By Jessica Salfia
In 1990 I was 9 years old, and my mom, a single parent, was a day to day sub in Barbour County, West Virginia. We lived in a trailer that was already well past its prime—a tin box that was hot in the summer and cold in the winter, but also where some of the happiest memories of my life take place. However, this time also was one of my Mom’s hardest. She struggled to feed us and provide for us alone, and she made sure that while she was working day to day to get us from pay check to pay check, we thrived. I don’t ever remember wanting anything really. She always made it work.
Then, West Virginia teachers went on strike.
Now my mother, a substitute teacher, not only had no health insurance, but no income. I’m not going to lie, we struggled. But it’s not the struggle or the contention I remember with crystal clarity—it’s the intense pride I remember seeing on my Mom’s face when we’d drive past the picketing teachers outside Philip Barbour High and she’d blast her horn in solidarity. I remember the sign my papaw hung on his rusted out, wooden flatbed farm use truck that said “retired teacher vehicle” that he would drive back and forth in front of the picket lines. It is the pride in every teacher’s face who said of those days in 1990, “We held out until they gave us what we deserved” (which turned out to be a significant pay raise, faculty senates, and training and services needed to do the important work we do).
I am a teacher for many reasons, but I would be remiss If I didn’t acknowledge that watching this unity and this movement in 1990 wasn’t part of what drew me to this profession. I have been a proud West Virginia educator for over 15 years, and I am the daughter and the grand-daughter of West Virginia teachers, West Virginia farmers, and West Virginia coal miners.
Let’s talk about what we deserve now.
Tomorrow, most counties in this state will participate in a work stoppage to protest the ridiculous changes to PEIA and the pitiable raise suggested by the West Virginia Legislation.
There’s a lot of chatter right now about what West Virginia teachers deserve and what we should expect. A lot of folks think we should be happy to get anything at all. And I can certainly appreciate that sentiment, but before we decide what teachers “deserve” let me share what is expected of us.
Every day in my classroom, I have to be the best version of myself. My students and their parents expect me to be engaging, prepared, rested, excited, happy, and an expert in my field. Think about the most important presentation you have ever given–the presentation that your job depended on. I do that six times a day, five days a week.
(my students Skyping with NY Times best-selling author Jay Heinrichs)
My administrators expect instruction to occur bell to bell. Our school and my performance is evaluated by my students’ performance on a test I don’t get to see. I have to prepare students for college, for jobs, for scholarships. I teach them to write literary analysis and resumes. To be empathetic, critical, smart, fair, and professional.
My principals and my community expect me to guide my students to success. And now, in this day and age, I must prepare my students for the threat of an active shooter. I am expected to take a bullet for the children in my classroom while I’m preparing them to be the future leaders of West Virginia.
And I have diligently worked to exceed these expectations.
In 2015 I received an Arch Coal Teacher Achievement Award, in 2016 I was named Berkeley County Teacher of the Year, and now in 2018, I am nominated for a Stephen L. Fisher teaching award. I teach Advanced Placement classes, advise the Spring Mills High Diversity Club, coordinate our homecoming parade, and serve on our school’s Curriculum and Instruction Team, the Berkeley County Diversity Council, and the Berkeley County Schools Teacher Advisory Committee. It is safe to say I have devoted my life to service and to public education in West Virginia.
I am also a wife and a mother of three, but I have treated the hundreds of kids who have passed through my classroom like they were my own. I have fed and clothed my students. I have sat at my kitchen table with my checkbook trying to decide which bills to pay so I can still afford supplies for my classroom. I have spent my Saturdays chaperoning trips to college fairs and organizing fundraisers to support my students’ projects and learning opportunities. I have written hundreds of letters of recommendation for scholarships, colleges, and jobs. I have attended their weddings and baby showers. I have spoken at some of their funerals. I have wiped their tears, held their hands, and shared their joy.
And I do this not because it’s expected, but because it’s what my students deserve, what West Virginia deserves. I believe in what I do as an educator, and I believe that the most valuable resource we have in this state is our young people.
And I still believe in West Virginia.
But now, West Virginia public education is under attack. Currently, we have over 700 teaching vacancies across West Virginia, but instead of working to figure out how to fill those positions and retain the brilliant and hard-working teachers in the state, lawmakers are allowing changes to the Public Employee Insurance Agency (PEIA), the insurance company servicing not just teachers, but all public employees to create skyrocketing premiums and deductibles. The current proposed pay raise will do nothing to combat the new PEIA changes, and in a state in desperate need of highly qualified teachers, many of the educators in this state will actually be facing a pay cut.
Folks, this is certainly not what West Virginia teachers deserve.
I live in a place where I could drive 20 minutes to Washington County, Maryland or Loudon County, Virginia and make $20,000-$25,000 more dollars than I’m making now. Even as I write this, teachers in my county are readying their resumes for surrounding states because of the current legislation.
But I haven’t yet because I still believe in West Virginia.
I believe in public education, and I believe that West Virginia’s schools deserve public educators who are smart and qualified and good at what they do. I believe our students need teachers like me and all the other incredible teachers across this state who don’t just go to work—but who go to their schools to change the lives of our young people because we believe in it. West Virginia teachers take second jobs at Wal-mart, selling Mary Kay, waiting tables, so that we can keep teaching here in West Virginia. Because we love our jobs and our students.
But enough is enough. Legislators have grown to expect us to keep making miracles happen without the support or the pay we need to do this job. Teachers can’t keep being forced to decide between this career and buying groceries. Attracting the kind of educators our students deserve to fill those 700 vacancies will never happen if PEIA is not fixed. And those great teachers all over West Virginia who simply cannot keep doing the job they love in this place they love because they can’t pay their bills? They’re going to leave.
And West Virginia lawmaker, that is on you. What you deserve is blame.
Recently, I read in my local paper a statement from a local delegate that said teachers were threatening to “strike against our students.”
This absolutely laughable comment couldn’t be further from the truth.
Teachers are the only ones who are still fighting for West Virginia and what she deserves. It’s you who stopped believing in us. It’s you who have allowed it to get to this point. Teachers aren’t striking against our students. The very idea of this is so ridiculous and offensive, I had trouble even typing the sentence. Our students are one of the only things keeping many of us in this job.
No, teachers aren’t walking away from our students. We’re walking away from the legislators who stopped caring about public education in this state.
So Lawmakers, before it’s unfixable, fix PEIA. Offer not just teachers, but all public employees the salaries they need, that they deserve. You say that the money isn’t there? That it would take a miracle to figure out how to pay teachers what they deserve? Maybe you should talk to more West Virginia teachers who make miracles happen in their classrooms every day without the adequate resources, support, or pay they need to keep going. Because we know that our students and West Virginia deserves it.
And start believing in West Virginia teachers again. Because we have never stopped believing in our students or in ourselves.
We know what we deserve.
Lawmaker, you should too.