Modeling Democracy

In West Virginia, many teachers are frustrated with the state legislature's attitude toward public education. By taking collective action with a statewide strike, these teachers model for students how to stand up and speak out for their rights.
Photo by Chris Dorst/Associated Press

For the past week, West Virginia has faced a statewide teacher strike unprecedented in Mountain State history. Along with school service personnel, teachers walked out of schools in response to low pay and cuts in health insurance coverage.

Many in the state legislature and in communities across the state opposed the strike. Under West Virginia law, a strike is an illegal action, and teachers are breaking the law

Some may wonder what kind of example this sets for our students. As a young teacher who has chosen to stay in West Virginia despite the poor pay, the only thing that matters to me is this: Students are watching us. Because they are watching us, we need to stand up for our rights—so they'll learn to stand up for theirs. 

During the strike, thousands of teachers have lined the steps of our state Capitol, holding signs that read, "I teach students to stand up for their rights—this is my real-life example." In communities across the state, teachers have stood on sidewalks with similar signs, chanting phrases like "We are united!" and "Show me what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!"

I've stood on those picket lines as cars passed and honked their support, with an occasional driver shouting, "Get back to work!"

I've stood on those picket lines as the state's attorney general threatened legal action, perhaps an injunction to force us back to work.

I've stood on those picket lines next to my colleagues and next to some of my own students who held signs and joined in with the chants, none of us knowing just how long the strike—or our struggle—may last.

Across the state, teachers have called lawmakers, held candlelight vigils and attended town halls to make their voices heard, to show their students and the nation what democracy looks like.

At one recent town hall with West Virginia's governor, it was ultimately a student who made the most progress for the cause. Gideon Titus-Glover, a sixth-grader, spoke up to tell Governor Jim Justice, "If you put money in schools, you're making smart people. And if you have smart people, then you can make more smart investments." Governor Justice struck a deal with state union leaders after recognizing the truth of Gideon's remarks. "Well, he's right, he's right," the governor said. 

So what kind of example are West Virginia teachers setting for our students? What lessons are we teaching them?

If Gideon is any indication, if the young people who stood by me on picket lines are any indication, then our students are gaining a firsthand lesson in democracy. We're showing our students the power of unity and the power of nonviolent, collective action. And we're showing them the importance of speaking out against unfair treatment and injustice.

The best educators lead by example. West Virginia's students will long remember the example set by their teachers with this historic strike. Gideon pointed out the link between the financial support schools receive and the quality of instruction they provide. But students don't just learn in the classroom, and good citizens are more than just smart. By modeling action and protest, we're instilling in our students the thirst for justice and fairness that makes good citizens.

I'm excited for the next generation, when students across this state may be teachers themselves, standing up for the same values and passing down the same lessons my generation is teaching them now.

Webb is a West Virginia social studies teacher and president of the Upshur County chapter of AFT-WV.

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