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Why One West Virginia Teacher of the Year Stood on the Picket Lines

This is why I walked.

I'm a teacher. It's not what I am; it's who I am.

My students are the most important part of my professional life. I make decisions every day based on their needs, constantly striving to put kids first. When my students don't have paper or pencils, I supply them. When my students are hungry, I feed them. Like many other teachers, I spend my own money (or "steal" items from home) to meet the needs of the more than 120 students I see every day. Those same 120 students never left my mind when I spent nine days on a picket line fighting for my profession, my state, and my students.


I walked out to fight for my profession. When I walked out of my classroom on February 21, I didn't know when I would walk back in. I was wracked with guilt, unsure if I was doing the right thing, but feeling like I had no other options. In the fourteen years I've been in the classroom, I've seen my profession devalued. I've heard politicians and community members claim that anyone can do my job (many times the implication is that someone else could do it better and cheaper). I've seen funding for public education cut as the students in our classrooms seem to need more and more. On that day in February I found myself asking: If not now, when? If not us, who?

I walked out to fight for my state. West Virginia is rich in beauty and natural resources, not the least of which is our people. Perhaps President Kennedy said it best when he noted that "the sun does not always shine in West Virginia, but the people always do." But I've watched my state struggle for too long with not enough sustainable industries and the exploitation of our rich coal veins and readily available natural gas. I've watched our hardest working people struggle to make ends meet and our towns shut down because of lack of revenue. In my mind, the only way to combat this slow death is with education.

Cass Mill Pano.jpg

Public education is the great equalizer; the most affluent and the poorest among us share space in the same classrooms and receive the same instruction. If West Virginia, and states like her, cannot provide quality public education to create an educated workforce, it doesn't matter what else we do. Public education can be a revenue generator; the backbone of our economy. Somewhere in recent history, I feel our state government has lost sight of the importance of education as they've focused on bringing outside industry into the state, with a balanced budged at the finish line. Somewhere along the way, they've forgotten that public education is about our people: teachers and students. In the nine days we were out, I hope they were reminded.

Most important of all, I walked out to fight for my students. I am an educator and an advocate. I am the voice for my students who do not have one. They deserve highly qualified educators to facilitate their learning every day. West Virginia is losing that.

Our fight with the legislators over insurance, compensation, and teacher qualifications boils down to one issue: teacher quality. Without adequate compensation and benefits we are in danger of losing the high quality teachers already in our classrooms. Without competitive wages and excellent teacher preparation programs we will continue to be unable to fill the over 700 vacancies we currently have in classrooms across the state. In order for West Virginia students to have quality educators, our state has to value educators.

I invested in myself and my education because I wanted to be the kind of teacher students deserve.

Shouldn't my state do the same?

Toni M. Poling is an English teacher and Department Chair in Fairmont, West Virginia, and a proud member of The National Network of State Teachers of the Year  (NNSTOY). In 2017 she was named West Virginia Teacher of the Year. She currently teaches AP English Language and Composition and AP English Literature and Composition and is a contributing writer to the West Virginia Council of Teachers of English Best Practices blog.


Images by Takver and Cass Mill Pano, courtesy of Creative Commons

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