What a glorious thing, watching West Virginia teachers, most of them women, shut down the state’s public schools for nearly two weeks to force their elected officials to give them the 5 percent raise they surely deserve.
On the brink of victory, the crowd of teachers gathered in the West Virginia Capitol started singing the state anthem. Seeing so many people, of such a mix of ages and colors, swaying together as they belt out John Denver’s 1971 hit “Take Me Home, Country Roads” can make you believe we really are making progress in this country.
In addition to the teachers, many of the unsung heroes in this nine-day strike were the people most immediately affected by it: parents.
Students, of course, were missing classroom time, but working parents, particularly those with younger children, had to scramble to cobble together child care. Still, neither state nor national media coverage offered up much in the way of complaining by parents. Even parents of high school seniors, with so much to do in so little time, seemed mostly to take it in stride.
Why is that? As I quickly learned, talk to a hundred parents and you’ll hear a hundred stories — but a theme of support threads through them. Lisa Weihman, a mother of two high schoolers in Morgantown, echoed the opinions of so many.
“I haven’t met a single parent, even on community boards, who isn’t mostly supporting the teachers,” Weihman told me in a phone interview Tuesday. “I think we all know they deserve better.”
Weihman is the granddaughter of coal miners on both sides of her family and an associate professor of English at West Virginia University. Faculty members are covered by the same state employee insurance plan, but they are nonunion, so their salaries will not change with the teachers’ victory. Nevertheless, Weihman was rooting for the teachers.
“Everyone knows a teacher, and most of us know a teacher who is working a second or third job, which is most of them.” Many of her former students are teachers, too. “I think we all know they deserve better. And better pay keeps better teachers in the state.”
The National Education Association ranks the average salaries for teachers for all 50 states and Washington, D.C. In 2016, West Virginia ranked 48th — at $45,622 — which was 0.4 percent less than it was in 2015. The only states that rank lower are Oklahoma, South Dakota and Mississippi.
Teachers in West Virginia don’t have to travel far to find better pay. Of its neighboring states, Pennsylvania ranked 10th; Ohio, 21st; Kentucky, 26th; and Virginia, 30th.
Weihman said the teachers are a politically diverse group, which helped their cause. “You couldn’t demonize them as liberals versus right-wingers, Republicans versus Democrats. The attitude was, ‘No, this is about our kids.’”
Some Republican leaders threatened to cut Medicaid to pay for the teachers’ raises. That’s what an attempt to demonize teachers looks like. If Weihman’s response is an indication, the takeaway by the constituents of West Virginia is much different.
“We’ve always been told [the teachers] have so little power, that they were more an association than a union,” she said. “That they could act like a real union and be a real union is inspiring. This is how collective bargaining works.”
There’s a lesson there for workers everywhere in America, and it’s the same one kids like me learned growing up in union households. As I watched West Virginia behold the power of its teachers and the communities that supported them, I heard the voice of my father: For people like us, our strength is in our numbers, and our power comes from standing together.
On Wednesday, Weihman followed up our interview with an email. The strike, she wrote, “demonstrated how incredibly generous West Virginians can be in a crisis. … So many people pitched in to support both the teachers on the picket lines and also the students who were in danger of not being fed due to the schools being closed. There are far too many food insecure families in this state, and watching so many people come together with the striking teachers to help feed those kids was inspiring. …
“Challenging times brought out the best in our teachers and in just about everyone in the state. Friends who could watch other people’s children were posting on Facebook that they were available for child care; people were watching other people’s children while they taught classes at WVU. Everyone pitched in. I hope we’re able to keep that unity of spirit.”
Your hope, Professor Weihman, is my prayer.