March 2018

The West Virginia Teachers’ Strike and the Power of Grassroots Change

When this goes down in history, we don’t want the story to be that teachers went on a nine-day strike. We want the story to be that this was the beginning of a snowball effect of wonderful things happening for West Virginia. I think that in order for that to happen, we have to "Remember in November."

On February 22, 2018, West Virginia teachers in all fifty-five counties went on strike. Although low pay and steep insurance rates were at the top of their list of grievances, the core of their complaints lay in a lack of respect from state representatives. Disregard for educators in the state has pushed teachers far down on the list of budgetary priorities for legislative sessions year after year. It has kept pay low, encouraged invasive and mandatory health incentive programs, discouraged retention, threatened seniority, and fostered a movement to lower teacher standards. But in a state where the opioid crisis has cost residents more than $8 billion a year, strained the already-overburdened foster care system, and increased the number of children with housing and food insecurities, teachers often serve as important lifelines for children and families who are at risk.

Shortly after schools reopened on March 7, I sat down with one of the teachers active in the movement, Huntington’s Malissa Blevins-Lowe. Malissa and I met a few years ago when we were both in the process of earning graduate degrees from Marshall University. We both grew up in West Virginia and are aware of the contradictions that the state often presents to people unfamiliar with its complicated labor history and contradictory political leanings.

Malissa explained that teachers were working to resolve their disagreements with the state long before they went on strike. When these efforts failed, they turned to a strike only as a last resort. The experience of being on strike was incredibly intense. Emotions ran high and standing outdoors for hours at a time was a physical strain. Throughout it all, Malissa was motivated to keep going because of her deep belief in the power of teachers to build and sustain strong West Virginia communities.

Below is our conversation, lightly edited for clarity.

What were your biggest concerns going into this?

About a year ago, a couple of teachers had started a Facebook page to discuss salary and insurance. As we got started talking, we realized there’s over 700 teacher vacancies in West Virginia and that pay is playing a huge role in that.

Part of the deal we were given several years ago was that, listen, we know your pay is really low, but we’re going to foot the bill for the majority of your insurance. But as time has gone on, salary has remained low and insurance premiums have been rapidly increasing. Then PEIA [Public Employees Insurance Agency] announced this Go365 health incentive program. It’s something that feels like it should be voluntary, but it is not. The way it was presented was, if you don’t meet these requirements then we are going to raise your deductibles. They had already started something like this the previous year, but this was becoming more and more personal. They wanted more and more information.

Then comes the talk of taking away seniority. We viewed that as an opportunity for them to stop employing workers that had more experience because those workers get paid more. And that, of course, is not fair.

Then they started a bill that said anyone with a college degree could be teaching. Your degree wouldn’t even have to be related to your field. That’s upsetting to us, but it’s also not fair to our kids. They deserve qualified teachers.

Thanks to social media, we were able to connect with each other and realize that the whole state is not pleased with the direction that we’re going in. And things just kind of snowballed from there.

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West Virginia has struggled to recruit and retain teachers.

What does that look like for you and your job if there are that many vacancies in our state?

I am the Special Education department chair at our school. We have ten positions, and I started the year with four of those vacant.

It’s really difficult to recruit people when they know that they can drive to Ohio and make more money. Things are a little less stressful there, they don’t have the same concerns that we do about insurance, their days are shorter. We have long-term subs right now who openly say that they’re only doing this while they’re in school and that once they finish their degree then they’ll leave. They just don’t get paid enough to stay.

And ultimately, it’s our kids that are the losers.

Yes. That’s really what kept everyone on track, that we have to do this because our kids deserve better.

I think a lot of people were surprised at the strike. Unions are generally seen as progressive, but some of the strongest unions are in traditionally conservative areas like Appalachia. Why do you think we have such a strong union tradition here?

I continue to hear people talk about coal miners and our history with them and the power that they hold. While this was completely different from what they dealt with, I think that they set a good example for standing up for what you believe in. It’s never been easy, but West Virginia’s never been known for taking the easy route. We do what has to be done.

A lot of people channeled that energy. We tried to keep in mind that people fought for this state long before us and probably fought much more difficult battles, so we can stay united and fight this one for the betterment of the state.

It must feel good to know that you’re one of the people carrying the torch of that tradition. Not only that, but to be educating a new generation who will hopefully fight for their state as well.

Yes. When you start to think about walking out of your job and not getting paid, it’s scary. We’re poor, so it’s not like we have all this money to fall back on. But when you were able to look on Facebook every day and see how much support we had from across the state, it made you feel a little bit better. You knew that you had people who would walk with you. Even if they weren’t there with you, they were with you. That made a huge difference.

What was the atmosphere among teachers? How important was it to be “55 United?”

We went into this with a lot of people saying that they could not afford to strike, and so we had to address that issue. We were trying to be understanding and say that, I know you can’t afford to go on strike, so we’re going to tell you where to go so that you can avoid crossing the picket line. As much as we felt strongly about what we were fighting for, that didn’t negate the fact that we felt strongly about the people who felt like they couldn’t fight.

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Teachers Celebrate 55 United. Photo courtesy of Malissa Blevins-Lowe.

Then they canceled school, and things almost got more complicated. Because everyone had the day off, so you were opting to participate in the strike or you were not. That made it feel more personal when people opted not to participate. People did start to feel bitter, but we came to the conclusion that we didn’t have time for that. We had to focus on moving forward and getting our kids back to school.

I think we did a great job on not focusing on that throughout that month, but once we returned to school, it was different. We can focus on that now, we couldn’t afford to focus on that then.

Did you get a sense of support from West Virginians who weren’t teachers?

We had a lot of older people who stopped by to say keep fighting, you deserve this, our state deserves this. Young people were also really supportive. They talked about how they need this movement because they want to be able to stay in West Virginia but right now they cannot.

Then there were the people in the middle. They were more mixed. We heard a lot of people saying that, you knew what you were getting into when you became a teacher. And you particularly knew what you were getting into becoming a teacher in West Virginia. You knew that you would be poor, so stop whining and get back to work.

It seemed like some of the people who were saying that the loudest were some of the same people who are very vocal about supporting our miners. Did you sense any kind of gendered dynamic there?

I think there are a couple of things that play into it. One, I think we view miners as really important because West Virginia is built on coal and this is who we are. I don’t think we appreciate teachers. We’ve always been expected to give, give, give, and allow people to take, take, take. To see teachers standing up and saying no, I deserve a living wage, teachers should not be eligible for food stamps—that was probably surprising.

Another part of the reason why I think teachers aren’t respected as much is because we’re women. And I hate to say that. But I think that if we were a bunch of men standing out fighting for something that’s right, then I do feel like there would have been more support. They wouldn’t have been told that they were whining and complaining and that they should just be quiet and be happy with what they have.

But again, we kind of just had to shut that down and say, this is a conversation we should have someday, but right now we have to focus on getting back in the classroom.

What kind of preparations did you have to do for your students before the strike?

I’d like to preface this by saying that I know that a lot of people thought really poorly of teachers for walking out knowing that students wouldn’t be fed. But we live in one of the most developed countries in the world. I think that what people should have been focused on is the fact that we have so much and yet we still have a whole lot of children who depend on school for food. I shouldn’t have to put up with being treated poorly because we have a problem dispersing resources in West Virginia.

“We got people to donate or we brought in food and we made bags to send home to kids. We had several sites throughout the county where food was made every day.”

That being said, it was still the situation we were faced with. We handled things by county and by school. We got people to donate or we brought in food and we made bags to send home to kids. We had several sites throughout the county where food was made every day.

When kids go home for summer break or winter break, we do these things then too. But before the strike we did have to do it very spur of the moment. It was a lot of work because we have a lot of kids who need food. People did a wonderful job coming together.

You guys were out there for hours at a time. Picketing in February and March had to have taken a physical toll. And thinking about everything else we’ve been talking about, there also had to have been an emotional toll.

I remember about four days in I posted that I never thought there would be anything that was more physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting than being a teacher. But this was. Being a teacher on strike is far more exhausting.

You had to be in the know about a whole lot of stuff in a short amount of time. We want to see change, and in order to see change, you have to mold change. And in order to mold it, you have to know what’s going on. You had these teachers who really haven’t been super involved in politics up until now asking, who supports us and who doesn’t? What are the issues that we should be fighting for? And how do we all get on the same page?

I’m normally at school from 7-3, so I was at least going to be out doing informational pickets from 7-3. Whether it was raining, or snowing, or sunny, or whatever, we would get up every morning and head out with our signs. Some of us would not take lunch breaks. We literally stood for hours on end.

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Teachers on strike braved the West Virginia weather.

Then you would leave, and you would try to read about the issues that were going on while also checking in with your community. How are the kids doing? Are they eating? How do parents feel? How are we being portrayed on the news? Are people getting the information that we need them to get?

At some point, you would come back to yourself and it would be like 1AM, and you’d be so deep into trying to find out what was going on that you’d realize that you didn’t eat, or you didn’t go to the gym, or you haven’t had anything to drink. And the next thing you know, you’re three or four days into not having had a real meal. I’m sure some people felt like they didn’t see their kids. At one point, I was asking, have my pets even been fed? Do we still have pets? Are they in this house?

Then you would be at the capitol. We knew that being at home was really important to getting the information out, because we need our communities to be on our side and know what was going one. But most days at least one of us would also try to go to the capitol to put the pressure on. You’d get up really early at like 5:30 and you’d get there to stand in line at like 7:00, and you stand and you scream and you check Facebook to see what’s going on. And then you’d get an announcement saying that they’d tabled the bill you thought they were going to discuss. Or that they’d gone into recess. It started to take an emotional toll, because you started to see how very little you’re valued. And how very little education means to them, and how very little your students must mean to them if they’re ok with going on recess and tabling these issues or if they’re napping during the sessions. And then it starts to feel really personal.

I didn’t go into this saying that I deserve a 5% raise or that I deserve affordable health care. I went into this saying, teachers deserve a raise, teachers deserve better health care. Police officers deserve a raise. Our social workers, the people who are out there holding this community together, need to be able to afford health insurance. So, you go into it saying that this is an us thing. But once you’re shot down time after time after time, you start to realize that this job that you love so much and that you fight so hard for, while it means everything to you, really means nothing to a lot of so-called important people. And that became super emotionally draining.

We spent a lot of days driving home with a lot of tears, because at some point you just felt like they’re just going to let us do this forever and at what point do people start to give up? But West Virginia stayed very strong and dedicated throughout what seemed like a very long stretch. Ear infections, bronchitis, people who had knee surgeries would go and sit in chairs. Everyone got up the next day and they just did it again.

Are there any moments that particularly stand out to you from this experience?

Definitely when the governor [Jim Justice] came out and said, “we’re going to give teachers a 5% raise.” They’re expecting all these cheers, and we’re all like “we’re not going back to school.” You can say that he’s giving a 5% raise, but that means nothing. We know the process. The House hasn’t approved it, the Senate hasn’t approved it, no one from Finance has even looked at it. These could be just empty promises. We still have to fix PEIA, and this also doesn’t address all the other state employees who we feel deserve a raise. CNN was there, and it seemed like this huge victory. But then you see all these teachers and we’re like, well, no. We didn’t walk out on our students for 5%. That’s not ultimately what this is going to be about.

“You can say that he’s giving a 5% raise, but that means nothing. We know the process. The House hasn’t approved it, the Senate hasn’t approved it, no one from Finance has even looked at it.”

That was kind of the turning point when the community stopped supporting you as much and you started to look like the bad guy. People started to say, you’re being given a raise and you’re still refusing to go back to school? The problem is that you’re greedy.

Up until that point, I had felt like our union leaders had supported us and kept us in the loop, which is not an easy thing to do for an entire state. But then we had to look at our representatives and say, listen, you should never have come out and announced that without talking to us first. We had to remind people that our union representatives work for us. Just like the Senate works for us and the House works for us and Jim Justice works for us, our union representatives work for us. We are the union.

That was a very intense day. I think that was the first time I cried on the way back home.

Talking about the moment when everyone thought the strike was over, I remember that they made that announcement before any of the teachers knew what was going on.

That was super stressful. In hindsight, we were told that it was their attempt to try and move forward, to show good faith and trust the system. But we don’t trust the system.

A few years ago, we were told that starting salary for teachers with a bachelor’s degree would be $43,000 by 2019. I have more graduate hours than any human being should have, and I have been teaching for about five or six years. And without summer school, I do not make $43,000. These were promises that were never kept. So, we just felt that we couldn’t go back on a promise of 5%. And again, that wasn’t the whole picture anyway. It wasn’t even addressing all of our issues.

We saw pictures of politicians out on the picket lines talking to teachers, but then there were also a lot of Republican representatives expressing antagonism. Where do you think that hostility was coming from?

I feel like some people are in those positions because they want to make good decisions for West Virginia and some people are in those positions because it allows them to build relationships that will make them a lot of money. And Mitch Carmichael [R] just so happens to be connected to oil and gas companies.

“Looking at people and looking at their background, it was hard to feel like the people who were against us weren’t being bought off.”

I’m not really big on being involved in politics. I don’t hate anybody or love anybody. I just try to look at people. But looking at people and looking at their background, it was hard to feel like the people who were against us weren’t being bought off. I think that those who disagreed with what we were asking for didn’t want to take cuts in their own bank account.

You know, the representative from Logan county, Richard Ojeda, he said in session that the problem here isn’t that we don’t have money. The problem here is that people aren’t working for the people they’re supposed to be working for. He said, “I don’t work for the oil companies or the coal companies. I work for my people, I’m here to take care of my people. I’m making decisions based off of what is best for them. And you are not.” He called people out. And I think that he’s probably right. I mean why else be so upset? Our opponents were openly angry and very bitter. Why would you feel that this is anything personal? But it was clearly personal, especially for Mitch Carmichael, who was extremely disrespectful on several occasions.

I also felt that there was a sense of condescension coming from politicians standing against the teachers.

It was Craig Blair [R] who said that, if you can afford to feed the kids, you don’t need a raise. Everyone was really upset about that, but I was like, let him show who he is as a human being. For us to suffer and give so much to our kids when we have so little, and for you to use that against us, that just shows your character flaws. I can’t waste my time with that.

Jim Justice was another person who I thought was giving off that condescension vibe. I’m curious about your perspective on this because, as someone following it on the news, I didn’t get a sense of leadership from him. Was that your perspective?

Yes. In the beginning, we felt that he was clearly not going to be helpful. On the first or second day that we were all going to be at the capitol, he went to do these informational meetings around the state. I was like, ok, so you know that every teacher in this state is not at school, but you are going to the schools to talk to the teachers? You’re wasting all this money to travel, when you know where your teachers are. If you really want to talk to teachers, why aren’t you at the capitol? We’re here. We have plenty to say.

Then he started those meetings by saying things like, “Now, I want to you keep in mind that I didn’t have to be here.” Well, who says that? To one teacher, who was passionate but not saying anything that was out of hand, he was like “Now listen, I can be the town redneck too.” And I was like, who is this person?

Again, we have to come back to, we’re just teachers, we’re just women, we’re overly emotional, he’s allowed to say things like that to us because we don’t know how to keep ourselves together. He’s in power and we are not, so we’re supposed to just take it. That was really upsetting to me.

He did not act like a leader. Sometimes I felt like he didn’t even know what was going on. He also didn’t have any clear idea of how things could be fixed or should be fixed. It was the flavor of the month with him. One day we would get up and he would be against this issue, and the next day he would be for that issue. That was another reason why it was so emotionally exhausting. It felt like, “which Jim Justice are we going to wake up to today?” He went from saying, “we don’t have any money” to saying, “don’t take 4.9% and 16 chickens.” He would say “be smart for once” as if we were being ridiculous. But then the next morning he would be like “oh, you’re right, teachers deserve a lot.”

“He’s not Oprah. He can’t say, you get a car, you get a raise. She can do that, but he can’t. I’m not sure if he understood that or not.”

That was why, when they came out and said he was offering a 5% raise, we were like “does he know that he can’t just give that to us? Does he understand there’s a process?” And apparently, he doesn’t understand there’s a process, because the day after saying that, he didn’t show up to work. He had not presented anyone with a plan of how that 5% raise would be funded. I do wonder if he understood that it had to be a group decision. He’s not Oprah. He can’t say, you get a car, you get a raise. She can do that, but he can’t. I’m not sure if he understood that or not.

On the last day, Justice came in and was like, “we found not just 5% for teachers, but 5% for all state public employees,” as if he had done something wonderful. What you don’t hear is that they presented us with this: teachers will get a 5% raise. Others will get a 3% raise and then a 2% raise that comes from separate funds. So, teachers had been under the impression that everyone is getting a 5% raise anyway, even though in the news it’s being pushed like teachers are getting 5% and everyone else is getting 3%. At one point, the Senate decided to amend the bill, and I won’t even get into that mess of when they sent the wrong one. They decided to amend it and take away 1% to give to those other employees. Now, nowhere in that bill would it have actually directed those funds to the employees from what I understand. That would just address taking it from us. So, from what I understood, it wasn’t even a guarantee that other employees would get that 1%. The real purpose of that bill was to turn people against us, to say that your teachers aren’t willing to give up that 1% because they don’t feel like you deserve it. Then talks among teachers turned to, maybe that 2% isn’t a guarantee, maybe we do need to be worried that everyone isn’t going to get their 5%. So now we’re not going to go back until we’re sure that everybody is going to get their 5%. Because it should be fair. We deserve our 5% and they deserve their 5%. That message was already being relayed to Jim Justice that teachers aren’t going to go back to work until everybody gets 5%. Even though he would have you believe that’s just some random act of kindness they decided to throw in there.

“That message was already being relayed to Jim Justice that teachers aren’t going to go back to work until everybody gets 5%. Even though he would have you believe that’s just some random act of kindness they decided to throw in there.”

Then there’s also the concern about where that money comes from. Craig Blair has said that it would come from Medicaid and result in deep cuts to general services in the state. Is this accurate? Does it feel designed to set teachers up as the enemy?

Yes. That was a really big issue. Everything happened so quickly, and I think it was done purposely very quickly so that we wouldn’t have time to evaluate where the funds were coming from. But we would also look horrible if they would have approved this raise and we were still not going back to work. We had to act fast. And by act fast, I mean standing in the capitol while it was being voted on in the House and Senate, we had to get ahold of our connections and ask, is it true that funding would be coming from Medicaid or other services?

Part of the deal was that we would not take a raise if it meant that they would have a food tax or whatnot—we didn’t want our raise to come from taking from the general public. Because the whole purpose of the raise and fixing PEIA is help build a better West Virginia, not to tear it down. I think they knew they wouldn’t have been able to throw that in there because that would have been a red flag.

According to Jim Justice himself, those cuts that are being made will not directly affect anyone. So I look at it as, they decided to tidy up and these were the places where our money wasn’t being used properly and they’re going to use those funds. Specifically, with Medicaid, we were promised that it would not cut anyone’s benefits. We would not have gone back to school if we thought that there was any chance the changes they were making would negatively impact the people of West Virginia.

When Ojeda came out and was really supportive, it gave me the sense that whatever they’re cutting, it’s not hurting the people. Because he had been so adamant about, we don’t have to have a food tax because we can cut some of the benefits that they’re giving big business. They don’t have to take from the people because we can increase the severance tax, or we can legalize marijuana and use funds from that. Seeing him walk out happy gave me a sense of having faith that this won’t negatively impact people.

“If it would have turned out that something that they did severely impacted the people of West Virginia, I think we would have walked or we will walk. It would defeat the whole purpose of trying to build better communities if we’re just hurting people.”

But again, it happened so quickly, and I think it was an attempt to turn people against us. It was an attempt to say, they don’t even care where the money’s coming from, they don’t care about the people of West Virginia, when in fact we do. When they came out, everyone was excited and then you hear this wave of “but I hear they’re taking it from Medicaid.” Then there’s this part in the news video where everyone’s texting, trying to make sure that they’re not going to do something that’s going to hurt people. If it would have turned out that something that they did severely impacted the people of West Virginia, I think we would have walked or we will walk. It would defeat the whole purpose of trying to build better communities if we’re just hurting people.

My understanding is that now Republican leaders are trying to take credit for passing the pay raise. What are your feelings on that? Do you think that people will “Remember in November?”

I tried really hard to avoid all the back-and-forth, but you couldn’t help but hear Republicans saying that they were just holding out because they want everyone to have a 5% raise. After standing there and hearing them say that we don’t have the funds, you don’t need a 5% raise, that was sickening. They had been avoiding the conversation at all costs. I’ve never seen so many recesses in my life. One day they cancelled to go have drinks and dinner on a Thursday. So, I don’t buy that.

I do think that Carmichael helped the cause with his statements on “Remember in November.” He said that he’s been hearing Remember in November forever and that people never follow through. I think that was probably the boost we needed to make sure that we do Remember in November. And we’ve started lists to make sure that people know who has West Virginia’s interests at heart.

When this goes down in history, we don’t want the story to be that teachers went on a nine-day strike. We want the story to be that this was the beginning of a snowball effect of wonderful things happening for West Virginia. I think that in order for that to happen, we have to Remember in November. Otherwise, this was just about a 5% raise and PEIA.

Unfortunately, because this is not a great position to be in, other states are now looking at going on strike. Teachers in Oklahoma and Kentucky and Pennsylvania have a long road ahead of them. By the way, if you want to support teachers on strike, please send fruit trays. We so appreciated it when people sent us food, but we ate so much pizza and doughnuts it was ridiculous.

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In the wake of teachers’ success in West Virginia, momentum is building beyond the state. Photo courtesy of Malissa Blevins-Lowe.

This whole time we’ve been like it’s not about us, it’s not about us. So, it sounds bad to say, yes, look what we’ve started. But I think that we did it. I keep seeing big names talk about big changes. I think the world expects us to be redneck as the governor said, or to be crazy, or to be outrageous. And the fact of the matter is, you didn’t see any of that. We did our protests and they were loud, but they were respectful. I think that we did show people that there’s a way to fight for what you want. I think we also showed them that they’re worth it. Hopefully what we showed them is that we felt like we deserved better and our state felt like we deserve better and that our kids deserve better. I think that in a way we did show them that they’re worth fighting for and that this whole movement is about our kids. If they’re not willing to stand up for themselves and say that they deserve better, they will be willing to stand up for their kids and say that their kids deserve better.

So, I don’t even think that we’re going to have time to forget because now we’re going to try and funnel our energy into supporting them. We’re trying to build support and gather money to send them food and start GoFundMe accounts in case they lose pay. I think that we’re not going to have time to forget about how horrible this experience was because we’re kind of going to be reliving it through other states, probably for months to come.

We’re ready, we’ve had people go to the capitol yesterday just as a reminder that this isn’t over. We still have the PEIA task force that we are not happy with, and that’s going to be an ongoing process. I think it’s going to be pretty fresh in November. I don’t think we’re going to have to struggle to remember. I’ve heard people say that they have never voted before and that they will spend time from now until November looking into what our best decisions are as a state and who to put our trust in. And I think that they will hold tight to that, because this state is important to them.

I do want to push you on this, because I want to address the racial implications around saying that teachers were peacefully protesting when people of color who are doing the same sorts of things are not portrayed as peaceful.

I don’t intend to put down anyone else’s struggle or how it was handled. But we have people in situations like ours who are going to have to move forward and fight their own battles. I’m not trying to speak to anyone else’s struggle but to say that, for the people who are about to face the same situation that we were facing, they can handle it in a way that can produce change. Our situation, while it was very important to us, does not in any way compare to the struggles faced by groups like African Americans.

Did you want to say anything else about PEIA or the movement to allow more non-accredited teachers?

Some people feel like we’re sellouts because we went in saying we’re not going back until we get a raise and PEIA is fixed. And now we just have a PEIA task force, so some people are saying that we settled. But what they have to realize is that once we got into this, we realized how complicated insurance is. We would have loved to have established a dedicated funding source for PEIA, but it’s not something that could be done in a month.

We haven’t gone back to trusting the system, but the task force does have our union reps on it and a few people who we felt like supported us. Unfortunately, it also has Blair and Carmichael. We are also kind of iffy about the fact that Jim Justice was allowed to pick the teachers for the task force and he only picked one retired teacher. He did recently agree to add six more women to the task force after only having had two. We would really like to see that be women teachers. We do feel like women need more representation, but we want women involved that understand what’s going on. We have plenty of competent women who are teachers who could be on that task force. And we do still stand by the fact that as much as we would hate to do it—and believe me when I tell you that we would hate it—if PEIA is not fixed when the seventeen months or whatever he’s decided on now is up, we will walk again. And we will stay out until the people of West Virginia feel comfortable knowing that they’re going to be able to go to the doctor next year. But for now, we’re just trusting this task force since we feel that we do have representation on there that won’t allow them to make bad decisions in the name of appeasing teachers.

As far as changing the requirements for teachers, they actually addressed that again after we were told that it would not be addressed and went back to school. We didn’t even think that was a possibility for them to say that was off the table and then wait until we went back and just throw it back on. Thankfully, it didn’t pass, because ultimately, that was the whole purpose. We need more money and we need to be able to afford insurance because we need to recruit and retain highly qualified teachers. If we’re not going to have highly qualified teachers, then in essence all of this was for nothing. Lowering the standards is not helping our cause.

West Virginia is often called Trump Country, and yet the strike seems to be evidence of dissatisfaction under Trump. Is that the sense that you have?

I think that did surprise a lot of people. We are known for supporting Trump, so you’d think that we’d support his views on how things should work. This strike was clearly in contrast to what anyone would have expected. What I’m hoping we’re seeing is that we have a generation of people, or just a group of people in West Virginia that don’t really care about party politics as much as they care about results. Ultimately, what we’re looking at is how can we get from point A to point B and who is going to help us get there.

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Protestor’s sign reads “The power of the people is stronger than the people in power.”

A lot of people I know who supported Trump, they didn’t care about that. They understood that this was what needed to be done. When you looked at everyone standing around you, you really didn’t know who identified as Democrat and who identified as Republican. Everyone was just focused on, who are the people that are helping West Virginia? And ultimately, that’s what it should always be about. Because your party affiliation, in the grand scheme of things, doesn’t mean anything. I think we saw a group of people who realize that we have to take people for who they are and what they’re doing for our state, not for what party they affiliate with.

Do you think that the teacher’s strike keyed into some contradictory feelings about teachers in the United States? We don’t want to invest in education, but we want to hold teachers accountable for low test scores and even give them guns to stop school shootings. We want them to be everything and do everything but without proper funding.

That, ultimately, is the problem. When you look at other countries that have educational programs that appear to be far more successful than ours, they value their teachers. They pay their teachers well, they treat them with respect. And in turn, they recruit people that do a good job.

Now, do I think the teachers in West Virginia and the United States are trying to do a good job? Yes. But we have to keep in mind that a few highly qualified teachers cannot make up for all these other teachers that are not qualified. You can’t look at me and say, you’re a highly qualified teacher, your students should have higher test scores, you don’t deserve a raise. I am one of twelve teachers that a student will have in a year. If you think that I, on my own, can make up the difference of the two or three or four that may not even be qualified, that’s unrealistic.

“Because we pay our teachers so little, teachers are notorious for having second jobs. When teachers in other countries don’t have to go have another job, then they can dedicate more time to getting prepared in the summer, to having lesson plans, to studying up on their standards.”

Secondly, because we pay our teachers so little, teachers are notorious for having second jobs. When teachers in other countries don’t have to go have another job, then they can dedicate more time to getting prepared in the summer, to having lesson plans, to studying up on their standards. If nothing else, they can come in better rested. They have more to give because their situation affords them the opportunity to do that. We’re not afforded that opportunity here. I know very few teachers who only work one job. I don’t work another job outside of the school, but I’m the department chair, and I do after school tutoring, and I teach homebound students when I need to, and I teach summer school. And that is exhausting. Teaching in and of itself is exhausting. But when I’m there until five or six in the afternoon and I’m taking work home, I don’t come in well-rested, and I don’t have as much energy to give the job as I would if I didn’t have all those extra things.

I think that’s why teachers are to a point that we are fed up. Because you can’t look at us and say, we’re not going to give you enough money to take care of your family, but we’re going to make sure that you take care of these kids, meet these standards, make these test scores, make sure that they’re fed. Something has to give. It’s insulting and it’s hurtful to be expected to give so much while getting so little in return.

And we’ve allowed that to be ok for so long. We have accepted that we’re West Virginia teachers, so we shouldn’t have a lot. And that has to change.

It seems like teachers are really excited to be getting back in their classrooms and back to their kids. Did you miss your students? Are you glad to be back?

I am. I was really excited to walk back into my classroom, and our kids were really excited to have us back. Our kids got together in the gym, and they called us in and played the song “Invincible,” and they stood up and clapped. Everyone kind of lost it, we were crying, and they hugged us. But they were checking in with us the whole time—they were surprisingly supportive.

Learned Image
A student’s sign reads “I CAN make a difference.” Photo courtesy of Malissa Blevins-Lowe.

That was going to be my next question. How do you think the kids feel about the strike?

We’re talking in my classes about desegregation, and so when I came back to school, the kids were like, Ms. Lowe, you went out and protested, you’re just like the people in our book. And I had to say no, there’s a huge difference in our book and what is happening with me. Yes, we both stood up for things that we deserved and needed, but that situation was so much more critical and life-changing than this situation. We discussed the difference between what we did and what was going on in A Mighty Long Way and how they were both important but two very different situations.

I gave my kids an opportunity to write about how they felt about everything without putting their name on anything. I think that allowed them to be very honest, and I was surprised at how many of them said that, even if they have to make up the days, they feel like it was worth it. A lot of them said that teachers deserve to be treated better. A few of them caught on to the fact that this wasn’t just about teachers, it was about a lot of different people. The majority of them responded along the lines of how much we give to them every day and how much we care about them and how they feel like we deserve to be treated well too. And then there were some that were like, I just don’t want to make up the days. But you’re going to get that.

Going forward, what can West Virginians do to support our teachers? What can our politicians and officials do to improve education in our state?

I think one of the biggest things that will have to be addressed is that we’re going to need to shift our mentality about teachers and education. And that’s going to have to be something that the people who are making these decisions will have to keep in the forefront of their minds when we’re talking about making West Virginia better. Because all you hear them talking about is investing in tourism or giving companies a tax break to bring people to West Virginia. You get this idea from them that the important parts of West Virginia are tourism and business. The reality is that people aren’t going to want to stay here and run a business when the community they live in isn’t strong. They may have businesses here and live somewhere else, but those aren’t going to be the businesses that make West Virginia better. Those are going to be the Frontiers of the world. The reality is that teachers build communities. If we have good schools and we can build good communities, then West Virginia is going to grow on its own. And until they start discussing that when they talk about making West Virginia better, then nothing’s going to change.

Vigil Image
West Virginia teachers gather outside the capitol.

As far as the general public is concerned, we’re all so busy working and keeping up with life that it’s hard to know who to vote for and who has our best interests at heart. But we have a lot of good people who are doing research to try to keep everyone informed. If you feel like you just can’t keep up with everything, at the very least follow one of our teacher groups. And maybe you’ll hear something from time to time that will spark your interest and maybe you’ll be a more productive voter. Just try to be more informed and make informed decisions when you vote, and I think it will be a better place for all of us—a better West Virginia for everybody.  

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Lauren Angel is a PhD candidate in twentieth-century American history at George Washington University. Her research interests include representations of race, gender, and regional or national identity as seen through dance performance, politics, and culture. Lauren’s dissertation, “Hot Bodies, Cold War: Dancing America in Person and Performance,” investigates depictions of American multiculturalism within the State Department’s Cold War dance diplomacy program. Lauren’s current research has been funded by a Cosmos Scholars Grant, a New York Public Library Research Fellowship, and two GWU History Excellence Research Fellowships. Lauren also holds an MA in history and a Women’s Studies Graduate Certificate from Marshall University. She is a former professional ballet dancer, a native Appalachian, and an occasional baker.

1 comment on “The West Virginia Teachers’ Strike and the Power of Grassroots Change

  1. Pingback: Is It Time to Bury Neoliberalism?: Maybe, Maybe Not – The Activist History Review

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