In response to the release of West Virginia’s Voice” and reactions to it, WVCTE Co-Director Karla Hilliard shares her thoughts on addressing addiction and offering hope to our students. 

Recently in an interview I was asked, “What do you believe is a major problem facing public education?” 

We’ve gone over this question pretty well in West Virginia, haven’t we? 

Teachers have fought for competitive salaries and fully funded health care, advocated for student mental health services, smaller class sizes, and content specific professional development. And currently, teachers are fighting back against the push for school privatization the special interest group propaganda.

Teachers know there is work to do. When you work in public education, there is always work to do. 

In 2015, my colleague Jessica Salfia and I responded to ongoing conversations about the need for current content-specific professional development by taking on the job of rebuilding the WV Council of Teachers of English, a state affiliate of the National Council of Teachers of English

WVCTE provides relevant and meaningful professional learning to WV English Language Arts teachers, most recently hosting a statewide conference in partnership with National Writing Project at WVU. We are not paid for this work. We do the work because the work is needed.

Recently, the WV Department of Education released “West Virginia’s Voice”, a report summarizing education forums from around the state. One item in the list of findings is the critical need to “address the consequences of poverty and the opioid crisis on West Virginia’s children.” 

And addressing the opioid crisis in our schools cannot and should not be ignored. 

In December, I lost my younger brother to an overdose, an unfathomable and devastating loss to my family. Because I am a West Virginian and a West Virginia teacher, the only thing I knew to do was fight. 

Since then, with the help of my brother’s partner and an old friend who is active in the recovery community after experiencing her own horrific loss of a loved one, I have founded an organization and campaign called More Than Addiction, which seeks to humanize addiction, educate our communities, and spark compassion for those suffering in the grips of addiction. 

We tell the stories of anyone impacted by drug addiction, connect folks to information and resources, and assemble teams to speak and spread awareness in local schools. The response has been overwhelming, because this work, too, is needed. 

And I can’t help but wonder, how might we educate our children, impact change, and offer hope if we did so intentionally and strategically. 

What would happen if our lawmakers invited classroom teachers, the true experts in education to the legislative table? What would classrooms look like if every teacher in West Virginia had the time, access, and funding for the best professional development in their discipline? What would be the depth of impact if every school had full time counselors, wraparound and mental health services to adequately care for the emotional needs of our children? What if we had a centralized network of advocates, health care professionals, and people in recovery educating our students without demoralizing their families and communities? 

What if we could offer West Virginia’s young people and their families more than “choice”? 

What if we offered them what they truly need to thrive and be empowered? Fully funded schools, adequate mental health support, community based learning, effective drug awareness education, and educators who have a voice that is heard in Charleston.   

For me, the answer to my interview question was simple: The opioid crisis and education are inextricably linked, and we must challenge, care for, serve, and inspire our young people. 

And we must diligently and earnestly address the opioid crisis. We must educate and we must offer our students hope. 

I am doing my part to strengthen classrooms and combat this drug crisis that takes and traumatizes. The question is: in the upcoming special session on education, will our lawmakers do theirs?

Karla Hilliard teaches AP Literature and English 11 Honors in Berkeley County. She is the Co-Director and President Elect of WVCTE and a Co-Founder of More Than Addiction.

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