Op-Ed: Tacoma Teachers Strike 2018

Tacoma Public School Strike

My name is Evelyn Cook and I am an 8th grade Language Arts teacher at a south end Tacoma middle school. After my TEA meeting tonight, I felt compelled to share a piece of writing that I intended to share at the Tacoma School Board meeting at the end of last year. I didn’t end up sharing it because I had not leaned into my fear and let nervousness get the best of me; in other words, I chickened out.

Tonight, I take a different stance as I’ve been reflecting deeply on the phrase “persevere in fear”. All day long, I’ve been planning and prepping lessons for my new students. On day 2 of this upcoming school year, I will challenge them to speak their truth. Well, I can’t call myself an educator and not model what that looks like although it comes with fear and apprehension. So here it is…

Written last April, 2017. Notes with an *asterick are my new insights.
Dear Tacoma Board members, fellow educators and valued community members,

I am still fairly new to teaching. I am about to complete my 3rd year teaching, my 2nd year in my current assignment.

I have been serving in the Tacoma community since before becoming a teacher though. Before I went to get my Master’s in Education, I was a social worker through multiple Tacoma non-profits. In these roles, I specialized with working with gang affiliated youth, teenage parents, drop outs, struggling students, undocumented youth, incarcerated youth, and unaccompanied refugees. In these roles, I’ve served our city’s bleeding young hearts. The world has chewed them up and spat them out.

I did not go into teaching, I was called into teaching. Like the great Nelson Mandela once said “Education is the most powerful weapon in which you can use to change the world”. I teach my students from day 1 that education is the most powerful weapon that they can use to change their lives and I work in a school where their life needs changing. They confront racism, community violence, poverty, family instability, homelessness, and lack of resources daily; all while trying to be a teenager, which is hard enough.

Before I get to the questions and I know at this point you are wondering if I am ever going to get there, I wanted to show you some numbers. Being a board, I am sure that quantifiable and qualitative data is important to you.

So here are some numbers for this year:
1. I come to work with our security guards 5 days a week.
2. I work through my lunch break 5 days a week.
3. I stay after school 3 days a week.
4. I average around 15-25 hours of unpaid work time a week, sacrificing time with my family and myself to do so.
5. I use 2 of my planning periods a week to plan, the other 3 are used dealing with hot messes.
6. I averaged out my workload, I work the equivalent of 35 hours a week, every week, 12 months a year, without a vacation, without holiday, without sick time, every single day.
7. That previous number doesn’t include the summer time, I give up for professional development, my reflections in the shower or before bedtime, my stack of PD books that I read for “funsies.”

*** This summer alone, I have spent 9 full days in training and have been working for the last two weeks in my classroom.

However, these numbers are not as important as the numbers coming up because they are about my students’ experiences.

8. I have been the first adult that 2 students have disclosed that they are suicidal to. One of them had recently attempted. I was the 1st adult they told.
9. I assisted one student with getting immigration help/resources as well as counseled them on DACA.
10. I had countless students tell me about being bullied.
11. One student told me about how she was sexual abused up to last year. I made sure she was safe, got her mental and medical care. She had cut her arms to the point that they were more cuts then not.
12. I assisted with getting other students mental health help and IEP evaluations.
13. I’ve physically broken up 3 fights and countless almost fights.
14. I swiftly kept my students safe during two real lockdowns, and countless drills.
15. I smile at EVERY student I see daily. I make sure that my classroom feels like a safe home.
16. I spend on average $20 a week on granola bars, applesauce, and raisins to feed my students. They are hungry and not just because they are growing.
17. I found 1 student this year who was a missing person. When that student was missing, I hugged her crying friends.
18. I motivate, push and support every student that comes into my classroom, every second of the day.
19. I have more students with reading skills that are behind their grade level then I do have of those on grade level.
20. I support multiple students who are at elementary reading levels, who tell me they feel stupid and have almost given up. I have got them engaging in their learning, challenging themselves, having academic discussions daily; because of this they don’t give up; they have hope. Some of them have told me they never thought they would be able to graduate high school.

So now that I’ve gone through my narrative and the numbers, I am finally here at the question.
Hearing all of this, how can you not fully stand behind your teachers? This experience of mine is not uncommon. All you would have to do is go to the classroom next to mine to see this again and again.

This year the union is still arguing with the district for a raise we should have got in September. Next year, there are talks of cutting our salaries. The district cites budget cuts but in reality, they are receiving the funding, have money in reserves, have created multiple new CAB positions (*11 new CAB positions last year), and are individually very well paid.

If we are truly a district that believes the potential in our youth, and I believe that we are, how is it that we can’t give the resources needed to the people who help form these impressionable future leaders? We, as teachers, are in their life daily. We, as teachers, are the ones doing the work. Don’t we deserve to be paid?

*I have been learning about the inequality in pay for other TPS employees like paras, bus drivers, janitors, etc. This is a system wide issue.

Evelyn Cook

So here I sit and reflect upon these words that have poured out of my heart. Last spring Yes, they may be rough but let me tell you what would be far more of a harsh reality if TPS doesn’t step up. This reality affects not only myself as an educator but also as a parent of a TPS child and as a community member who has invested her whole professional career into Tacoma. If the central office in Tacoma does not meet us in the middle, they will lose MANY valuable educators that have made Tacoma the innovative, successful district that it is. If I can drive over to the next districts to make $15, 000 more a year, it will be Tacoma’s loss. I am higher up on the education scale (Master’s+ 45 credits), but yet, if I stay in Tacoma, I will make near to the same salary as someone entering the profession with a Bachelor’s degree in other districts.

But it is not about the money, really it is not. It is about what will HAPPEN to our schools if educators and other staff members are not paid a fair, competitive wage that they deserve. There will be a mass exodus of high quality teachers to other areas. All research cites again and again that high quality instruction by dedicated teachers will overcome any educational deficit. As a social worker, I have seen the students who Tacoma has failed. They need quality, they deserve quality.

This is not what Tacoma needs. This is not what our youth need. Our community will be hurt by this. This community, I have worked countless hours for will suffer. I have spoken my truth.

So what do we need?
Educators, other Tacoma Public School staff members, please come and demonstrate your right to vote. We are aiming to meet on Sept. 4th. We have seen what apathy can do to our country. It is your right to come vote, whatever way you believe, please exercise that right.

Community Members– families. We need you. We need you to call the central office and put pressure on them. We need you to stand with us.

Central Office, I really need you to get back to the roots of education. Get back to your WHY of why you entered education. Step inside a classroom. Look at your students’ faces. Hear their stories. Talk to teachers. Remember what it was like, every second of the day, to really educate.

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