The Teacher Walkouts
Ten educators across four states discuss picketing, negotiating, winning, losing, or not striking at all.
On February 22, 2018, some 20,000 teachers in West Virginia — many of them wearing red in solidarity — walked out of their classrooms. That April saw strikes in Arizona, Colorado, and Oklahoma, as teachers vented their collective frustration in what became known as the #RedforEd movement. In early 2019, educators picketed in Oakland and Los Angeles, in districts across Washington state and Oregon, and again in Colorado. And this fall, educators in Chicago, the nation’s third-largest school district, took to the streets.
After years of system-wide underinvestment, educators are pushing back hard. They have married concerns about pay with their ability to adequately educate students . They have made a few gains — one or two fewer students in their overcrowded classes and significant raises in some cases. But many still see a long way to go, and as another election ramps up, the public will have to decide how much these issues matter. In these pages, we hear from teachers who made the decision to walk the picket lines and others who decided to stay put.
By Alexandria Neason and Emmanuel Felton
Photographs by students Andrew “Jester” Bulnes, Alexis Chamberlain, Evelyn McSpirit, Lydia Singletary, and Ni’Sea Thurman-Wamubu
Illustrations by Case Jernigan and Luyi Wang
The social studies teacher who had 38 kids in his classroom
Carlos “Chico” Robinson
Seventh- and eighth-grade social studies, Kenilworth Elementary School
Last year, when I was teaching social studies at Santa Maria Middle School, I had a parent-teacher conference. The parents were concerned — they’d come to Arizona from Oregon, and it appeared that their child’s reading and math skills weren’t progressing. The kid was like, I’m trying as hard as I can. There was frustration. There was sadness. One of the parents asked, How often can a teacher help? And my response was, I personally have 38 kids in my class, and with 38 students, teaching stops. That’s when we become guardians, babysitters in a way, not to be crass. On top of that, we don’t have the resources. The math teachers had to share calculators. We waste so much time not doing our jobs. We’re a dumping ground. The parent was like, I’m going to have to put them in private school. We’re losing kids to charters and private schools in the belief that it’s the better education.
Kenilworth, my new school, is in a much larger district. There are more programs, a free after-school program, more help in reading and math and tutoring. My class sizes are much smaller. At my old school, we had to do dress-down days — kids would pay a dollar to wear regular clothes instead of a uniform, which raised money just to go on a fun field trip.
Educators always knew they were being grossly underpaid in Arizona, but everyone said, Well, that’s Arizona. But when we saw the West Virginia walkouts, we saw the teachers have a voice. Somebody just needed to cause a spark. For the most part, not much changed after the strike in terms of funding to our schools. And the cost of living is going up; the cost of insurance is skyrocketing. What you have to understand is that we’re already so behind in funding that, with those rises in costs, 20 percent will maybe get us to where we should have been. What was most demoralizing was that more than half of the educators that were so active in #RedforEd dropped out after the agreement. They stopped going to the Capitol. They stopped being part of meetings.
Now we’re back to square one. Our legislators aren’t listening to us. Our governor is not listening to us. And when I say “us,” I’m talking about our students. You’ve got to understand that, from kindergartners to students who graduated from high school last year, they have never been in a fully funded school. By the time they graduate, they are behind students in California and on the East Coast. When you are always behind the eight ball, it can have a domino effect: You feel like you’re behind, which leads to frustration, and that leads to who knows what.
That is just embarrassing. It’s insulting. I already know next summer, I’m gonna be knocking on doors in 115-degree heat, and teachers are gonna have to take this in their hands again.
The Arizona Strikes
April 26–May 3, 2018
average pre-strike salary
what they wanted
A 20 percent raise and a return to pre-recession school-funding levels
what they got
A 20 percent pay increase by 2020
Kindergarten to eighth-grade art, Farrell B. Howell ECE-8 School
A lot has happened in Denver in recent years. The state legalized marijuana, and people have been moving here in droves. The cost of living is skyrocketing, while teacher salaries stay the same. The younger teachers, who tend to move from out of state, have been struggling to get by. Plus, teacher pay in Colorado is tied to bonuses for, among other things, student performance, which means test scores. In Colorado Springs, teacher pay can fluctuate as much as $14,000 in a given year, depending on if your students do well or not on a standardized test. I mean, that’s about 20 percent of your income.
The turnover is outrageous. I’ve taught at my school since 2013, and out of a staff of 67 teachers, I think seven teachers have been here since 2013. Denver Public Schools will tell you that our turnover is on par with other urban school districts, but they’re only looking at year-over-year turnover. When you start to look at turnover over three years, five years, ten years, then it’s really crazy. Our older students have been talking about how much it sucks to not have any teachers that know you. Hey, I’m trying to get college recommendations. How are they going to write a letter about me? If I get into trouble, who am I going to go talk to? There’s no one that knows me or my family. The kids would even say things like, Our schools are trash.
The people who didn’t want to strike were the greatest purveyors of misconceptions. There was a subconscious narrative that these spoiled white teachers were hurting black and brown students because of their own self-interest. There was one teacher who’d written a letter about why she wasn’t going to strike. I don’t know how she’s going to go back to her school because the view is basically like, Thanks for selling us out. The people who did strike — I think we’re going into a year where those people are gonna feel frustrated. They lost $500, $600, $800 from their paychecks so other people can enjoy $10,000 raises without any of the risk. And without even saying something like, Hey, guys, thanks for doing that. So it’s weird. It’s just kind of hanging there still.
I am one of the fortunate people because my salary went up a crazy amount, which was so beyond life-changing. My partner is disabled, and I’ve been supporting two people on a teacher’s salary. I was making round $50,000 a year. Next year, I’ll be making $68,000. When I finish my master’s, I’m going to make $72,000.
It’s funny, because you’ll talk to a lot of teachers here who feel guilty about how much more money they’ll be making. But youknow what? I have been in this profession for 13 years. I do a damn good job. When you’re in your 30s, you start hearing about how your friends are making like 80, 90 grand, and you’re just like, What the fuck? I had developed a kind of working-class nihilism where I thought I’d be poor forever. Sucks to be me. I should have gone into a STEM job. But now, I don’t have to literally lie awake worrying that if anything happens, we’re done for. There was this palpable, maybe 10 percent, anxiety that I was experiencing all the time. Now that’s gone.
The Denver Strikes
February 11–14, 2019
average pre-strike salary
what they wanted
Statewide walkouts in April 2018 had resulted in a 2 percent raise. This time, the Denver union wanted to eliminate most bonuses, which fluctuated widely, in favor of raising base salaries and placing more emphasis on continuing education as a pay metric.
what they got
A 7 to 11 percent raise, cost-of-living increases, credit for continuing education, and a new system that kept some merit bonuses in place
Los Angeles, California
Magnet coordinator, Crenshaw High School
Crenshaw is the last traditional public high school in L.A. that serves primarily African American students — many are now going to magnet and charter schools. When I started teaching, it was really important for me to teach at a place where the kids look like me and came from similar backgrounds. Growing up, my parents always taught me that once you get to a certain level, it’s your responsibility to reach back and pull up those who are coming behind you.
What’s missing in this conversation about education is the racial context for how we got here. Back in the ’70s, Californians passed Proposition 13, which limited property taxes, which then limited how much money was going to schools. This is around the time when schools were being integrated. Wealthy parents started taking their kids out of public education, and students within the community were being bused out to other schools. So your traditional schools were teaching black and brown students with less funding.
I remember walking in my first day as a teacher to a class of over 40 students. I was 22, and it just felt like this huge responsibility. I wanted to prove to myself that, you know, I can do this. I’ve never been a quitter.
I had a student a few years ago who had gone to my alma mater for middle school. She and her mom were homeless, sleeping outside of the Sentinel newspaper offices. During that time, she started using her gifts to write her first book. She was part of Crenshaw’s business and entrepreneurship pathway — we have various career pathways. She is now a communications major at UCLA.
After the strikes, it was a reality check. Not to be a downer, but it was sobering. The teachers picketed for basic necessities for the classroom. We’re not even talking about things that wOuld accelerate learning — we’re talking about the basics. And what were the changes that we really saw? Class size went down one student.
For me, I felt the naiveté of the work was stripped away. As a new teacher, you come in and you want to change the world. But once you start getting a little skin in the game, it’s just like, OK, are you committed or not? Cause this is real work. It’s literally a day-by-day decision to say, I’m going to get up. I am going to give my best. I am going to do all that I can.
Oftentimes in our communities, we have this strong-black-woman stereotype, right? That we have this one strong leader who is going to lead people to where they’re supposed to go. But it’s really false, and it’s not sustainable. A better approach to thinking about how to solve all these problems is just people working together. People working together.
The Los Angeles Strikes
January 14–22, 2019
average pre-strike salary
what they wanted
A 6.5 percent raise and more full-time nurses and librarians, as well as counselors and social workers. Lower class sizes and a halt to the expansion of charter schools.
what they got
Lower class sizes in grades four through 12; a 6 percent raise; and more nurses, librarians, and school counselors. The school board promised to consider a moratorium on new charters.
Senior team lead, mathematics, Manual High School
I didn’t strike, and quite a few teachers at my school didn’t as well, which made it a lot easier. I never joined the union, either. At first, it was because couldn’t afford it. I was like, I don’t have $60 a month to spare. Now I just don’t feel like the union is representative of me as a teacher in a high-needs school. The counterargument to that is, If you’re not a member, then it can’t represent you. I understand that, but it just seems like too much of an uphill battle.
I didn’t strike because I can barely pay my bills as it is, not to mention going without a full paycheck. I was also worried about my kids — our schools are facing a lot of pressure about performance. Knowing that a strike would be such a sacrifice for me and my kids, I was like, I’m not. We don’t have that many union members at our school, and there seemed to be a general consensus at Manual that some of the union’s stances didn’t support us. The union wanted all the teachers to be treated the same. But I think that teachers in our highest-needs schools should be paid more — a lot more. Salaries should reflect the nuanced expertise that is required on a minute-by-minute basis. And make it high enough that it becomes competitive, so that people are fighting to be high school math teachers because it’s such a lucrative job. It’s a problem, just like people’s refusal to admit that we don’t want to invest in our black and brown kids.
I was kind of scared because I’d heard that people who don’t strike are traitors and would have no friends afterward. That was not the case at all. I did feel a little bit guilty that I get to reap the benefits of a raise, that I didn’t have to sacrifice the same way that some of the other teachers did. That’s lingering in the back of my mind. I also feel like there was so much teacher pride throughout the strike. Even though that’s my thing, I was upset to not feel like I could preach that message. It just wasn’t my message to deliver at the time.
Kindergarten, Manzanita Community School
I knew that there was going to be some emotional exhaustion, but I was not prepared for how tired I’d be physically. On the first day of the strike, I got home and looked at the app on my phone that tells me how many steps I’ve taken. I’d walked over 11 miles that day.
Feeling people rally behind us was emotional because leading up to the strike, you feel such a lack of support. But it also can be a little frustrating because you’re like, Oh man, I am so grateful, and also, Would you like to come donate pencils to my classroom in a month? Are you willing to come volunteer in schools? You have a lot of people who say things like, Teachers aren’t paid enough, or, God bless you, I could never do your job. But you don’t have a lot of people willing to do anything about it. We all have a part to play, whether or not you have kids of your own. What’s happening in our schools has a huge impact on day-to-day life, like, what kind of citizens are we fostering? When we ask teachers to make up the difference in these underfunded schools, we’re not setting anyone up for success. We’re not setting the kids up for success, but we’re also not setting up our country for success.
There’s not a whole lot of other professions where you’re being asked to bring your own paper. Copy quotas are crazy to me. I was trying to tell a friend, Can you imagine being asked to go give a big presentation, and the night before, you’re printing out all of your visual handouts, and then your copier starts blinking because you’ve run out of copies? That’s not a reasonable expectation in most professions, but we’re asking teachers to figure out a way. Just, you know, use your ingenuity. That’s why you became a teacher. So I end up having to send a mass text and ask other teachers who haven’t hit theirs if they’re willing to spare some. Or sometimes I go to Kinko’s.
Oddly, during the strike, I felt more respected than I had previously in my teaching career. But once your physical presence is gone, it’s easy for that feeling to dissipate. I felt like I had to take to the streets to beg for what essentially amounted to a cost-of-living increase. It makes you question your worth.
Since then, I’ve been trying to think outside the box. Yes, we need more support staff, but rather than just continuing to ask for the same thing over and over and over again, I thought, How else can we get that? I reached out to a bunch of universities in the Bay Area looking for young people willing to come into our school, develop a relationship with the kids, and do some academic intervention. Now we have one or two students from St. Mary’s College assigned to every teacher. It’s not a Band-Aid on the issue of needing more school support staff. It’s just another way to advocate for it.
There’s this idea that teachers feel underpaid, so they go on strike to get more money, or teachers are angry and so they go on strike. That’s so far from it. When teachers go on strike, it’s about the conditions that affect little kids, too. We all went into this profession because we wanted to teach. None of us wanted to be professional activists.
The Oakland Strikes
February 21–28, 2019
average pre-strike salary
what they wanted
A retroactive 12 percent raise, smaller class sizes, and more counselors and nurses. (The district had 22 nurses for 37,000 students.)
what they got
A nonretroactive 11 percent raise, a 3 percent bonus, lower class sizes by 2021–2022, and more support staff to lower caseloads for counselors. Nurses got a 9 percent raise and two $10,000 bonuses by 2021.
First through third grades, Academia Ana Marie Sandoval dual-language Montessori school
It took me ten years of teaching to buy a home. And that was only because my car was totaled. In 2017, there was this really big hailstorm that destroyed an entire mall. But thanks to it being totaled, my insurance paid off my loan, and I was able to qualify for the loan for the condo I live in now.
There’s a reason why teachers aren’t staying in Denver. The pay system we have is so drastically different from what most of the state has. While other districts have steps and lanes — like, if I’m in my fifth year of teaching and this is my level of education, I’m guaranteed a certain salary. But Denver has these shifting bonuses that you can never really count on. One year, you could end up making less than you did the year before because there wasn’t enough money in the pot. So trying to plan ahead for life is really difficult. A lot of teachers have two or even three jobs to try to maintain a family. If you have a teacher who’s driving for Lyft at night, then that teacher’s exhausted. One year, my bonus was $2,500. The next, it was maybe $1,500.
Since I bought my condo, I haven’t been able to spend as much on classroom supplies. I teach in Spanish, so a lot of materials I need aren’t available. I make materials. I buy ink for my printer, and there’s the personal-sized laminator, different pens and markers and things like that. If we’re doing something on the life cycle of a chick or a turtle or a butterfly, I buy the little things that go with it. Sometimes I’m at work until 7 or 8 p.m. to make all these materials. I get there at 7 a.m. to work on translation or prep.
During the strike, it was like, Well, what sacrifices do I have to make? Thankfully, I wasn’t worried about losing my job. Some were. A little bit before the strike, an email came out from a Denver Public Schools human resources employee saying, If you’re here on a work visa, you can’t strike because we’d have to report you to immigration authorities since you wouldn’t be fulfilling your duties. So the three teachers with visas at my school did not strike. Later, DPS issued an apology saying, That’s not true. We’re not going to report you. Our principal was very supportive, and I thought, I have to strike — I know it’ll work out eventually. It was just that immediate question of, Am I ready? Am I going to be able to pay my mortgage?
I knew I had to be extra wise with my money. I froze some of my favorite dishes. I made burritos. I made a lot of enchiladas. I made mole de olla — it’s like a stew. I froze it all in individual glass containers, and for a long time, I was eating that. Every week, I would go buy some fresh fruit and vegetables. But after the strike, when I got the paycheck that didn’t include money for those three days we were picketing, I was like, All right, I guess I don’t get apples or salad for the next few weeks.
It took three months for my life to return to normal. I remember being nervous because at the end of the year, I wanted to buy a cake for my students. Am I going to have the money? But they did get dinosaur and flower pencils, and we walked to a nearby park and had vanilla cake with sprinkles.
Special education, Eagle Rock High School
I was still a Teach for America member, working at El Sereno Middle School, when the strike happened. Honestly, up until about two days beforehand, I didn’t know what I was going to do. I didn’t know if I was going to cross the line and go to work, because I wanted to maintain my AmeriCorps status, or if I wanted to walk the line with 100 percent of the other teachers at my school. According to the guidelines, if you participate in AmeriCorps, you are prohibited from participating in any kind of labor action. You’d be in danger of losing all of your AmeriCorps funds immediately. The decision was agonizing because I was going to walk away from almost $8,000. I had a teacher actually tell me that if someone crossed the line, they were going to spit on them — they didn’t know that I was thinking about possibly crossing.
There’s also some skepticism of Teach for America, that it’s a revolving door, that we’re only going to be there for two years and then go to medical school and create a vacuum that needs to be filled again. That’s just something I had to navigate. Honestly, coming into East L.A. to teach as a white male, you have a lot to prove.
I’ve always supported organized labor. That’s something that I really believe in. But I was really unsure about joining the union, especially as a newer teacher. I’d heard things for years about unions protecting teachers who shouldn’t still be in the classroom. And the union is designed to support people with more seniority, right? As a newer teacher, I was just like, Wow, this giant organization may be supporting me in the contract, but it may value my rights less than other people’s. I actually didn’t sign up as an active member until about a month before the strike.
The strike itself wasn’t about pay. It was really about the student services and class-size caps, things that help students. Our school social workers — oh my God — have hundreds if not sometimes thousands of students per person. One of my students looked at our wish list, and one of the bullet points was a nurse in every school. She said, We don’t already have that?
The whole thing was a great experience, but it was incredibly, incredibly, incredibly stressful. A strike is a living, breathing thing, where every single day you come home soaking wet and your feet are tired and your legs hurt and you can’t talk anymore because you’ve yelled so much.
I was drained. In the middle of it, I actually developed a stomach ulcer. I went to the emergency room at 9 that night and was in agonizing pain until 4 a.m. It was intense sitting in the waiting room not knowing what was going to happen next. But once I figured myself out, I was like, OK, how do I make sure I’m still part of this? I went back out to the picket line the next day.
Kindergarten, Burckhalter Elementary School
Quite a few people at my school had participated in the 1996 Oakland teacher strikes. One teacher in particular remembered how hard it was. Yet here she was, 20 years later, in a classroom so full of kids that it was difficult to do any teaching whatsoever. It’s difficult year after year. Not enough time in the day. Not enough energy. Not enough anything.
She told me, Tyler, I did this in the past, and nothing’s different. I was trying to tell her, No, we’re defending public education as a whole — we’re fighting back against school closures and against the privatization of our schools. She was like, I agree we shouldn’t be closing schools and putting up charter schools in their place. And I think we need smaller class sizes and more resources and better pay. She would vote yes for a strike, she said, but there’s no way she could go out again.
So, on the first day of the strike, she comes walking down the street. She’s going up to the school, and she looks absolutely dejected. She walks past us, goes into the building, closes the door, and we all kind of stand around like, Wow. Wow. Then about ten seconds later, the doors bang open. She runs down the stairs and goes, Psych! She grabs a picket sign and says, Let’s do this.
After the strike, it got harder. I felt a sense of community, a sense of belonging, and I wanted to live in Oakland, in my own apartment, but everything is so expensive. I’m 30 years old, a couple of years into a professional job. It’s time to have my own place, a small studio. In Oakland — that part was important. I wanted to live in the city where I was teaching. I searched and searched and searched and did not find anything that came even close to allowing me to live on my own. I could have conceded. I could have gotten roommates. But I wanted to live by myself. I was ready to do that. Just a few weeks ago, I moved to Seattle and I’m looking for teaching jobs here.
Cottage Grove, Oregon
Former teacher of third and fourth grade, Latham Elementary School
I didn’t walk out, because I wanted to be in class for my students. That’s my priority. I found it really ironic that there were billboards and advertisements around stressing to parents the importance of attendance at school, and then for the teachers not to be at school — I mean, that just doesn’t even make sense. I’ve never been a union member. I think that’s probably because of my dad. He was a school board member when I was going to public school. I remember him feeling frustrated during negotiations and feeling like the teachers union was being unreasonable.
Politically, teachers are about 50/50 Republican and Democrat. When we’re at school together, we recognize and respect that it’s not a good time or place to have those discussions. Yet when it comes to policy, the Democratic teachers who are super active in the union are the loud ones who dominate. Teachers fear the union. I felt a whole lot of peer pressure. I don’t know if a bully on a playground is the best analogy, but I definitely feel intimidated and afraid to say how I feel. I’m trying to be more courageous.
I’m not anti-union. I would like to have a union. We’d talk about salary. We’d make sure teachers are safe. We’d keep it to things actually related to our jobs and our job protections. But at the state and national level, the union supports things I don’t agree with or believe in anyway. The union predominantly endorses Democratic candidates. It also supports abortion, which is directly against my personal beliefs. All the strikes in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma — it’s coming from the national and the state level. It’s not grassroots.
I ended up resigning from the district for other reasons, but I didn’t want the union to think that it had bullied me out. I just don’t agree with what it’s doing with the money.
The Oregon Strikes
May 8, 2019
average pre-strike salary
what they wanted
An additional $1 billion per year to support smaller class sizes; more school counselors, nurses, and librarians; and more money for school supplies
what they got
Lawmakers passed a bill that would send $1 billion more into education coffers. The bill did not outline how that money would be spent.
Second grade, Harry Bridges Span School
At first, I was worried that parents wouldn’t understand what we were fighting for. But in March of 2018, we heard that a charter school was trying to open up in our part of the city and that the person in charge didn’t have a California teacher’s credential or a California administrative credential. That made it very real to everyone. Like, Oh, that’s what can happen.
I was also very worried about how our students were going to handle seeing us walking outside, shouting, yelling things, and not going into the classrooms with them. So I talked with them, and I told them, I’m not going to be here on Monday. They had heard rumors. Little kids are smart. I said, I want you to remember, no matter what you hear, Ms. Hoffman loves you, and I’m doing this to make your school better. To make things better for you. I will be back, and I don’t want you to worry about why I’m not in school. About why I am outside shouting. I want you to remember that Ms. Hoffman and the other teachers are just having an argument with the people who run the school district. And they understood.