March can be a rough time of year for first graders in Minnesota. In my classroom, the kids are still wriggling into their snow pants so they can slide down a snow-covered hill, only to discover that what had been a perfect sledding spot just the week before had turned into a soggy mudpit. Students are sad, confused and hopeful; it’s hard to know if winter will return or if a change is truly on the horizon.
In public schools across Minnesota, and the country, teachers are feeling the same way, slogging forward towards spring under the weight of so much more than the typical lesson plans and parent-teacher conferences. Just over a month ago, seventeen people were gunned down at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida and colleagues from my school are mourning a former student shot just this month. On top of the grief, anxious educators in states from Arizona to West Virginia have been wondering how to pay the bills after years of low pay, rising health care costs and no raises. Close to home, teachers in Minneapolis and Saint Paul have had to fight for months just to get contracts that start to meet the needs of our students.
Sometimes the national discussion around public education is so degrading and depressing that I tune it out completely. In an attempt to avoid the heartbreak, I stay at school late to create a new math game or reorganize our picture books in the belief that, at least in my own little classroom, I can create the kind of nurturing community that society as a whole seems to have rejected. Any teacher will tell you that there is always more to do, so it’s easy to shut out the world and narrow your focus to just your own teaching. But as winter draws to a close this year, I am heartened to see teachers, families and our own students standing up for our schools.
In Minnesota, per pupil funding is lower, adjusted for inflation, than it was in 2003. For students in the classroom, rising costs in healthcare and other expenses mean that school budgets get cut each year. My school has lost more and more staff: we no longer have a full-time bilingual clerk; we have lost cultural specialists, student support staff and teaching assistants. These are the people who build connections with the students who are most in need of positive relationships at school so that everyone can be ready to learn. Every year, we are losing more of the supports that our kids desperately need.
Many unions, however, are no longer staying silent in the face of these cuts. My union, the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers, has been working to highlight the reality that our state has the resources to support our students, but we all must shift our priorities. Right now, tax incentives and corporate loopholes allow big businesses to reap benefits from our communities but shirk the responsibility to support them. Instead of giving corporations a pass for returning the maximum profit possible to their shareholders, we need to make sure that they are paying their fair share. Wealthy corporations are starting to take notice and are coming to the table to talk with educators. Public pressure will make all the difference if the multi-billion dollar corporations actually commit to helping their neighboring public schools.
The threat of a Supreme Court decision in the case of Janus v. AFSCME represents an insulting attack on union members and our collective bargaining power. But even as powerful anti-union forces contemplate a judicial victory, educators in West Virginia stood together and demanded the raise that was long-overdue. As someone who recently almost went on strike as well, I can imagine how they missed the smiles of their students but also how certain they were that the strike was the only way to get what they so clearly deserved. West Virginia’s victory is inspiring unions in states like Arizona and Kentucky, and educators in Oklahoma may follow West Virginia’s lead as soon as April 2. Teachers are speaking out on the issues that affect us all.
The most hopeful development for our schools has come out of one of the most tragic: the students across the country demanding action in the face of the massacre in Parkland, Florida. Public school students, many not yet old enough to vote, are speaking truth to power about the role of guns in our society. On March 7, over 2000 St. Paul students from across the city gathered at Central High School to march to the Capitol demanding lawmakers take action to reduce gun violence. Again, on March 14, thousands of students here in Saint Paul joined with students from across the nation to hold walk-outs expressing solidarity with the students of Parkland. Nationally, Republican leaders have been trying to distract from gun safety by suggesting that we arm teachers and school staff. This proposal would increase the possibilities for violence in many disturbing ways, from human error to racial bias. If we are trying to stop a school shooting at the classroom door, we have already failed. However, instead of entertaining this ridiculous idea, the young people speaking up have a clear vision of what it will take to make our schools truly safe. They have become the leaders, and all of us - parents, teachers, principals, and politicians - should listen. It’s our duty as educators to support them in their grief, validate their experiences, and amplify their voices.
It’s March. Today it’s nice, but tomorrow it could be winter again. Right now we have the possibility for change, and also the potential for false hope. Recentering public schools in our culture is not inevitable. At this moment, however, our national conversation is focused on the importance of our schools and we have to put forward a vision of the caring, safe, supportive community that our students deserve. This Saturday, March 24th, is the March for Our Lives. People all around the country will be gathering outside to march in support of the students of Parkland and their demands for safe schools. SPFT members and public educators across the country will be among them. We’re all ready for spring.
Annaka Larson is a first grade teacher at Paul and Sheila Wellstone Elementary and has been a member of the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers for nine years