Earlier this month, Republican presidential candidate and Ohio Governor John Kasich joked that he hoped to “abolish all teachers’ lounges, where they sit together and worry about ‘woe is us.'” Similarly, in the first GOP debate, Govs. Bush, Christie, and Walker emphasized their fights against teachers’ unions, and in a recent campaign speech Gov. Christie stood by his previous statement that teachers’ unions deserve a “punch in the face.”
These comments reflect a broader trend among U.S. politicians to target teachers’ unions, alongside public education and the labor movement as a whole. They also highlight the tenuous and often untenable position of educators across the country in the era of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. Nevertheless, in targeting teachers’ unions as the greatest impediment to their agendas, Bush, Christie, and Walker remind us of the tremendous power of teachers.
Teachers have the power to recognize and cultivate the unique gifts of every child in their classroom. They have the power to create spaces where students can practice democracy, analyzing the world around them and determining how they want to reshape it in the future. They have the power to work together to rethink both schools and society, developing curricula that honors their students’ interests, backgrounds, and experiences. As we are reminded by the incredible Dyett hunger strikers, they also have the power to work alongside parents, students, and other community members as they envision and fight for the schools their students deserve.
In these and other ways, they have the power to engage in what bell hooks (1994) calls “education as the practice of liberation”: “the opportunity to labor for freedom, to demand of ourselves and our comrades, an openness of mind and heart that allows us to face reality even as we collectively imagine ways to move beyond boundaries, to transgress” (p. 207).
In honor of Labor Day, this post will explore some of the ways teachers are using their power to labor for freedom both inside and outside of the classroom. In recognizing the revolutionary potential of teachers working in solidarity with other workers, this post will also point to some of the many organizations and workshops supporting the fight for public education in the U.S.
Inside the Classroom
This week, educators across the country have been planning lessons, setting up their classrooms, reaching out to parents, and meeting the students they will have the opportunity to spend their days with this year. Many of them have been doing this work in their free time, with their own money, and even without a salary or fair contract.
In the face of increasing pressure to spend precious class time delivering standardized curricula and tests, teachers are leading the fight for public education from within their classrooms and schools. They are setting aside time for play, creativity, project-based learning, and child-centered instruction, recognizing that these forms of learning are central to students’ growth and development. They are working with colleagues and community members to design lessons that build on students’ interests, stories, and backgrounds. They are building safe spaces where students can analyze, discuss, and challenge the inequalities they see and experience in their daily lives.
This is important work, and it lies at the heart of the struggle for public education.
The Durham Association of Educators has captured some of this work on their blog, highlighting the stories of educators in sixty schools. In a post on Hillandale Elementary, DAE argued demonstrated that “[v]eteran teachers, and the stability that they provide, are an essential element to a successful school.” This blog serves as a reminder of what we are fighting for: schools filled with joy, led by experienced teachers who care deeply about their students.
Unfortunately, this is not the reality for many students, teachers, or families in communities across the country. Schools that have been the center of their communities have been closed, exacerbating inequalities and destabilizing the lives of students and teachers. Veteran teachers – especially teachers of color – have been pushed out of their school systems as part of corporate-sponsored “turnaround,” closure, and privatization plans like this one from the Broad Foundation. Students thrive in stable learning environments that emphasize joy and creativity, yet these traits are often under-emphasized in favor of competition and standardization.
Outside the Classroom
For these and many other reasons, the struggle for public education continues after the school day ends. Teachers in communities across the country have worked with their colleagues, neighbors, and unions to fight for the schools our students deserve. Some teachers have collaborated with community members through grassroots organizations, supporting the opt-out struggle and campaigns for community schools. Others have collaborated with their colleagues to fight for a fair contract, knowing that better working conditions mean better learning conditions for their students. Others have engaged in public scholarship through education blogs and articles, waking at dawn and staying up past midnight to share information about what is happening in schools nationwide.
The 2015-2016 school year has only just began, and educators have already gained national media attention for their work in the fight for public education.
For the past nineteen days, twelve teachers, parents, and community members in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago have been leading a hunger strike to demand an open-enrollment, locally-controlled high school for their neighborhood. These incredible community leaders have decided to continue their hunger strike after the Mayor’s office decided unilaterally to reopen the school with the district’s own plan, largely ignoring the community organization’s proposal and circumventing the district’s own RFP process. In a Washington Post article on the school’s reopening, Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO) organizer Jitu Brown noted, “Yes, reopening the school is a victory. But the real victory would be listening to the neighborhood’s voice.” In standing up for their right for a community-led school, Dyett leaders are demonstrating that “the fight for Dyett High School is a fight for democracy,” as Jeff Bryant argued in a recent blog post.
Educators and community members have spoken out in solidarity with the Dyett hunger strikers, as well as leading struggles within their own cities and states. In New York state, educators and grassroots organizers continue their fight against standardized tests and the privatization of public education through the opt-out movement. According to state officials, 20% of New York students opted out of standardized tests already, and organizers are working to help even more students opt out in the coming year.
In Seattle, teachers and students are fighting against cuts to public education, transportation access, recess time, and teacher pay. Rank-and-file members of the Seattle Education Association voted unanimously to go on strike beginning the first day of school, September 9th, if they cannot come to an agreement with the Seattle school board before that date. As SEA VP and bargaining chair Phyllis Campano notes on the SEA website, “The Seattle School Board has rejected most of our proposals around competitive pay, reasonable testing, guaranteed recess, student equity and workloads.”
Supporting the Movements(s) This Labor Day
Whether online or in person, in the classroom or at city hall, this is work that is best done collectively and in solidarity with other teachers. For anyone looking for (new) ways to get involved, here are a few relevant resources and conferences:
Social Justice Pedagogy and Curriculum
One way to get involved is to attend one of the many grassroots education curriculum fairs and workshops taking place in cities across the country this fall, including:
- The Progressive Education Network Annual Conference (October 8th-10th, New York, NY)
- The 15th Annual Teachers for Social Justice Conference (October 10th, San Francisco, CA)
- The Twin Cities 4th Annual Social Justice Education Fair (October 16th, Saint Paul, MN)
- The 8th Annual Northwest Conference on Teaching for Social Justice (October 17th, Seattle, WA)
- The Teachers for Social Justice – Chicago Curriculum Fair (November 21st, Chicago, IL)
Teachers for Social Justice (SF) also maintains a list of ally networks that includes social justice-oriented grassroots curriculum organizations across the country.
Social Justice Unionism
Teachers’ unions and social justice caucuses have also provided important spaces for teachers to organize for public education, connecting teachers and supporting such struggles as the #FightforDyett and the #SeattleStrike. This seminal article from Rethinking Schools is a great introduction to the struggle to support public schools and social justice through teachers’ unions. Likewise, Lois Weiner’s latest essay in New Politics reminds us of the importance of “taking sides” and placing social justice at the center of all union work.
In cities such as Chicago, Portland, and St. Paul, the elected union leaders focus on supporting social justice unionism, and there are union committees and campaigns that depend on the support and organizing of rank-and-file members.
In these and other cities, it is also possible to get involved with social justice caucuses, which are groups of rank-and-file members supporting social justice unionism within and outside of their local.
Some of the many caucuses engaged in this work are:
- The Caucus of Working Educators (Philadelphia)
- The Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (Chicago)
- The Movement of Rank-and-File Educators (New York)
- NEW (Newark, NJ)
- Rank-and-File Educators Advocating for Change (Minneapolis, MN)
- Social Equality Educators (Seattle, WA)
- Union Power (Los Angeles, CA)
As Michelle Gunderson noted in a recent Labor Notes article, these and other social justice caucuses and unions are organizing throughout the country as part of the United Caucuses of Rank-and-File Educators or UCORE.
National Networks Supporting Public Education
You can also show solidarity by engaging in conversations in anti-corporate reform networks such as the Badass Teachers Association, United Opt-Out, and the Network for Public Education. Each organization hosts an annual conference, which is a great opportunity to meet other education activists and organizers in person and learn new strategies to bring back to your school. Likewise, as struggles such as the #FightforDyett and the #SeattleStrike continue, there are plenty of opportunities to show support by signing petitions, sharing information, and posting messages of solidarity.
Each of these networks and organizations provides a space to use our teacher power to collaborate with other educators, share resources and ideas, and fight for freedom within our schools and our communities.
And so, this Labor Day and every day: solidarity with every individual engaged in the “labor for freedom” and the fight for the schools – and communities – our students deserve.