Teacher: 'I will strike with my union, possibly taking out a loan to cover the lost pay'

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Jonathan Walsh teaches social studies in Columbus City Schools. A recent transplant from Brooklyn, New York, in his free time, he is a writer and musician.

Sometimes, I open the newspaper and almost laugh at the laundry list of very bad things that make up the headlines, except that they aren’t funny. Wildfires, mass shootings, inflation, war, disease, growing inequality, political tumult—you know them all.

And now, my union, the Columbus Education Association, has filed a notice of our intent to strike.

As though anyone needs that — the students who could start the year estranged from one another, possibly online but more likely bored, frustrated, and idle, caught in a political limbo; their parents and caregivers, who will have to scramble to deal with childcare while creating some sort of online learning environment; the teachers who stand to go without pay, tripped up during the crucial first weeks of the school year.

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The past year has been tough on schools. There are many reasons that I can see, but they all boil down to the same one that has been the case for decades: that public schools are where the marks of all society’s ills are most clearly visible.

The inflation crunch, the opioid crisis, the pandemic, the debates over immigration, racism, sexism, gender, and sexuality — all of these not only filter down to schools, they impact them directly. We are the nation’s tonsils, to use a very bad metaphor. The problems we the taxpayers exhort our government to solve, schools must deal with in the meantime. In this way, we are not unlike some of the other public-facing sectors of civic life: our police, our healthcare workers.

More than once, I have heard or read something to the effect of “teachers should just teach.” Which I take to mean that teachers should remove ourselves from the social issues surrounding our students and simply deliver instruction. I confess: it’s a tempting thought, and on its face, a reasonable one.

For many of us, it harkens back to our own primary and secondary education: rows of desks, students anxious about a test that will be delivered fairly and impartially. But it’s one that is far removed from the experience of a huge swath of students in the public education system.

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When I tell my friends about the cart, the response is always shock.

Fifty pounds and squeaky wheels, I push it between classrooms to try and beat my students and the bell. I rarely succeed. But it’s a necessity, because I don’t have a classroom. It is an experience many teachers know well, often for years at a time. “Traveling,” it’s called, and is a result of a school district having more students than space; the construction of new facilities not keeping pace with the community’s growth.

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Traveling eats up your downtime and means you can’t organize the space in a way that benefits the students, despite the classroom environment being an important and acknowledged feature of good teaching. It means not posting student work on the walls, not taping maps and posters and other useful information around the room. It means not sorting papers and getting a jump on grading in between classes.

These issues are compounded when those classrooms lack working computers, or enough space for the students, or windows. Traveling is hardly the worst thing in the world, but it makes the job harder.

What makes the job really tough is what the students have to deal with outside of school. I once had to head to work the morning after I put my dog — my best friend of 12 years — down. It was hard to concentrate, I was emotional, I was tired. I was, in short, not my best self.

I keep that in mind when a student doesn’t attempt any work, or pulls out a cell phone to play a game, or when they walk out of the classroom, or when they curse at me or steal from me, or when they try to sneak a vape pen out in the middle of class, or when they bring a gun to school. Because for many of them, losing a dog would be an easy day.

The students who are being expected to learn in my classes, this year alone, were dealing with being shunted between foster homes, parents jailed or deported or hospitalized, mothers and brothers and fathers shot and killed, empty pantries, unwashed clothes, drug problems of their own, language and other barriers to learning. And that’s excluding the active-shooter drills, hateful political rhetoric online and in the news, the pandemic, and the very real drama that comes with being a teenager — fights in the hallway, online cruelty, pressure to have sex and pressure not to talk about it.

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It is easy to feel frustration at the circumstances that put students in these situations. To chide the government or the education system for not doing things differently along the way. But none of that changes what a day for many Columbus students looks like before or after the bell rings.

That the ones bearing the brunt of all that needs to be fixed in our society are children. That adolescents are tasked with navigating all of the most intractable issues facing the nation from a position over which they have very little agency. They can’t vote. They can’t move states. They aren’t invited to school board meetings. And they are caught in a tug of war that is ostensibly over them, but seems to be about something else.

And so, while I understand the desire to ask teachers to stop complaining and simply teach — and while, on many levels, it is exactly what I wish to do — I also realize that it’s a request divorced from reality. Because teaching really is all about the kids — about making sure they are safe, fed, supported, and educated in a way that prepares them to be active and informed members of our society, and to create whatever future they want to make for themselves.

That looks different in every school across the country, and it changes year over year. The goal remains the same, but the path to get there is constantly shifting underfoot. You teach the curriculum, yes, but more than that, you teach the student. And each student is unique.

Carlos Silva Gómez works on some homework at his home in Columbus, January 19, 2021. Ethiopian Tewahedo Social Services (ETSS) and Columbus City Schools have partnered to create a bilingual liaison program. The liaisons, hired by ETSS, with funding from the district, reach out to families whose children are having issues with attendance and grades. Many are struggling to navigate the district's online learning platforms during the COVID-19 pandemic, an issue exacerbated by their language barriers.
Carlos Silva Gómez works on some homework at his home in Columbus, January 19, 2021. Ethiopian Tewahedo Social Services (ETSS) and Columbus City Schools have partnered to create a bilingual liaison program. The liaisons, hired by ETSS, with funding from the district, reach out to families whose children are having issues with attendance and grades. Many are struggling to navigate the district's online learning platforms during the COVID-19 pandemic, an issue exacerbated by their language barriers.

I sometimes fantasize about an America where the kids really do come first. Where class sizes are 15 to 20 instead of 30 to 35.

Where every teacher has a classroom and all of them are air conditioned when the weather becomes sweltering. Where there are ample materials and technology to ensure every student can access the internet.

Where, when educators request more resources for their kids, the response is to provide them, rather than to balk and say instead that students will be shifted to “synchronous and asynchronous remote learning,” failing to acknowledge that for some students this will mean a desk with a computer and for others it will mean a mattress on the floor, attempting to connect to the internet on a cracked phone without adults around to help them.

What the Columbus Education Association is requesting won’t fix everything that is wrong with the education system in this country. Its problems go far beyond teachers, and even public schools, for that matter. But I believe they are acting in good faith, with students’ and teachers’ best interests in mind.

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For these reasons and more, I stand with my union. If it comes to it, I will strike with my union, possibly taking out a loan to cover the lost pay. Schools are where all of America’s problems rise to the surface, but they can also be where the solutions begin.

Create schools in the image you would like to see your nation — modern, fully resourced, welcoming, safe, comfortable, adequately staffed with highly trained educators, administrators, and support staff — and the future will follow. The generation of students educated in that environment will be the ones to shape and reshape every other aspect of our nation in years to come, with the education and experience needed to make our union, indeed, more perfect.

Jonathan Walsh teaches social studies in Columbus City Schools. A recent transplant from Brooklyn, New York, in his free time, he is a writer and musician.

This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Jonathan Walsh: Why are Columbus teachers willing to strike?