By Lindsey West, 5th grade teacher at Clara Barton Community School and executive board member of MFT 59
The week before the pandemic hit in March 2020, I was coaching a middle school girls basketball team. The team was slated to play during halftime at the Timberwolves game. We were preparing for that, and the very next day, NBA basketball was canceled. It was so jarring to have something like that happen – you couldn't even fathom losing out on that opportunity because of a pandemic. That’s when the fear and sadness kind of set in for me.
It still bothers me to this day that for a lot of my girls, that was the last time that they got to play organized basketball especially with each other. We had a practice the day before everything shut down, and I remember thinking days later, “Wow it's over just like that?” We didn't get to have our banquet, we didn't get to have our trophy celebration. My poor girls, they worked so hard, and it was just over.
When school was canceled, as an educator, my number one concern was that I wanted to let my students know that I cared about them, and that we were still a community. I was having us do a morning meeting, online, every day, to just set a tone for the day even before it was the expectation. We would laugh, we would play games, and then discuss online learning. While I realized early on some of them were not doing the work, they were still looking for that connection.Given all that was going on I wasn't going to get hung up on saying “you didn't turn in this lesson, or you didn't do this.”
The goal was to make sure that the students felt safe and cared for. To know that there were a number of kids behind those screens that were struggling, and they were scared and lonely, that was heartbreaking. A day didn’t go by where I didn’t want to reach through that screen and give a big hug to those kids. It’s not always about what we teach them, but about fostering positive feelings and love in the kids. Throughout the pandemic I felt like I was failing. I couldn’t be there for them in the way I wanted to. I did the best I could, and I accepted that. But it was really hard. That was how I wrapped up spring 2020 as a teacher.
The 2020-2021 school year was, needless to say, a lot. Teachers were bumping heads with the district in regards to returning to work, safety in the workplace, and the Comprehensive District Design. There were a lot of things that made me think the district did not care how we felt, they did not value our opinion, and that they weren’t even concerned about the health and well-being of me and my family. When your employer’s actions and behavior clearly say that to you, it's just heart-wrenching. I don't work for a business. This is not corporate America. Ideally education is an institution that values people, ideas, and children–not the almighty dollars.
To give you some perspective, my parents stay with me, and they are at an extremely high risk for serious health complications from COVID. My mom had a terrible accident and she only has one working lung. My dad's a diabetic. The idea of them getting COVID before the vaccines were available felt like a death sentence. So I had an accommodation that said I did not need to come into the building because I could do my work remotely and I lived with family members who are at high risk. Then, all of a sudden, when the district began discussing students returning to school all of those accommodations were null and void. They just decided, no, we're not going to honor those accommodations, no matter the situation.
That's when I was like, oh my God, how little does this district care about me and teachers like me? When this happened it was so shocking, I was left speechless and crying. Do I take a leave of absence? Do I quit? What would happen to my students? All these questions and more were swirling around my head. It left me sick and exhausted. Still what made me mad, so mad, was the little regard the district had for me as a teacher and person. If any student came to me and told me they had a problem or they were fearful for their family, I would always do whatever I could to take care of them. I wanted to do right by them. At the very least, I listened to what they had to say. Yet, the system I work for would rather risk losing me than treat me with respect. That's what we teachers want from the district. Respect for the students and educators that work for them and hold up this institution.
In the end, our union put more pressure on the district. In fact, the union took them to court, which led to the district honoring the accommodations. The district was breaking the law otherwise. Still, what frustrates me, to this day is that the district treated me and so many others that way. How little do you care about your staff if you're not even willing to hear them out? You don't care about our health? You don't care about our stories?
On top of all of that, the district was going forward with the CDD, which redesigned the whole district, despite being in the middle of a pandemic. So not only are our children dealing with the trauma of the pandemic, they are also being shuffled all over the district. They are losing their teachers, their friends, the communities that make them feel safe, and more. That's a lot to take in and put on a child.
Once all the decisions had been made, guess who’s asked to pick up the pieces? Teachers! It’s on us teachers to help students feel better. It's not in my job title but I am expected to comfort, reassure, rebuild, and fix what someone else broke. That's what is expected of us. It's not fair to the teachers or the students, but you have limited resources and few options. When you consider all that and the innocence of the child, you feel guilty. Teachers feel guilty if you don’t at least try to do what's right by the kids. Even at your own expense.
Why did I vote to strike? There’s a long list of reasons, but much of how teachers were treated throughout the pandemic and the CDD decisions paved the road to this strike. Competitive compensation is huge to me. I don't feel that our work is valued. The district always claims that they have no money to pay us, but they have money for other things. We've spent 20 years without a pay increase to match inflation. If we want to retain and recruit quality educators we have to have salaries that are competitive with surrounding districts.
I voted yes to authorize the strike because we need mental health support that can meet the needs of where our students are at as we begin to inch past the pandemic. I think there are a lot of things that have happened in the last couple years that people want to pretend students aren't traumatized by. Students are carrying around, wondering about, and hurting from so much. In the last few years we’ve seen civil unrest, a pandemic, violence and more. Even though they might not know how to say it, kids are struggling. Is it too much to ask that every school have a social worker and counselor to help these kids cope, grieve, and move forward?
Finally, when will we get on to the recruitment and retention of educators of color? I get really fired up about this. I am an African-American woman and I see firsthand how teachers and educators of color are treated in this district. Many of our ESPs are educators of color and most of them aren’t making a livable wage. In addition, you are constantly made to feel like the district doesn’t want you here. They will say otherwise, but I have lived that experience. I have been made to feel that my tone, what I bring to the classroom, and the way that I teach is inherently wrong in some way. And let me be clear: this is not the message I get from my students and families. It's a systemic issue. I hear that we need to retain more teachers of color, and we need to recruit more teachers of color, yet where are the culturally relevant and responsive professional supports? That's why I voted yes.
I encourage you to talk to a teacher. Talk to them whether they are your child’s teacher, your child’s former teacher, a friend, a neighbor, or a person standing at the checkout. Ask them, do these proposals make sense? Should educators make a livable wage? Should every school have mental health support? Should class sizes be capped? I bet they will say yes, because we're not asking for the moon. We're asking for realistic things that would make lives better for the students we love so dearly. Ultimately as a society we have to ask, if we're not going to invest in our children, what are we doing?