Teachers Came Together to Strike. What Will Happen Next?
After a historic year in which scores of teachers walked out of their classrooms to protest low pay and lack of education funding, and many ran for political office, education organizers are asking: Where do we go from here?
A half-dozen statewide teacher walkouts occurred last spring, with Facebook a driving force behind them. Rather than the teachers' unions taking charge, those walkouts were primarily grassroots-driven, with tens of thousands of teachers organizing on social media.
But experts say social media is a tenuous connector for long-term organizing, and now that the strikes are over and the midterm elections have passed, organizers will have to find new ways to sustain the energy of fired-up teachers. For the most part, experts say, this is uncharted territory.
"The question for leadership is finding a way to build on the success" of the walkouts, said Mark Warren, a professor of public policy and public affairs at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
Organizers also have to regroup after a grueling election season in which nearly 180 current teachers ran for state office, and just 43 won, according to an Education Week analysis. Education was a key issue up and down the ballot in states that experienced walkouts. While teachers there scored some victories, they also fell short in several important races—including the gubernatorial races in Arizona and Oklahoma, where the teacher-backed candidates lost.
Now, organizers are considering the next steps for their Facebook groups, to which thousands of teachers still belong.
In Oklahoma, the name of the main grassroots group is still "Oklahoma Teacher Walkout—The Time Is Now!" The Facebook group was started by 26-year-old middle school teacher Alberto Morejon last spring to organize teachers as they discussed walking out of their classrooms in protest of a decade of stagnant wages and cuts to school funding. During the nine days of school closures in April, the Facebook page was a place for teachers to share information. Afterwards, teachers flocked there to share recommendations for pro-education midterm candidates and discuss campaign issues leading up to the election.
Five days after the election, Morejon posted his vision for the group going forward, urging the 75,000 members to keep up the energy and engagement.
"[This group] will continue to be a place where educators can unite, … discuss issues, … [and] get reliable information," he wrote. "Overall, the movement will continue."
He plans to mark the new chapter of the Facebook group with a name change on Jan. 1: "Oklahoma Teachers—The Time Is Now."
"Hopefully, I don't ever have to change the name back to 'Oklahoma Teacher Walkout,'" Morejon said with a laugh. "A big thing about the group going forward [will be to] hold legislators accountable."
Creating Systemic Change
While protests have been organized on social media before—most notably in the Arab Spring—it's still a relatively new tactic. There's no blueprint for sustaining a movement on Facebook, experts say.
"There's a question about if the social-media [based] organizations are capable of keeping people connected over a long period of time as opposed to face-to-face relationships," said Warren, who studies community organizing and education reform.
Already, teacher organizers in North Carolina have learned that "likes" on Facebook and Twitter do not necessarily translate into a commitment to doing the time-intensive work of lobbying for political change, said Angie Scioli, a social studies teacher and the founder of the grassroots group Red4EdNC.
"If teachers really want systemic change to happen, they're going to have to commit to traditional organizing," she said. "Wearing red for ed. is not going to change a law."
On May 16, thousands of teachers from across North Carolina took a personal day and went to the state Capitol in Raleigh to protest against low pay and poorly funded schools. Schools were forced to close. But it was a short-term labor action, Scioli said.
"That momentum could be sustained for a day—everyone could buy the shirt, they could take the pictures and say they're there and feel energized by that," she said. "It might have awakened some of us to the potential [of collective action], but it didn't build structural systems capable of sustaining that kind of momentum."
Afterwards, Red4EdNC began trying to capitalize on the momentum, issuing a "declaration in defense of North Carolina's public schoolchildren," which called for per-pupil funding and teacher salaries to be brought back up to pre-Recession levels, adjusted for inflation.
In the fall, organizers held seven press conferences across the state to discuss their demands—but relatively few teachers showed up. Organizers had hoped that each school would start a faculty Facebook page, where teachers could come together—but only 31 schools did so, out of more than 2,500 across the state.
Scioli said she realized that organizers would have to go back to the basics: one-on-one meetings with teachers in their school buildings. It's not going to be a "Facebook-fueled revolution," she said.
She also noted that for some teachers, some of their complaints that led them to walk out might have been satisfied by the 6.5 percent average teacher pay raise that was passed by the Republican-controlled legislature this summer.
"That's really what I'm asking in these one-on-one meetings," Scioli said. "Are you satisfied, and if you're not, are you going to stick around long enough to want to fight?"
In Arizona, Oklahoma, and West Virginia, teachers were out of the classrooms for extended periods of time in the spring. While they came up short with some of their demands, teachers in each state won some important victories.
"When you're involved in something like that, people often find they have a voice they didn't realize they had [and] they can make that voice heard in ways they didn't know they could," said Marshall Ganz, a senior lecturer in public policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. "That doesn't go away. You don't put the genie back in the bottle."
The question, Ganz said, is how organizers will take advantage of that energy, and that's still to be determined.
In Arizona, a week after the election, teacher organizers began soliciting next steps for the movement from the 52,000 members in the Facebook group, "Arizona Educators United." The post quickly accumulated dozens of comments, with teachers listing their thoughts and legislative demands. While members posted different priorities, most demands centered on continued pay raises for all educators, including support staff, and increases to school funding.
"Everyone is super passionate," said Rebecca Garelli, a 6th grade science teacher in Phoenix and the lead organizer for Arizona Educators United. "A lot of people keep saying, 'We're going to be Red for Ed until our demands are met.' "
'We're Not Going Away'
The Nov. 6 election had provided an easy transition from the walkout, Garelli said, since fired-up educators were eager to support candidates who ran on a platform to increase school funding. The Arizona Facebook group became a place where teachers shared news articles of the campaigns and discussed how the races were shaping up.
Many of those candidates lost, including five of the six current teachers who ran in the general. But educators cheered the results of other races, including former teacher Kathy Hoffman becoming Arizona's next schools chief.
Now, Garelli said, she thinks the group will be an avenue to "continue to activate and organize people around holding our elected officials accountable." But she's not sure what exactly the community will look like long term.
"I think a lot of people will still be engaged," she said. "It's going to pivot and look a little different."
In Oklahoma, too, teachers are still paying attention to legislative action, Morejon said, which he attributed partially to social media. The next step, he said, will be to maintain a teacher presence at the state Capitol.
"I'm going to try to really encourage teachers: 'If you went to the walkout, you've got to go to the Capitol at least one time during the session,'" he said. "[We're] letting legislators know we're not going away."
And teacher organizing is continuing to spread: Educators in Virginia are planning a one-day rally at the state Capitol on Jan. 28, a Monday.
Vol. 38, Issue 16, Pages 1, 9Published in Print: December 12, 2018, as Teachers Came Together to Strike. What Will Happen Next?