The teachers’ revolt strikes in the Southwest
The wave of teacher walkouts that has swept across the country this spring will reach Arizona on April 26. The grassroots teachers' group Arizona Educators United (AEU) and the statewide union Arizona Education Association (AEA) jointly supported a call for walkouts after a poll of teachers organized by the AEU went overwhelmingly in favor of a strike. The teachers, who are among the lowest-paid in the country, are demanding an immediate 20 percent raise and full restoration of education funding to the levels it was at before the Great Recession of 2007-08 struck--more than $1 billion has yet to be returned after 10 years.
In mid-April, Arizona's Republican Gov. Doug Ducey announced a funding plan that he claims would raise Arizona teachers' pay by 20 percent by 2020 and increase education funding by $371 million by 2023. Just two days before, he had stood by his previous proposal of a paltry 1 percent raise. Ducey's promise was another stunning concession to the "red-state revolt" of educators. But the AEU isn't satisfied. Teachers say Ducey's proposal doesn't meet their full demands on pay, cover other school staff or raise new revenues so whatever salary hikes do materialize aren't taken from other necessary programs.
The AEU has been organizing protests and mobilizations for weeks, including "walk-in" days at more than 1,000 schools across the state where teachers, students, parents and community members showed their resolve. "The educators voted in favor of a walkout because they're ready to stand up and fight, and they're ready for change," said Rebecca Garelli, a seventh-grade math and science teacher in Phoenix and a leader in the AEU. "They are tired of empty promises from the legislature and tired of working in underfunded schools."
Janet Larkin is a former teacher who had to leave her position last fall because of health problems brought on by the conditions in Arizona schools. Now she is a leader of the Facebook group Arizona Parents & Allies United, which is supporting the teachers' walkouts. She talked about the importance of this struggle with Seattle educator when he traveled to Arizona earlier this month to bring solidarity to the struggle.
WHY DO you support the educators strike?
I HAD been teaching for nine years until this year. In October, I was one of the 900-plus teachers who abandoned their contract. I had three chronic health issues. I wasn't getting time with my son. I wasn't getting to take care of myself because of the working conditions that we're going through here in Arizona.
Since I stepped away from that contract, I've been building a business for myself, but also still supporting teachers and parents in what I do. I no longer have those health conditions. All three of them are completely cleared up.
Even though I took a cut in my salary because I'm working part-time while I'm building my business, I don't have those huge medical expenses anymore. That has been a godsend. And I actually get to see my son.
A lot of schools will say that they support families with teachers, but with the amount of work that's being given to them, you're just not able to see your kids when you're doing all the work that's required to teach in the classroom.
WHAT'S IMPORTANT about this struggle right now?
I STARTED right as the budgets were being cut. It's just gone downhill since then.
One of the programs that I volunteer with at a church deals with people who are struggling with different hurts, habits, and hang-ups. One of the things I learned there is "hurt people hurt people." That translates to me as "broken people break people."
Right now, our schools are broken. If the schools are broken and breaking the teachers--because they certainly broke my health--who are those broken teachers going to break?
It's our kids. Not necessarily physically, but when you've got that much stress on you, and there's no support coming from the community, and it doesn't feel like there's support coming from the government, teachers tend to break in on themselves.
It's going to affect their health, affect their relationships and affect their ability to function and eventually drive them out of the profession. And there will be some people where it does come out in the classroom.
We need to get our kids where they're in a classroom with a highly qualified teacher who is being supported through good pay and reasonable work demands.
WOULD YOU be willing to talk about what it was like to be a teacher, and what led to your medical issues?
I THINK I probably have a lot in common with many teachers, in that we take stuff on ourselves in order to be able to help our kids, because that's why we got into this. When those budget cuts came down, there were different things changed with the teaching job.
I looked at it when I left and realized I was really doing four different jobs: I was a teacher, a curriculum specialist and designer, a behavior intervention specialist and a customer relationship manager. What I mean by "customer relations" is that we need to sell our schools to the parents, so that we don't lose them to charter schools or to another district.
We've lost Special Education support staff and paraprofessionals. Now teachers work more closely with special needs kids. A lot of that is behavior-related. We're doing things that weren't necessarily in the job description.
Then, since the funds were cut for the curriculum, it fell on the backs of the teachers. We're not going to teach with outdated curriculum. That's boring and not engaging, so we update it ourselves. But there was no extra pay for that. It just became a job requirement.
And then, of course, there's the teaching, the delivering of the materials, the grading and all of those things. I took all that on myself. I'm a single mom trying to take care of my own child. I ended up with extreme anxiety and insomnia because you're up constantly thinking about work.
I had chronic migraines diagnosed before, but they got extremely bad. I had to take two different medical leaves with two different districts. I can't remember the exact amount of time, but one of them with the migraines was associated with a condition of vertigo.
Now that I've gone through the program that I was talking about that helps people who are struggling with hurts, habits and hang-ups, I realize that I just took the abuse and all the extra work because I thought that I wasn't worth any more than that.
Now I know that I'm worth more than that. All teachers are worth more than that. They need to get the respect that they deserve. They need to get the pay that they deserve. They need to get better working conditions so that you're not doing the work of four different roles that should have four different salaries.
I think once I came to that healthy decision, I put up the boundaries about what's a requirement and what's mine. Either the administration didn't plan for this, and now you're tossing it down on me, or the government didn't pay for it, and now you're tossing it down on me.
I can only do what I can do. If the requirements they're asking for are more than that, then this isn't the job for me, because it's damaging my health.
It's not supposed to be like this. This isn't healthy or normal. I think the most important part is seeing that we're not alone, because it's very hard to stand up for something on your own.
I think I would go out on a limb and say that these 900 educators like myself who left the profession this year were doing it alone, because we never thought that we would have support, and so we just had to walk away from the career.
That was a really tough decision for me. I struggled with it, but it ultimately came down to my family and my health. I found other ways to serve kids. I volunteer at my church and work with a small group of ninth-grade girls. But that's not the answer--to have everyone have to leave--because then we would have no teachers left.
The profession needs to change. Both the way it's set up and support for the profession. For a lot of the parents who I've interacted with, their knowledge of what we go through as teachers is just not there. But if they're willing to listen, once they know the situation, we've got their support.
COULD YOU talk about Arizona Parents & Allies United Facebook group and the role you've played there in helping to lead attempts to support the Arizona educators?
I DIDN'T actually start it. I first started looking on the teachers' side because I didn't know where I was going to best fit in this movement.
Like the teachers' group Arizona Educators United, it just sprung up. Someone saw a need and created it. Once I found my way to there, I thought, "Okay, we need some more organization here"--just like the teachers have done as far as getting in contact.
Facebook gives a lot of information, but it can be kind of chaotic in there with all the discussions going on. Which ones pertain to me at my school?
Having been a teacher, I'm familiar with the Remind 101 app. I thought, "Why can't we use that for this?" I created something for the school I'm directly supporting and started getting people in. Some of the administrators jumped on and said, "This is great, we've got to do this."
EXPLAIN THE Remind app for other educators, parents or allies who don't know about it.
REMIND 101 is basically a way to text reminders to kids: "Hey this is coming up. Don't forget there's homework due here."--updates that come to their phone basically. It's an app that they download, but you're not getting their personal information. Obviously, it can be a little awkward texting your students, so for safety reasons, Remind 101 was great for that.
It's important given the magnitude of this movement to be able to approach people who you don't necessarily know well and who might not want to give you their phone number.
That's why we thought of Remind 101, where you text in for alerts. We can say, "Here's an action that's coming up. Here's what you can do to support the teachers. Here's what you can do to prepare for an upcoming walkout if it goes that way. Here's what people are doing with their kids?" It helps to provide that information to people.
FOR PARENTS or community members who want to get involved, what's the best way to contact people in the know?
GETTING ON Remind is a good step. If it's a parent who wants to step up and help us in gathering more community members, they can text 81010 with the message "@AZparents". For anyone else who just wants to stay in the know--if you don't have time to step up, but are definitely supportive and want to know what's going on--then text 81010 with the message "@AZunited".
Even if you're not fully convinced that you're in support of the movement, you should get on Remind 101, because you'll get information about why it's good to support the movement.
Whether you're a parent or a community member, the education of our kids affects all of us, because our kids are the ones who are going to come out of school, go into society and make this a functional, successful society or an unsuccessful society.
I heard an analogy the other day that I thought was brilliant: A teacher is like a candle in that they consume themselves in order to light the way for others. It shouldn't be like that. We shouldn't have to consume ourselves.
In these states where teachers are standing up, right now, we're not only consuming from one end, we're consuming from both. You're going to end up with a meltdown and a fire.
We've had enough. There have been enough teachers who have experienced health problems or had to walk out of the classroom, which is something that's not an easy decision for any teacher to make. So it's time.
Transcription by Jordan Weinstein