Why Teachers Are Walking Out

by Seth Nichols
Originally Published: 
Bill Pugliano / Stringer / Getty Scott Olson / Staff / Getty

For the last ten years, I’ve been a covert operative in Women’s World, a.k.a. public school. I am not a typical elementary teacher. I am male. And I am often confounded at what I have seen my coworkers silently acquiesce to, happily playing along, fueled only by the sense of the purpose they work from. I am not surprised that teachers in many states have had walkouts. I am surprised that they waited so long to start.

Obviously, I’m sympathetic to my colleagues. I’m also sympathetic to garbage collectors, Haitian farmers, and CPS caseworkers. In comparison, our job might be considered a breeze for the pay, with its dreamy holiday schedule and all.

Let’s not go down that rabbit hole, though, because the walkouts aren’t really ultimately about “pay,” the face usually presented.

Women are done being taken advantage of.

That’s what this is about. Don’t think that it’s a coincidence that mass walkouts are happening within a year of the #metoo movements, the sex abuse revelations, or the women’s marches.

It’s not just about pay. It’s about respect. It’s about boundaries crossed and people used. It’s about unrealistic, unspoken expectations systemically enforced, leaving the perceived inability to speak up for oneself. It’s about a mass of subservient people waking up one day to see the reality of what they’ve been putting up with all along.

When you hear stories and shine light into cultural blind spots, you start to see that there has been wide scale, nationally accepted inequalities kept alive for decades in the dungeons of school halls, among the nation’s largest female workforce.

I was in a data analysis meeting with my female colleagues, needing student whiteboards for math. (Imagine your teachers back in 1987 requesting an overhead projector. Basic.) A good set might run $50.

As a norm, I don’t request purchases from the “company.” I often forget it’s even an option. When I mentioned it to a co-teacher on the way to the meeting, she gave me a sarcastic, “Good LUCK…”

I said, “Hey, if this school, on its $10 million budget, can’t afford $50 whiteboards, how do they expect someone supporting a family of 6 on a teacher’s salary to be able to?” She said she had never thought of that.

She had never thought of that. This is our culture. Where you aren’t allowed to think about asking for your needs to be met.

The given is to figure it out. Because women will. Had I asked 20 different teachers about whiteboards, 10 of them would start spewing out names of stores. The other 10 (older) would give me some DIY weekend instructions that involve table saws. Seldom would any of them think to say, “Umm, ask for them…”

Injustice and oppression thrive in places where the norms are never questioned.

My boss didn’t think that way, either. Minutes before, my boss had told us, “We’ll do anything to help you.” Minutes later, I was met with a kind sigh, “Aren’t whiteboards pretty expensive?” One of our support staff spoke up, “Didn’t you ask me about those last year? I’ll get you some.” And she did. Possibly on her dime. I didn’t ask.

The fact that the whiteboards were such a small purchase actually illuminates the problem.

A man’s operative norm tends to be, “Since its not a big deal, the company should have no problem helping you out.”

A woman’s tends to be, “Since its not a big deal, you should be able to handle it yourself.”

Handle It.

I’ve witnessed a teacher running a fever, surrounded by nurses taking her blood pressure, get up and stumble down the hall, on her way to wrangle kids.

I’ve witnessed a teacher passing a kidney stone refusing to go home.

I’ve witnessed a teacher get punched.

I’ve witnessed teachers yelled at, demeaned, and criticized, and then go chase down the kid to make sure he is okay.

And all that was just this week.

Nothing we handle is a huge deal. But the sum total of all of the straws on the camel’s back have become a crushing weight for so many.

It’s not about the pay. It’s about all of the ways an entire sector of the country’s most selfless givers have been complicit to a system that has evolved to bilk them every way it can — of their time, their money, their energy, and their emotions.

Pay for it yourself.

Create it yourself.

Stay late and put on that function yourself.

Meet during your time.

Work during your weekend.

Be kind to people yelling, ignoring, cussing, and hitting you. Then, make sure they pass the new standards.

And be prepared to take bullets for them, too.

These things are not said as much as they are collectively understood, much worse.

Tacit expectations are the ones we feel least able to challenge.

See, behind each one of these expectations lies the unspoken threat–“Don’t you love your kids?”

A Woman’s Honor

I’ve learned that a woman will do almost anything to prove she’s a good caretaker and nurturer. The female honor code is: do it for the kids, no matter the cost. Don’t ask questions or be perceived as disloyal to your children.

And while each woman should be responsible for enforcing her own boundaries, we should not be systematically violating them either. I want the women of my world free to be fiercely loyal mothers and selfless givers, without some manipulative loser-of-a-school system taking advantage of her selflessness.

But we have an underfunded system who keeps pushing and stretching for every free woman-hour and donation it can get from those fiercely loyal mothers and their Boxtops.

The system, in many places, bears a creepy resemblance to an abusive husband. If she loses “him” [her job], she feels like she would lose everything. He constantly tells her she’s not good enough, and has spreadsheets with scores to prove it. He blames her for the kids’ problems, and offers no real help in fixing them. But she stays and puts up with him–because she loves the kids.

He is boxing her in, manipulating her, and implicitly calling her loyalty into question every time she doesn’t bend over backwards to appease him and make him look good.

Should we be surprised that she’s finally walking out?

An Overstatement?

Maybe I am being dramatic (hey, I’m a teacher). But contrast this with my white collar buddies in corporate land. If you do anything work-related, you charge it to the company, and get the airline miles in the process. Own a business? Buy what you want for yourself, make sure its “work-related,” and write it off.

Teachers? They go through a 3-step process involving a waterboarding interrogation in front of a one-way mirror to get some spaghetti noodles for a lesson. So we just do it ourselves.

Consider “Teachers Pay Teachers”

This one kills me. It’s an online community of 2 million of us, paying each other for homemade curriculum to get the job done right. This exists? I didn’t know we were independent contract laborers.

But no one I know questions it. My coworkers are happy to shell out their own dollars because, in their minds, they are helping some poor woman in south Georgia trying to supplement income.

Imagine a bunch of nurses buying morphine from one nurse who makes it in her basement, when the hospital won’t give them enough. Or cops buying tasers from Leroy the Ex-Cop who now hand-makes tasers in his garage that don’t suck. Or Egyptian slaves buying good brick-making tools from their fellow slaves on the black market. Shouldn’t Pharaoh be funding this? Nah, he’s on a shoestring, poor fellow. I’ll just do it.

Male. Mind. Blown.

So, when it comes to things like:

Conferences? Nope.

Company clothes? Buy your own school T-shirt, if you love us.

Tools for the job? Maybe your PTA can donate. Or DonorsChoose.

Health insurance? Ha ha. Ha.

Annual raise? A cost of living increase, less than your actual cost of living increase.

Bonuses? Starbucks Gift cards. From students.

Per Diems? Travel mileage? What are those?

Company credit card? Not in your life. You’d be too wasteful.

But those test scores? They’d better go up, and up, and up.


And then there’s the ways we aren’t trusted.

In Texas, we take the STAAR test. We go through a few of hours of training each year that we jokingly refer to as “52 ways to lose your license.” It is a state-mandated course that involves a PowerPoint detailing the ways we shouldn’t be cheating. And if it even looks like we might be cheating, we’re in trouble.

So, let me get this straight: You pay us $60,000 a year to be a life mentor for 20 children, but you don’t trust me not to cheat for my 10-year-old on his 4th grade math test?

Consider Hattie’s effect size — famous research that determines the most impactful effects of various educational dynamics. This poster is in our lounge.

Greatest effect size? Student Expectations. I’m wondering, if expectations of our small humans are so powerful in determining their outcome, why do we keep breeding pathetically low expectations of our large humans?

We don’t enforce higher expectations by being meaner. Expectations must be paid for. We treat people as if they are capable, give them the right tools for the job, and stand back to watch in awe of what they do with them.

Is It Really A Gender Issue?

If you think its just a school culture issue unrelated to gender, you’d be wrong there. And we have coaches to prove it. The only male-dominated sector of public school gets what they need. I know, because I was a coach for a year. That year, our students got new clothes, a new locker room, and new uniforms. They got free food each week and free rides home. Coaches got free jackets, free clothes, free food, free conferences, free high-fives, free respect, a free pass on dress code, and a free pass from expectations of student academic achievement in our classes.

But I could not get free multiplication flash cards for my math class that year. I got more perks, bonuses, and respect in one year of coaching than in 9 years of teaching elementary school. It’s not about one person or school; it’s about systems evolving over time, built on the ways males and females most typically interact.

Waking Up, And Walking Out

It’s not about whiteboards, perks, or paychecks. It’s about a workplace culture that has formed around our most deeply invested, caring, and empathetic sector – our women.

Women, thank God, are waking up. They are waking up to the same realization that called out Matt Lauer and Harvey Weinstein. And they are calling out the system.

I don’t like walkouts, protest marches, or angry speeches. A decent society shouldn’t need them. But I do like it when people wake up, and finally say “no more” to a system that keeps demanding more while empowering less.

“I will not just be used or taken for granted. I matter.” This is the mantra of the new teacher.

She is no longer just a glorified babysitter. She is the master of a skilled profession that combines the rigor of brain science with communication skills, data analysis, public relations, and artistic performance. She is a talented professional with the job of shaping minds, and a loving parent-figure with the job of nurturing hearts.

You get what you pay for, and if we want good teachers, we had better pony up before she leaves us to go live happily ever after with a company that will treat her right.

I am walking out with her, but mine will be permanent, at the end of the month.

Mine is a personal choice, based on my life goals. But I do wonder whether I might have stayed longer, were it not for my inability to refuel year after year as quickly as I have been drained. I love my kids more than ever. But I won’t enter a classroom another year without a full tank of patience, grace, and joy. It’s time to refuel.

All of my best wishes to those who continue to do this work, regardless of the conditions. You are some of the best. May our society wake up to your true value, and may your needs be fully met. No matter how the votes turn out, you will always have mine.

Originally published on the author’s website

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