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Opinion: I am a coal miner’s daughter and a West Virginia teacher. Here’s why I’m on strike.

You simply cannot understand the intensity of a labor strike until you actually live through it.

The long travels to the Capitol, cellphone messages by the dozens every minute, the pressure of representing all state employees, not just teachers, who also bear the burden of increased health care costs and low wages, the fear of legal ramifications, the insult of broken promises, the exhaustion from juggling child care for my own kids.

But no one is stopping me from getting to the Capitol today. I have work to do. Because there is also the overwhelming love when the community supports us relentlessly, with donuts, coffee, Burger King crowns, and the exhilaration of making history in a positive way.

Alexis Allen, kindergarten paraprofessional, and Christianna Shaffer, kindergarten teacher, picket in Morgantown, West Virginia.
Photo credit: Dan Gifford.

Since day one, hundreds of teachers stand outside the House doors, chanting continuously for hours. I find it to be one of the most compelling moments of my life. The building is filled with this eerie roar of educators fighting for a voice, united.

#55United, our social media hashtag, includes all of the counties in the state. I stand in solidarity with every single state employee in West Virginia. I know this because the people of West Virginia are proud, loyal and dedicated to this state. West Virginians are a rare breed of some of the most genuine human beings in the world. This is why I chose to live, teach and raise my family here for the past 15 years.

We are in this position because education is not a priority to our government. Education spending has gradually decreased from 50 to 43.7 percent. Positions are being filled by unqualified teachers: a certified physical education teacher is allowed to teach high school chemistry, but might soon give up that job for one he/she is actually qualified for (and with any luck, in Maryland).

There are currently over 700 teaching vacancies in West Virginia. Connect that to the fact that our salaries rank 48th in the nation. Gov. Jim Justice spoke to three town halls across the state on Feb. 26, day three of the strike. He informed us that state leaders do not have the funds for a raise and that it would not get approved by Senate.

Fewer than 24 hours later, the money was promised to us, but with the stipulation that educators get the 5 percent with a $2,000 cap and other state employees would receive a 3 percent raise. We are currently awaiting the Senate to address the 5 percent raise, and just bringing the bill to the table is difficult.

In response to the raise, Senate President Mitch Carmichael has said, “We cannot continue to spend money we do not have or write checks we cannot cash.”

On Feb. 27, it was announced that the strike was over and we were reporting back to the classroom to demonstrate an act of good faith. This was unacceptable to employees because ending a strike on a promise is dangerous. Educators did not want to sell out the remaining state employees by accepting this proposal immediately. The strike end announcement was prematurely stated before proper communications were made with unions. Besides, there are other issues.

First grade teacher Tammy Klemkowsky receiving chocolate thrown out of car windows from retired teachers. Photo credit: Dan Gifford

I am a National Board Certified Teacher. The county and state supported the certification and offered $5,000 supplemental pay. The state even reimbursed me the $1,275 exam costs. West Virginia has a large number of teachers with this prestigious title of mastery educator, in large part because it means an additional $127.00 a month. This makes a big difference when you are living paycheck to paycheck.

The certification allows West Virginia to advertise itself as a state with highly qualified teachers. The reality is a high number of West Virginia teachers are on food stamps.

Workers are on strike not only over pay raises but health care benefits as well. The state-controlled Public Employees Insurance Agency (P.E.I.A.), which regulates health care premiums, is at the root of the problem.

Faculty and staff of Suncrest Elementary School in Morgantown, West Virginia, in a show of solidarity during state’s teacher strike. Photo credit: Christianna Shaffer Olmert

The governor has frozen raises in health care premiums by P.E.I.A. and said he’d create a task force to address the benefits issue, but that doesn’t fix the problem: The raises in salary proposed this week by the state essentially disappear when P.E.I.A changes apply.

Even with a master’s degree plus 45 credits and 15 years of teaching experience, I bring home an estimated $2,200 a month. P.E.I.A, if thawed, will subtract an estimated $300 additional from this, leaving me with $1,900 a month.

I was born, raised, and schooled in Pennsylvania. Twenty years ago, I began my undergraduate degree at Penn State University. My mother, a West Virginia teacher at the time, strongly discouraged me from pursuing the teaching profession because of the financial reality. Graduate school arrived, and teaching was still in my heart. I was fully prepared with the commitment of living a modest life.

I did it simply because kids need someone to care. My God, every educator cares. As a matter of fact, if we didn’t care, we couldn’t do our jobs. These kids are with us all day, all night and all weekend. You don’t see the eyes of our students when they desperately need an adult who cares about them. It’s a gut check. It is humbling. It is why we accept the risks to be a teacher, economically, emotionally and even legally in today’s ugly world.

I am a coal miner’s daughter, like many of us shouting. We have been exposed to the requirements of respect, and our government has seriously underestimated our voices.

The PBS NewsHour’s Teachers’ Lounge blog, written by teachers or school-related staff, gives the public a glimpse into how current events affect life inside schools. Sign up for the PBS NewsHour Education mailer here.

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