In January my prolific husband, Dave, posted his 5000th blog. He’s been teaching even longer than he’s been blogging, and even more faithfully. I mean, he leaves before dawn and rides his bike three miles so he can be on the playground when parents drop off their kids. He doesn’t get paid for that. He just knows there are anonymous parents out there who are trying to hold things together—and their kids can’t be alone.
On Thursday, Dave won’t be doing that. He’ll be standing outside the school in a picket line. We’re biting our nails and pinching our pennies. This could go on for days, or weeks, who knows? They’re striking for higher salaries, more counselors and nurses, same as always. Oakland’s school district was one of the first to be tinkered with by big business, which has spelled has been a disaster in city after city around the country. Billionaires invest money, restrict it to glamorous reform programs they think will work, then the money dries up. Meanwhile the underlying structure gets eaten away at by non-glamorous needs like special ed and traumatized kids, and budgets leached by charter schools. Meanwhile, the facts are there. As in everything, when needs are met, problems don’t arise. And when you provide for basic classroom needs, achievement becomes possible. And teachers become reliable fixtures. Like Dave.
As a mid-to late-career teacher, Dave’s needs are met, salary-wise. We got lucky buying a house before Oakland was discovered. As a fort-holder-downer, it took him a long time to come around. Here’s how it happened.
As I stood in the library, looking around the room as strike preparations were being discussed, I took note of the faces. None of them were in the room the last time strike preparations were being discussed a dozen years ago. In the decades that I have spent in Oakland as a teacher, I have rarely worked with a valid and ratified contract. Those of us who teach here have worked on extensions and promises based on never fully settling the last one before the new one comes due. Perhaps as a result of this instability, the Oakland Unified School District has a problem with teacher retention.
I recognize this each time I attend one of those district wide trainings or gatherings of educators. It used to be easy to look into the crowd and catch the eye of colleagues from credential programs or substitute gigs that have become permanent placements. Now, as a veteran, I find that those encounters are fewer and farther between. My twenty-plus years of experience tend to elicit “wows” or murmurs of curiosity. At my school site I am in a league with our esteemed cafeteria supervisor for longevity.
It’s a hard job, that’s for sure, and most civilians won’t argue that the pay is not great. Making the slow uphill climb to a comfortable wage takes patience and sacrifice. A lot of fresh faces come through our doors and leave before they make it to that plateau. A single income in the Bay Area won’t buy you a house. Not if that income is a school teacher’s salary. So you can live in that studio apartment and save your nickels and dimes and work an extra job while the dysfunctional funding of the district forces you to purchase supplies for your students – or you can set out in search for greener pastures.
Money is green, get it?
I wish that I could state categorically that this looming strike is all about the kids and we’re doing it for the students and the truth is this: If we don’t keep well-trained, committed teachers on the job, the students suffer regardless of class size and school closures. I don’t want to look around our library again in a year at a new bunch of faces that are surprised to learn that “being good with kids” isn’t enough. Knowing that your experience and enthusiasm is valued and will continue to be rewarded is what makes this engine run. I am striking to keep that room filled with people I know.