First, it’s helpful to clear up some terminology here. What happened in West Virginia, and what is currently happening in Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arizona is not legally a strike. In West Virginia, we called it a work stoppage because it’s illegal for teachers to strike. The superintendents were in support, and they closed schools to prevent the state from seeking an injunction and forcing a legal showdown. The idea that we had to call a strike a work stoppage shows the ridiculous nature of our present political landscape. I imagine that the government of my state is already planning to close that loophole and prevent further citizen activism by public employees.
I am in my third year teaching in rural West Virginia. I’m proud to say that I participated in the strike. Teachers in West Virginia are underpaid and overworked.
For the most disadvantaged students, we are frequently parents, mentors, and social workers. We feed our kids, buy them school supplies, and sometimes clothe them. I solicit donations from the community and websites like DonorsChoose for toiletry items, snacks, and school supplies for students who can’t afford them. I have duct taped shoes together and repaired eye glasses. I have helped students fill out college and job applications. I have mentored them through the discomforts of coming adulthood. I have lent a sympathetic ear to their struggles with homophobia and domestic abuse. The days where teachers have the luxury of putting academics above all have come to an end. Students are incapable of learning until their basic needs are being met, and because teachers are required to teach their content, then it is up to us to meet those needs.
But educators alone cannot be responsible for the upbringing of a young person. It takes the investment of an entire society. West Virginia’s Republican government has chosen to remedy the state’s economic crisis and shrinking population by cutting taxes to entice business. Those tax cuts are ultimately transfers of wealth from necessary social services, including education, to private business. For a while the state’s slogan was even changed from “almost heaven” to “open for business.”
But West Virginia has a deep history of open worker rebellion. Even if West Virginians won’t participate in a strike themselves, it’s rare to find a West Virginian who is willing to cross a picket line. Here in Morgan County, locals tell stories of an extended strike at the sand mine. The sand mine in those days was the largest employer in the county. Striking meant that most of the community was without regular income. But people came together to compensate. Local grocers offered credit. Neighbors canned from their gardens. People who had jobs took up collections. Scabs brought in from out of town were treated harshly and refused service at local businesses. Tensions were high, and sacrifices were made. But when stories of this time are told, no one speaks of it poorly. The look in their eyes is one of pride. The little folk banded together and were victorious. They overcame a seemingly insurmountable obstacle to secure a better future for their families.
In the early 20th century, West Virginia’s coal miners fought in armed conflicts for the right to organize and strike. The Matewan Massacre in Mingo County saw miners and private security enforcers firing on and murdering each other in the town square. The Battle of Blair Mountain was the largest labor uprising in the history of the country. 10,000 armed coal miners confronted 3,000 strike breakers and law officers. Estimates set the number of rounds fired at over a million. The conflict was stopped by the U.S. Military.
Every community here has stories of deep sacrifice in the name of organized labor. It’s a deeply ingrained part of the culture of the state. West Virginian’s are prideful, stoic, and stubborn. A long history of abuse from coal companies and our own government have taught us to be distrustful of power. And our enduring poverty has given us little tolerance for those who would ask us to bear a little more hardship for the benefit of faceless corporations.
The teacher’s strike in 2018 was prompted mostly by an increase in insurance premiums. Public employees in West Virginia get their insurance from the Public Employees Insurance Agency or PEIA. The insurance agency relies in large part on the state government for its funding. West Virginia is poor in tax revenue, and our Republican legislature appears to be firmly in the pockets of energy companies and corporations. Since taking power, they have cut taxes, and have shown reluctance in looking at any new sources of revenue. The PEIA board has had to get creative to keep premiums low. For years public employees have reported to doctors offices once a year to have their weight, blood pressure, waistline, and blood lipids measured. The “Healthy Tomorrows” data is reported to PEIA and policyholders who are overweight or do not participate pay a higher premium.
In 2018, Healthy Tomorrows evolved into a new initiative called “Go 365.” The program required members to install an app on their phone that monitored the phone’s pedometer, accelerometer, and location data. Policyholders logged their exercise activities, and earned gift cards and lower premiums. Those who refused to give over their data paid a higher premium. Go 365 was viewed as an invasion of privacy and an unfair obligation. Healthy Tomorrows was a free check up and lipid panel. Go 365 was a daily burden and a grab at sensitive data. PEIA over reached, though it wasn’t entirely PEIA’s fault. The PEIA had budget shortfalls for years because the legislature refused to properly fund it. Law makers would throw crumbs at PEIA every once in a while when public outcry got too loud, but they refused year after year to commit to a sustainable funding source.
Teacher wages also stagnated in the state as a result of the 2008 financial crisis. The government needed to cut back expenditures because revenues were down. Individuals and families struggled to maintain a reasonable standard of living while the economy fought to recover. Unemployment rose, and those who had a job that paid a living wage were just thankful to keep it. Teacher shortages were present but not pronounced.
Now 10 years later many teaching positions go without a single qualified applicant. Because there are not enough qualified applicants, teaching positions have to be filled by long term substitutes.
For those who don’t know, it will be useful to explain how teacher certification is classified in the state.
Qualified teaching applicants have at least a four year degree in education, and they have satisfied credit requirements in their content area. For example, I’m a qualified teacher according to the states guidelines. I have a Masters in Arts of Teaching (MAT) degree, and I have taken all of the required courses to be certified to teach English. To be qualified as a teacher in West Virginia also requires the passing of PRAXIS standardized tests. Teachers take the tests to prove their content knowledge and knowledge of educational theory.
But certified and qualified teachers have become scarce in the state as our health insurance has become prohibitively expensive and our wages have stagnated. The starting salary for a teacher in the state with a Bachelor’s degree is around $30,000 and $35,000 for a Master’s degree.
Even if a prospective teacher truly loves working with young people, many of them cannot afford to do it in West Virginia. The cost of living is low here, but student loan debt prevents many new teachers from living comfortably at their level of pay. So these new teachers work in West Virginia for a year or two, realize that they can’t afford to live, and then leave the state to seek a fair wage.
West Virginia educates quality teachers at Marshall, WVU, and Shepherd University. The state expends resources training these teachers in the use of digital grade books and online tools. The state hosts AP trainings and discounts continuing education. But the opportunities offered don’t negate the financial reality that these people worked to achieve advanced professional training in the hopes of being able to do valuable community work in exchange for a living wage.
The exportation of our best and brightest in fields from education to industry is the most perilous danger facing the state of West Virginia today, and a failed education system insures that this trend will continue.
Because school districts throughout the state struggle to fill classrooms with certified teachers, they have turned to long term substitutes. The state allows long term subs to fill vacant classrooms in the absence of any qualified applicant. Long term subs have different certification requirements. They must complete a two day substitute teacher training, shadow certified teachers at the elementary, middle, and high school levels for a few hours each, and hold a bachelor’s degree related to the subject they will be teaching.
Long term substitutes vary wildly in quality, and it is often difficult to gauge their effectiveness before they can be observed interacting with students. The root of this issue is that long term subs are educated only in their content area.
Many people falsely assume that teachers receive their primary education in their content area. This is not true. I am an English teacher, but I do not have an English degree. I have an education degree supplemented with English courses. Less than 10% of the work I do as an educator is related to my content knowledge. Most of my job is designing curriculum, setting up boundaries, and designing opportunities for individual intellectual discovery. A good teacher is a game maker. The teacher designs a set of win and lose conditions, and the students participate in the task. If the student wins, then the student learns and receives a favorable score. Curriculum design and classroom management are what separates good teachers from bad. These concepts are not taught to substitute teachers, and these areas are where I observe the most disfunction in the classrooms of long term substitutes.
When the curriculum is designed poorly, and the classroom is not managed, learning does not and can not take place. And instead of increasing salaries, the legislative response to the teacher shortage has been to lower the standards for certification.
Did I stand on the picket line because I think that teachers in West Virginia deserve their first raise in a decade? Yes. The idea that teacher wages should be low because that’s what we expect is a sad trick on the American public. Poverty isn’t comparative. The fact that others have it worse doesn’t negate the fact that I am underpaid. Have the powers that be tricked us into thinking we deserve to be poor?
Did I want a pay increase? You’re damn right I did, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.
But I stood on the picket line for my students and my daughter. West Virginia’s students deserve to have a qualified teacher in every classroom. They don’t deserve to have the standards for what constitutes a qualified teacher lowered. They don’t deserve to have their teachers exhausted from working a second job. They don’t deserve to have their teachers angry and frustrated because of financial anxiety. They don’t deserve to be shoved in an overcrowded classroom where their educational needs can’t feasibly be met. They don’t deserve thirty year old text books, and they don’t deserve schools in disrepair.
West Virginia can do better for its children, and shame on our legislature for refusing to pass common sense taxes on natural gas companies, gambling, and cigarettes in the name of blind ideology.