Home > Uncategorized > Teachers in West Virginia Pushing for Better Wages in the Face of Daunting Working Conditions

Teachers in West Virginia Pushing for Better Wages in the Face of Daunting Working Conditions

March 6, 2018

For the past several days, teachers across West Virginia have been on strike in an effort to get better wages, a challenge in a state that devalues public education and is increasingly devastated by the decline in coal mining and the resultant opioid crisis. TOday’s NYTimes features an article by Dana Goldstein that describes the history of teacher strikes and the expanding responsibilities teachers assume in regions of our country where poverty and drugs are devastating families and the threat of school shootings casts a pall over every school. As Ms. Goldstein writes:

…Almost every major strike since then has come as teachers have been asked to shoulder society’s biggest challenges, from disease to racial inequality and, today in West Virginia, a drug crisis on top of a growing nationwide fear of bloodshed in the classroom.

“The work is all encompassing,” said Karla Hilliard, a high school English teacher in Martinsburg, W.Va., and one of roughly 20,000 teachers participating in a statewide strike.

“In West Virginia we deal with high levels of poverty and the opioid epidemic,” she said, “but then there are the smaller things, like kids who come in and they don’t have support at home and they just need someone to care about them and love them.”

And the teachers in West Virginia, like teachers who work with kids raised in poverty across the country, are often the primary adult care-givers in the lives of children. And when poverty is combined with opioids it is a toxic combination:

West Virginia has the nation’s fourth-highest unemployment rate and an opioid overdose death rate that is more than three times the national average. All of this plays out in the classroom.

I can’t tell you how many students we have being raised by grandparents because of parents’ drug addictions,” said Jay O’Neal, a seventh-grade English teacher and a leader of the strike. While the immediate demand is for higher pay and more affordable health insurance, “it’s just part of a broader problem teaching here, dealing with the effects of poverty.”

But instead of dealing with poverty, in part by paying the teachers in the state a decent wage, the West Virginia legislature has different ideas:

Today in West Virginia, policymakers have their own ideas about how to improve schools. The State Department of Education has revamped vocational education, while the Republican-controlled Legislature has debated weakening teachers’ seniority protections and providing parents with tax incentives to pay for private school tuition.

Why would legislators want to weaken seniority and give parents incentives to attend private schools? I think readers of this blog know the answer: it reduces the requirement for additional state funding which, in turn, reduces the need for taxes, especially the need for taxes on the wealthy donors who help underwrite the legislators campaigns. Meanwhile, teachers continue doing the little things to help their children despite their parents addictions:

At Mr. O’Neal’s school, Stonewall Jackson Middle School in Charleston, teachers use their own money to stock a closet for students whose clothes are dirty or do not fit, or who come in wearing shorts when it is freezing outside. At faculty meetings each year, they draw some children’s names off an “angel tree” and provide them with Christmas gifts, because otherwise they would not get any.

Recently, Mr. O’Neal said, teachers have noticed that some students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or A.D.H.D., have been coming to school unmedicated and disrupting an entire class; the teachers suspect parents are selling their children’s medications.

The 5% wage hike the teachers are seeking will not move West Virginia higher in the pay rankings in the nation… but it just might keep some of the best and brightest teachers from looking elsewhere for work.

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