go. At home, we’re eating grilled cheese sandwiches and soup in preparation, because we don’t know what’s going to happen.

There are many moments in teaching that pay us in a different way: when a student has an “aha!” moment, when a kid thinks he can’t do math and then he realizes he can. I’ll never quit this job because of moments like these. But it’s not always easy, and public school employees must be able to provide for our families, too. People criticizing us need to walk in our shoes. They need to drive a bus with 40 kids to school. They need to sit in the office, answer the phones and hear all the things we’re dealing with. They need to stand in the nurse’s office and see all the kids we take care of. Stand in our shoes, and you’ll understand.