This is why I will strike

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If we walk the line, it will be for the very soul of our profession.

By Lisa Falco

LAUSD Instructional Coach
& Intervention Teacher

There is a fallacy in this country that our public schools are failing. They are in trouble, yes. But our schools and teachers are not the cause of this distress. The current state of our schools is merely the effect of the rapidly multiplying failures of our society.

We live in a country that allows 20 percent of its children to languish in poverty, does not fully fund public education, does not provide free preschool or quality daycare or healthcare. Many families are not paid a living wage for a full day’s work. And teachers are expected to fill in the yawning gaps created by this broken social contract because children can’t learn if they are hungry, sick, or traumatized.

Here are just a few real-life examples from my own school (names have been changed).

Carlos is six years old and believes he does not deserve to live. He says this with tears in his eyes, but he refuses to cry.

Jacqueline will not stay in the classroom or participate in any learning activities. Instead she runs the perimeter of the school, requiring staff to constantly monitor her movements to ensure her safety.

Juan comes to school every day hungry. Pamela needs glasses and dental work. Manuel and Serine have missed more than 30 days of school a year every year since kindergarten. Lally came from India and speaks no English. Max is in first grade but has never attended school. He knows six letters of the alphabet and is just now learning to write his name.

These are just a few of our students’ stories. We have many others. Students traumatized by family deportation. Students who spent time in internment camps. Students who live in RVs parked across the street.

Our school is not unique. This is the reality in many of our public schools today. Yet, despite all these challenges, teachers are charged with providing a rigorous curriculum to prepare students for the demands of a 21st-century workforce.

We struggle to do this every day in the face of these challenges with little support. And at the end of this year, Carlos and Jacqueline and Juan and Pamela and Manuel and Serine and Lally and Max will spend hours taking a battery of mandated tests developed by corporations that make millions every year measuring and ranking our students on a very narrow band of academic standards. It will be no surprise to anyone at our school when these students fail to meet the grade-level proficiency standard set by someone in a gilded office who thinks every child advances in exactly the same way at exactly the same time.

And when our test scores come back with less than 40% of our students proficient, the district will ask us why we have failed. They will hire outside companies to tell us how to improve our teaching. Because if we simply teach math using the latest research-based strategies, Carlos will suddenly be able to cope with his despair, and Max will learn to read “on time” despite missing an entire year of kindergarten.

When the test scores are released to the public, parents will anxiously pore over them and conclude that their neighborhood school is failing. They will hastily gather magnet points and talk to other parents at birthday parties and strategize how to use their work addresses to get their child out of their neighborhood school and into a “better” one.

In reality, standardized tests are more likely to indicate students’ socio-economic level than the quality of their teachers (Psychology Today, 4/18/15). Thus, these “better” schools are merely code for campuses with more students from middle- and upper-class educated families. In California, these schools are more and more likely to be independent charters, privately managed entities paid with public funds that have been diverted from our neighborhood schools.

This privately managed charter drain is exacerbated by a lack of state funding. California has the fifth-largest economy in the world, yet ranks 43rd in per-pupil spending. The state of our facilities reflects this neglect, many of which have not been improved for decades. At our school, we don’t have enough custodial hours to keep our campus clean. We have a playground riddled with cracks that has been on the list to be repaved for over 10 years, and we have classes held in temporary bungalows that have become permanent fixtures.

Teachers are fed up. Actually, we are more than fed up. We are enraged. While the daily demands of our job require us to be pillars of patience, everyone has a limit. And believe me when I say to you, your public school teachers have reached it.

I entered this profession 20 years ago knowing I would never be rich, but I believed the satisfaction of educating children would make up for the pay gap between me and my college-educated peers. Over the years, this gap has widened to 20%, and the joy I used to experience has leaked into despair as I try to do a job with my hands tied behind my back in a system that has set me up to fail. It’s absolutely heart breaking. America should be ashamed.

If all of this seems impossible to believe, imagine teaching in one of our classrooms for a week. Write all the lesson plans to meet the academic needs of 30 students at 30 different levels in all content areas, communicate with parents, fulfill district mandates, spend hours of your own time and your own money trying to meet the diverse needs of all your students. Do all this without the support of a full-time nurse, or a counselor or a librarian. Then prepare to be pilloried by the public when your efforts aren’t reflected in the results of a computerized math and language arts test.

If and when we walk the line, it will not be for a mere salary increase (although that is well deserved). We will walk the line for the very soul of our profession. We will demand the respect that is our due and we will call on the conscience of our wealthy state to fully fund our public schools. It will be a passionate and determined cry for help from those of us who are on the front lines, battling to educate the future of our country. And we can no longer do it alone.

Student names and some identifying characteristics have been changed to protect their privacy.