As I marched through the soggy streets of downtown Los Angeles earlier this week, I was remembering my first year as a teacher, 27 years ago.
I was young and idealistic. Not all that good at teaching, but I worked really hard and helped students in ways far beyond the job description. I fed hungry kids, tutored for hours after school for no pay, drove students home to spare them the perils of rival gang territory, helped them apply for college and wrote their letters of recommendation. The work offered profound gratification until I’d receive my paycheck each month and feel the insult.
My principal used to brag about me and the other teachers who went above and beyond, and it was always nice to be appreciated. But then one time I heard another school’s administrator complain that his staff wouldn’t do any extra work unless they were paid for it ― and I realized the financial peril of caring so much about our students. It makes you easily exploited.
We might be the only striking workers who don’t entirely stop working ― who really can’t stop working.
I saw that peril again on the long march through downtown L.A. to the Los Angeles Unified School District headquarters ― I saw teachers enduring the downpour, holding up their laminated signs demanding reasonable pay and working conditions and support, chanting for justice but also talking with each other about students in crisis and lesson plans they would get back to as soon as this ordeal was over. We might be the only striking workers who don’t entirely stop working ― who really can’t stop working. I’m still receiving requests from students for letters of recommendation to colleges and scholarship programs. Some deadlines are the end of this week.
In another field, that would be leverage. Give us a reasonable contract offer or these customers won’t be served. But we teachers could never make that threat, and it would only be effective if the superintendent and the board of education members cared as much about our students as we did.
Everyone appreciates selfless teachers, but expecting selflessness is offensive and unsustainable. How much we pay our teachers is an expression of how much we respect them. The conditions in which we place teachers and their students are an expression of how much we respect students and teachers. These expressions are played out in every district in every state in our country, but ultimately it is about our self-respect as a self-governing free society.
While my colleagues and I stand outside our schools and march through the streets of our city, we are doing so in a country with an unfunded dysfunctional government, a government out of touch with its constituents and elected by a citizenry that struggles to differentiate investigative journalism from fake news. The future of our democracy ― not to mention our economy ― depends upon educating the next generation, and we don’t have enough money for that?
How much we pay our teachers is an expression of how much we respect them.
Our principal and assistant principal brought coffee and doughnuts to our picket line amid the downpour. They reminded us that they are teachers, too. They both started in the classroom years ago, and they will, they said, always be teachers at heart. They understand what we are striking for. Not just for our own financial survival in an economy with a shrinking middle class.
Most of us are going to be retiring in the next five or 10 or 20 years. Who will replace us? Who will want to teach overcrowded classes in a city in which they most likely will never be able to afford a house ― or even a condo? How many who try will make it past the first year or two?
After this week, I am actually hopeful. I am hopeful because of all the teachers ― young and old and in between ― out there in our ponchos with our picket signs undeterred by nasty weather or superintendents who seek to devalue us and our students. Undaunted by the financial uncertainty of what could be a protracted strike. Passionate educators rooted in this community determined to get what we and our students deserve.
Larry Strauss is a veteran high school teacher and basketball coach in Los Angeles and the author of Students First and Other Lies.