I'm very proud of this op-ed by Juliana Perdue, Manar Hesino and Jazmine Aliff, students with the American Friends Service Committee’s youth leadership program at Sherman High School in Boone County. They were all over the strike and even organized a huge youth-led march in support of teachers at the capitol.
Coretta Scott King once said: “Freedom and justice cannot be parceled out in pieces to suit political convenience. I don’t believe you can stand for freedom for one group of people and deny it to others.”
During this year’s legislative session, we’ve seen the truth of this in action. Teachers gave West Virginia students a live civics lesson in genuine democracy and peaceful protesting that yielded actual results.
Before the strike, our teachers already set an amazing example for us of what it looks like to truly care about your job and your community.
They don’t just spend eight hours a day, five days a week on students. They stay after school to tutor us, take time out of their weekends to grade our work and help us improve.
They act as counselors for kids who can’t always access one, buy classroom supplies with their own money. They work in overcrowded classrooms and in schools with record numbers of unfilled teaching positions. They hold summer school for students who were held back, help struggling seniors graduate and give us college and life advice.
Some legislators appear to expect teachers to do all of this while being paid less than their colleagues in 48 other states. This explains why many have left West Virginia for more favorable working conditions elsewhere.
Some legislators who opposed the strike cited kids going hungry while not in school as a reason to shut it down. They said that it was for the sake of the children, but then they opposed the pay raise and fixing instead of freezing PEIA, which directly affects these same kids.
As students, we know that the decision to go on strike was not taken lightly. Our teachers aren’t selfish. They were the first people to think of the strike’s effect on their students. There was much debate and worry that the school staff expressed for us.
But while we weren’t in school, we saw organizations, church programs, teachers, school staff and community members step up to feed and care for children. They packed food bags for those who needed it, checked in on families and continued to make lessons plans and send homework to us.
On the other hand, the legislators who opposed the pay raise and health insurance funding set a different example for us.
They showed through their actions that teachers, and therefore students, are not a priority. They set a bad example through mean tactics and name-calling. We’ve heard all sorts of disdainful comments about teachers lately:
*Calling them “dumb bunnies.”
*Suggesting “they should get a second job” rather than a well-deserved pay raise.
*Insinuating that they don’t need a raise if they’ve been helping take care of kids’ needs during the strike.
*Bragging about “a pretty cushy life” to a group of teachers.
This sets an infantile example for students and suggests that this is an acceptable way to deal with serious, adult problems.
This is the opposite of what we learn in school.
Students supported the teachers during the strike because they dedicate their whole lives to us. They have the most important job, and they stand up for us. Money isn’t what motivates them, it’s the love for what they do.
This is why we don’t mind sacrificing our breaks because in the long run we know that we did what’s right for the teachers, other public employees and the students.
Watching all of our teachers, school service workers, fellow students and community members come together has made a fiercely positive impact on our likelihood of staying or coming back to live in West Virginia after school.
It has given us more hope for the future of the state. It’s easier to see ourselves staying here and calling this place our home.
To our elected officials: As future voters and leaders in this state, we see the value in our teachers and service personnel and education system as a whole, and hope that you will consider this going into the next election.
Do not doubt us because of our young age, but instead consider the power we have.
See us as a resource that should be invested in, not as a line item that can be cut without consequences.
We are paying attention to your words and actions, and we know what side is the right one to be on.
Again in the words of Coretta Scott King: “Struggle is a never ending process. Freedom is never really won, you earn it and win it in every generation.”
We believe that this session has shown that West Virginians are willing to earn their freedom — freedom to learn in a safe environment, to earn a living with one job, to have affordable healthcare.
We hope that voter turnout in upcoming elections shows this, too.