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During Teacher Appreciation Week, Strike Organizers Reflect on Meaning of Thanks

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Teacher Appreciation Week brings words of thanks, staff breakfasts, and educator-only deals at businesses. But for teachers who have staged strikes and walkouts over the past year and a half, demanding higher salaries and more funding for public schools, this is also a week of reflection.

The protests show no sign of slowing down soon—this week alone, teachers in Nashville and Oregon walked out of their classrooms, marching for teacher pay raises and K-12 funding, respectively. Sacramento teachers are planning a one-day strike later this month.

For those educators who have participated in this activism, calls to simply thank teachers can feel frustratingly inadequate, they say.

"What would make us feel more appreciated is if our classrooms weren't overflowing, and our supply closets were stocked, and I had textbooks from this decade instead of textbooks from 2004 and science materials from 2007," said Rebecca Garelli, a 6th grade science teacher at Sevilla West Elementary School in Phoenix, and a lead organizer for Arizona Educators United.

Arizona teachers went on strike last spring. While they won a boost in pay and school spending, the final budget didn't reach the $1 billion in education funding that teachers had called for.

And some teachers are using this week to draw attention to what they see as the underfunding of public schools and the devaluing of the teaching profession. In Maryland, for example, the Prince George's County Education Association is instead observing what it's calling "Teacher Un-Appreciation Day."

The Prince George's county district's proposals in ongoing contract negotiations "undervalue teacher contributions to the public school system," the group wrote in a statement. The "Un-Appreciation Day" aims to "shine light on lack of investment in county public schools," the statement reads.

Local Support

In some cases, teacher activism has highlighted the importance of educators' work to the local community, said Alberto Morejon, an 8th Grade U.S. History teacher at Stillwater Junior High in Stillwater, Okla., and a grassroots organizer of the Oklahoma walkout last year.

Local businesses and organizations in Morejon's area offered deals or "thank yous" during Teacher Appreciation Week last year, which fell about a month after the state's teachers protested for higher pay. "The day was more special right after the walkout," he said.

And Garelli in Arizona said that year after year, her students and their families have marked the week to let her know that her work matters to them. This week, she said, she walked out of her classroom one day to find an entire wall covered with notes from children, thanking her for teaching them. Another teacher had worked with the students to create the display as a surprise for Garelli, she said.

But these sentiments are in contrast to the reception teachers still feel they're getting from the state legislature, Garelli said. "When you look at salaries here in Arizona, teachers make 67 cents to the dollar compared to other professions with similar degrees," she said. "I start to wonder: Does this have to do with the fact that this is considered women's work, and a majority of teachers are women?"

Morejon noted teachers' victories in Oklahoma, including winning a pay raise and voting in teacher candidates to the statehouse in the 2018 midterm elections. But many teachers are still struggling to make ends meet, said Morejon. The $6,100 salary increase approved by the state legislature in response to the walkout fell short of teachers' ask for a $10,000 raise. And other demands of teacher activists—including cost-of-living adjustments for retirees—are still unanswered, he said.

Acknowledging Advocacy

Teachers want to feel like they're getting continued respect rather than a one-time reward from their state legislatures, wrote North Carolina teacher and Red4EdNC Advisory Board member Stu Egan, in a blog post on Monday.

In the post, Egan pointed back to what he had written in 2016, when then-governor Pat McCrory, a Republican, had suggested a pay hike for teachers and framed it as a "reward."

A reward is a bonus, wrote Egan, but "to have respect is to have a deep feeling of admiration for someone because of his abilities, qualities, and value."

And in Arizona, the hundreds of teachers who spoke out last year don't want to just be recognized for their work in the classroom—they want acknowledgement of and support for their advocacy as well, said Garelli.

"Instead of just, 'Thank a teacher,' how about, 'Thank you for fighting for our students, thank you for fighting for our community, thank you for fighting for what my students need,'" she said.

Morejon recalled a Facebook note he saw a teacher friend had posted as Teacher Appreciation Week approached this year: "Instead of getting me a gift card or a coffee or whatever, call your representative and tell them to fully fund public education," he paraphrased.  

"I think we need to change the narrative a bit about what appreciation looks like," said Garelli. "With all the activism that's happening nationwide, I think appreciation for the fight is also needed."

Image: A demonstrator marches around the Colorado state Capitol in April 2018 during a statewide teacher protest. —David Zalubowski/AP-File

 

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