Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Day I Went on Strike: My First March for and with Teachers

Yesterday, as the U.S. Government shut down, so did many schools in the middle of England; two very different worlds with one commonality: one group isn't getting what they want.

I participated in a teacher strike here in Sheffield. Forty-six schools in the city were shut down, and over 1500 teachers showed up for the event, maybe more. There were many more area schools represented than I could count or even remember. You can read a BBC article here.

I went just hoping to see the event and maybe talk to a teacher or two, and I went with three questions in mind: why are you here?, If you knew Michael Gove would listen to you, what is the one thing you would change instantly? And how do the parents of your students feel about what is happening to teachers, or about you being here?

As soon as I arrived I was greeted by union representatives and teachers placing stickers on people and handing out flags. The buzz was loud and energetic. I ran first into a group of secondary history and math teachers from Nottingham, young teachers, all within their first five years. The teacher pension age has moved up to age 68, and what is the first thing on my mind, was actually the last thing on these young teachers minds. First on their list was to reverse the decision to pay teachers based on their student performances, and this concept was on everyone's mind. "If all the money comes from the same place, and no money has been allocated to pay these so-called great teachers, then who decides and how do they decide who gets the pay cut?" Unfortunately, we have this same debate happening in America right now.

I didn't have any problem getting anyone to talk to me. Most teachers were happy to visit about their dislikes about the new policies, and especially their dislike of their secretary of education, which you can see through various signs and posters in my pictures. I am not really sure why I asked the parent question. Now in retrospect, I think it must be because in America we are faced with this question all the time. As a teacher, I was unconsciously trained to fear parents and their reactions to me, my classroom, and the assessment of the work their child has or has not done in my classroom. I have even been told that parents control what I do.

As I have matured in teaching, I realize that talking with parents has become one of my great tools, and they are a great ally to have in my corner, but still, sometimes school-wide decisions are made based on what we think parents want (citing "taxpayer money",) and administrators often speak of how they have "protected" teachers from irate parents. The teachers I spoke with were confused, and even perplexed by the question, most stating that it did not matter how parents felt about them being away from their jobs. Their suspicions were that their parents would not care about their abscence, and would support them, knowing that what is happening to teachers right now could happen to them in their jobs as well.

It was easy to find supporters along the way, too, like the gentleman to the left who cheered and clapped for the passing marchers. Those who oppose the teacher strikes (aka the government officials in charge) have stated strikes such as these will damage the reputation of teachers. I found none of them along the streets of Sheffield, and many of those I talked to were handy because they were inconvenienced in their travel routes and were sidelined until the march had passed. Not one person I visited with shared discontent for these teachers and their protest. Most talked about how hard teachers worked and how everyone should stand up for a wrong that is being done against them. Several even said what a church caretaker told me "don't ask me--you won't get a balanced response--I'm a socialist! I agree with them!"

It's an exciting time to be in England, and because of my public school background in America, I am sympathetic toward the teachers moreso than the government. I, too, believe that anyone who hasn't, doesn't, or gave up doing the classroom teaching job I do should have little influence on creating policy that affects my workload, my pay, and my retirement.


Cindy said...

Great topic, Casey.

Anonymous said...

I'm so jealous that you participated. Good for you! I think your comments about parents are interesting. The local papers here seemed desperate to find people against the strike. The only anti-strike comment I could find in the papers was one woman who was having a hard time finding childcare, which seems more like an inconvenience than an opposition. The newspaper then seemed to be implying that the purpose of schools was childcare. So it seems teachers here also face the lack of respect issue in the media.