I began teaching in 1984, a year after the publication of “A Nation At Risk,” which asserted that our nation’s schools were failing. Looking back, I can see that at the tender age of 22, I had walked onto a battlefield just before the fight. Would I have done it anyway, had I known then that I was enlisting in a long battle, not just a small war? Yes, I would.
The first half of my career I was only peripherally aware of politicians vilifying educators’ unions and decrying low standards in schools. But I taught at Columbine High School, in a tight-knit Colorado community where students had high college acceptance rates and loved their teachers. Nothing bad could touch us.
Until it did. It was the 1998-99 academic year.
First, our Gov. Bill Owens (following the game plan of his good friend Texas Gov. George W. Bush) pushed for high-stakes standardized testing statewide. Those test results would eventually hold teachers accountable for student achievement. Teachers pushed back, fearing the change would divert critical education dollars into the coffers of big publishing companies and restrict teachers to test-driven curricula. Colorado’s political leaders assured the public that educators’ concerns were unfounded. But teachers turned out to be right. A 60-hour-a-week hard but joyful job, became one of increasing stress.
Then, on April 20, 1999, stress turned to trauma. Two of our students murdered 12 classmates and a teacher before turning their guns on themselves. The battlefield was not just in politics, but also, horrifically, now in the classroom.
It seems like all of America is in the midst of a sea change."
The stress and the trauma we faced then sounds much too similar to the stress and trauma educators face now. When the same horror that befell Columbine struck Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., earlier this year, students across America took to podiums, tipping the nation toward what felt like real action in gun-safety legislation. Columbine students pushed for common-sense gun regulation in 1999, but there were no social-media platforms that offered a national stage. There was no tinder for the fire.
Many things have changed since then. My own activist journey began in 2013, when my county elected a school board majority with a privatization agenda. My students’ public education was in imminent danger, so I knocked on hundreds of doors, met with the superintendent, and attended school board meetings while grading papers on my lap.
Though most of my colleagues expressed concerns about the board, many refused to take action. Between 50- and 60-hour work weeks, fear of retribution from principals, and the desire to simply stay out of politics, it was hard to build momentum.
Then the board majority stated the Advanced Placement U.S. history curriculum should focus on only the positive aspects of our nation’s history. Thousands of our students who didn’t want a sanitized education walked out in protest, strengthening the impact of teachers’ voices. Many educators who had formerly held back were inspired to get involved. Voters listened, replacing the entire board majority with board members who respected public education.
Why bring up this example from years ago? Because it shows that when students across the country publicly stand up for themselves, their actions have the power to galvanize educators and force politicians to open their ears. When reforms directly attack our students, our profession, and the institution of public education, our students embolden us.
Now we’re seeing something similar on a wider scale. It seems like all of America is in the midst of a sea change—what some are calling an “education spring.” After years of state leaders balancing education budgets through teacher paychecks, protests in many states are pushing for higher salaries and more funding. Voters are grasping the unfairness of making teachers solely accountable for all of the variables that might have an impact on a child’s test scores.
Many of the reasons educators have tended to avoid activism, including busy lives, fear of retribution, and an aversion to political discord, remain. But there seems to be an increasing awareness that, fair or not, we’ve all been drafted. If our students can speak out, we can, too.
On March 14, I was a guest speaker at the local March for Our Lives rally for stricter gun laws. I spoke again locally at our Vote for Our Lives rally in April, the day before the 19th anniversary of our school’s shooting, with students from Columbine and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High Schools. And in recent weeks, I donned a red shirt alongside my colleagues as we fought for more education funding at the state capitol in Colorado.
Though I just turned in my retirement papers, my activism for education will continue. While it may have been a long time in the works, our students deserve nothing less.
A version of this article appeared in the May 16, 2018 edition of Education Week as I’m a Veteran Teacher. Here’s Why ‘Education Spring’ Has Come to America