The Faces of the Teacher Revolt
It’s been called the teacher revolt. Teachers in five states so far have risen up and walked out of their classrooms to protest low pay, cuts to education funding, or changes to their pensions.
In all of these states, individual teachers—some of them in their 20s and most of them with little or no organizing experience—have taken charge of the grassroots movement through social media. Most of the states with teacher activism have right-to-work laws, meaning teachers don’t have to pay dues to a union as a condition of employment. Because of that, the teachers’ unions may have fewer resources and members. Their officials have not always taken the lead in the teacher activism.
Instead, rank-and-file educators are the faces of the movement.
Here are some of their stories:
- Noah Karvelis | Arizona
- Alberto Morejon | Oklahoma
- Nema Brewer | Kentucky
- Emily Comer & Jay O'Neal | West Virginia
- Angela Anderson | Colorado
NOAH KARVELIS | Arizona
In Arizona, a Novice Teacher Takes Charge
Noah Karvelis is 23 and a second-year teacher. He’s also, perhaps, the most recognizable teacher in Arizona right now.
Karvelis, an elementary music teacher in Tolleson, is one of the creators of the Facebook group Arizona Educators United. The group was created as a place for teachers across the state to discuss their goals for public education, and it ballooned into a 54,000-member group devoted to organizing Arizona’s first statewide strike.
“We’re in an education crisis,” Karvelis said, rattling off a list of issues he feels the state is shortchanging educators on: Aging textbooks. Crumbling facilities. Low teacher pay. “We’re not keeping our best teachers in the classroom.”
Teachers in the state went on strike on April 26, demanding higher wages and more education funding. On May 3, the governor signed a budget deal that—while not giving teachers everything they asked for—granted a 20 percent pay raise in three years and restored nearly $400 million in recession-era cuts to schools.
During both of the official press conferences near the start and end of the strike, Karvelis stood beside the Arizona Education Association president, Joe Thomas. The state teachers’ union has encouraged the grassroots nature of the movement, said Karvelis, who just recently joined the union.
“The unions really let us continue to lead and stay out front and make a lot of decisions,” he said, adding that the AEA has offered its “decades and decades of organizing infrastructure. ... It’s a powerful collaboration.”
Karvelis, who moved to Arizona from Illinois two years ago after graduating from college, has never had a formal leadership role before—“Nothing like leading a statewide labor struggle,” he said.
He’s never taken a public speaking class. But at this point, he has spoken in front of tens of thousands at rallies at the state Capitol. He’s become a bona fide celebrity among teachers.
“It’s really fun to see yourself grow into that role. … It’s also weird,” he said. “I was lucky a month ago if I could get my 3rd graders to focus and listen, and now [I’m] walking up and down the Capitol and people are shaking hands and taking selfies with [me].”
ALBERTO MOREJON | Oklahoma
From Facebook to the Oklahoma Statehouse
Alberto Morejon was watching the news of the West Virginia teacher strike from his home in Oklahoma when he decided to make a Facebook page. On it, Sooner State teachers could discuss a possible strike of their own.
A month later, Oklahoma teachers had walked out of their classrooms, spurred on by Morejon’s encouragement.
“I never thought that my group would be the driving force for everything, and I never thought that I’d be one of the leaders of the walkout and have a say in what happens,” he said.
Morejon, 25, posted daily updates on the Facebook group during the walkout. He conducted surveys of the members and used the results to gauge how teachers were feeling about both the legislature’s and the state teachers’ union’s actions. All of that behind-the-scenes work positioned Morejon, who is an 8th grade U.S. history teacher in Stillwater, as a main voice of the movement.
At the Capitol during the walkout, it was hard for him to go from place to place—droves of teachers would yell his name and stop him to ask for a picture or to thank him.
“They’re really looking up to you, and they’re believing what you say, so you have to make sure you have your facts straight ... make sure you’re being transparent and honest,” Morejon said. “Pretty much whatever I told people, they’re going to take it to heart.”
In fact, teachers tended to look to Morejon for updates over the Oklahoma Education Association. While Morejon spoke at the union’s conference announcing the work stoppage, their relationship disintegrated as the walkout went on, he said.
“In my opinion, I don’t think they ever wanted the walkout to happen,” said Morejon, who is not an OEA member. “My group was questioning why certain things were happening [throughout the work stoppage]; we kept them accountable.”
Now that the walkout is over, dozens of teachers have commented on Facebook posts in Morejon’s group, urging him to run for office. He would like to seek election one day—but not yet. He is considering running for the state legislature in two years.
“I’ve had a bunch of people ask me to run for governor. I’m not even old enough,” he said, with a small laugh. “Six more years.”
NEMA BREWER | Kentucky
A Coal Miner’s Daughter Organized Thousands of Kentucky Teachers
Nema Brewer calls herself an “accidental activist.” A multimedia specialist for the Fayette County, Ky., school district, Brewer didn’t have any experience organizing labor movements.
But she comes from a family with a history of fighting for working people—her dad is a retired coal miner.
“My dad striked for 100 days once without pay,” Brewer said. “I know what it takes.”
When Kentucky legislators began debating changes to public pension plans this spring, she started paying attention. Brewer, 44, and a friend started a Facebook group, “Kentucky 120 United,” named after the 120 counties in the state. They recruited public employees (mostly teachers) from each county to be members, and then found “zone leaders” for each of the state’s six congressional districts.
“We knew we were building up to something,” Brewer said, citing her goals as threefold: protect pensions, protect the budget, and campaign to vote legislators out.
After Kentucky lawmakers rushed a bill with pension changes for new teachers through the legislature, Brewer posted on the page that a walkout was on. Hundreds of teachers headed to the Capitol in Frankfort the next day, forcing about 20 districts to close.
“It was pretty amazing, because people told us it couldn’t be done,” she said. “Any time someone tells me that, I’m like, ‘Well, let’s just see.’ I think people really underestimated Kentucky.”
Kentucky teachers stormed the Capitol twice more before the legislative session ended, although one of those protests coincided with spring break, so the impact on schools was limited. Still, teachers came out victorious: Legislators voted to override the governor’s veto of an education budget, increasing funding for public schools.
Unlike West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona, Kentucky teachers never went on a full-blown walkout or strike. They weren’t asking for higher pay—they were fighting to protect what they already had, Brewer said. And the legislative session was already winding down when teachers organized.
“My regret is that we didn’t form sooner,” Brewer said. “We were up against the timeline here.”
Still, she said, the movement has just begun. Now, the focus is on electing pro-education candidates in November. It’s an invigorating feeling now, but Brewer said she was “scared to death” when the teachers first started organizing.
“You never really expect this is going to happen,” she said. “One moment, you’re a design person and kind of anonymous, and the next thing you know, you’re the face of this group.”
Still, she is ready to pull back a little from the day-to-day organizing of the movement, at least for now: “It’s boating season coming up,” said the mother of one.
EMILY COMER & JAY O'NEAL | West Virginia
The Spark That Lit the Wildfire: Organizing West Virginia Teachers
Emily Comer remembers the moment when she realized that teachers in West Virginia might really go on strike. But she had no idea that their action would light a match for teacher activism across the country.
Comer, a high school Spanish teacher in South Charleston, was participating in a rally at the state Capitol when the West Virginia Education Association president Dale Lee referenced the 1990 teachers’ strike, during which protestors shut down schools for 11 days until securing a pay raise.
“He said something along the lines of, ‘We had some success there in 1990,’” Comer recounted. “I looked around, and I saw legislators looking at each other with their eyes wide, and I thought, ‘Oh, wow, this might really happen.’”
The strike did happen, thanks in no small part to the actions of Comer, 27, and Jay O’Neal, 37, who founded a Facebook group for West Virginia teachers. They wanted to create a place for teachers to pay attention to what state legislators were proposing to do to state employees’ health care. (In West Virginia, teachers receive health insurance through a state agency. Policymakers were planning to increase employee premiums.)
“It was more just about engagement, getting more people to pay attention, and it snowballed from there,” Comer said.
O’Neal, a 7th grade English teacher in Charleston, added that West Virginia’s two active teachers’ unions weren’t collaborating. The Facebook page was an attempt to bring teachers from both unions together.
Comer is one of her school’s building representatives to the West Virginia chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. O’Neal is the treasurer for his local affiliate of the West Virginia Education Association. Neither of them had prior organizing experience on such a large scale.
And now, they’re watching teachers in other states take the baton. Still, seeing teachers elsewhere seal victories is a little bittersweet: Teachers in Oklahoma and Arizona have both gotten higher pay raises than West Virginia teachers, who received a 5 percent pay raise.
“There was the sense that maybe we should have asked for more, but we were the first, we didn’t know,” O’Neal said. “We’re learning.”
The next step, Comer and O’Neal say, is to continue to fight for teachers’ health-care coverage. To end the strike, the governor agreed to freeze insurance rate increases for 16 months while he convened a task force to find a solution.
The strike has given teachers a certain amount of leverage, Comer said.
“We realized we [were] not going to get anywhere unless we go out on strike,” Comer said. “But there was a part of me that thought, it’s not going to happen. The fact that it even happened here is really amazing. To see it spread like wildfire across the country is like a dream.”
ANGELA ANDERSON | Colorado
‘We Can Do It, Too’: The Colorado Teacher Walkout
Colorado teachers flooded the state Capitol in April, breaking the streak of red-state teacher activism. They were protesting low wages and education funding cuts, as well as proposed changes to teachers’ retirement benefits.
“There became this momentum from within and from the bottom up,” said Angela Anderson, a teacher in Lakewood who is active in her local affiliate of the Colorado Education Association and on the board of the CEA.
The CEA didn’t plan the protests, she said: The state teachers’ union facilitated the conversation, but the decisionmaking and organizing happened at the local level. Anderson, 44, took an active role in leading her own community through the protest.
Watching teachers in other states plan massive strikes and walkouts emboldened teachers here, she said.
“It was like, well, they’re all doing it, we can do it, too,” Anderson said. “The other thing that was inspiring for teachers is their community was supporting them. It felt like a long time since teachers felt supported for doing this rather than attacked.”
About 30 districts closed their doors on April 27, as thousands of teachers rallied at the Capitol. (A handful of districts, including Anderson’s, canceled classes the day before.)
Anderson, who has been teaching for 19 years, has never held an organizing role before. But she felt like legislators weren’t listening to teachers.
“We live by rules that are made by people who have no experience teaching, and people tend to think, ‘I went to school, so I must understand public education,’” she said.
Now, teachers are waiting to see the results of their activism. On the last day of the legislative session, Colorado lawmakers passed a deal to reform the state’s underfunded pension system. The bipartisan deal, which was opposed by the state teachers’ union, increases contributions from state employees, raises the minimum retirement age for new hires, and reduces the cost-of-living adjustment. Still, Anderson said legislators had taken out some provisions that “would have really hurt teachers.”
Beyond that, Anderson is focused on a November ballot initiative that would increase the corporate tax rate and income taxes for people earning more than $150,000 a year, as well as adjust the school finance formula. If passed, the revenue would boost school funding. Colorado law requires that voters approve any tax increase.
Still, Anderson won’t rule out another mass protest at the Capitol down the road.
“I wouldn’t say it’s off the table,” she said. “If [legislators] do something that’s not OK for teachers and students, we definitely have the energy to go back there again, if that’s what we need to do.”
Vol. 37, Issue 31, Pages 8-9Published in Print: May 16, 2018, as The Faces of the Teacher Revolt: Young, Rookie Organizers