Denver Public Schools is beginning to look like the nail-biting ninth inning of a baseball game with its quarter-century pattern of three teachers’ strikes—1969, 1994, 2019—and I am anxious, as a former DPS student and current teacher and parent, for our district to stop throwing curve balls at our profession.
I was a junior at Manual High School in ‘94 when I arrived at school and saw my teachers walking the line, holding up signs, and telling me not to go inside. Not knowing what to do, I spent five days, before deciding to leave early each afternoon, in and out of the chaos of auditoriums led by scattered subs, completing pointless worksheets, and witnessing which teachers would cross the picket line.
My teachers were fighting for smaller class sizes, duty-free lunches, more uninterrupted planning time, and a 40-hour work week in addition to a measly 2.15% pay increase. Governor Roy Romer had to intervene in three days of intense negotiations between the Denver Classroom Teachers Association (DCTA) and Denver Public Schools.
In 1969, teachers in Denver struck for 14 days over many of the same issues—better pay, better student services, and improved equity in our schools.
So why are we here, in 2019, still fighting the same fight? Why did the Denver school district threaten my striking teachers with $100/day fines in 1994 and, 25 years later, ask the state to intervene to prevent current teachers from walking the line?
Perhaps, like the head of the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, DPS thinks we are actors on a “political theater” stage. That we are flooding the streets in #Red4Ed shirts, bullhorns in hand, chants memorized, teamsters and firefighters and construction workers and students and parents in support… to win an Oscar?
What has brought me to this stage?
When we were down on our luck in rural America, my mother uprooted us to move to Denver when I was 11. Contrarily, her own parents had ripped her from Denver’s Park Hill Elementary at the same age 25 years prior during the 1960s “white flight” migration to the suburbs. Always burdened by her parents’ blatant racism, my mother told us, “We’re moving straight to Denver, NOT the suburbs, and you girls will learn the value of diversity.”
Unlike my tiny town in upstate New York, DPS offered me a side of society I’d never seen: racial violence in forced-integration hallways, a Chicano Mathletics coach, a Black science teacher, and a set of friends from multiple races, language backgrounds, and family dynamics. Manual High School offered me a spotlight into the world of LGBTQ acceptance and the privilege of the most inspirational teacher anyone could ever imagine.
That teacher, and DPS, are the reasons I became a teacher and the reason I came back to this district after teaching stints elsewhere. And my mother’s fierce attitude about the value of diversity is why my daughter walks with me into Denver South High each day and takes classes alongside refugees and immigrants, students of color, and every religious belief the world offers. Why I thrive on working at one of one of the nation’s most diverse schools with its Newcomer Center, LGBTQ alliance club, Muslim Alliance, Black Student Alliance, Latino Alliance, and staff members whose faces and backgrounds represent the faces and backgrounds of our students.
So why am I, why are DCTA and the majority of Denver’s 4,600 teachers, fighting against our beautifully diverse school district? Because we have been negotiating our master contract for 15 months. Because the voter-approved ProComp pay system, unlike any other district in the state, offers shifting and unpredictable bonuses and pits teachers against each other depending on the “priority” label the district assigns them. Because the reform movement has gripped our city and shut down all but three of the comprehensive high schools I grew up with, charterizing the rest and stripping teachers of public retirement pensions. Because DPS spends millions on administrative bonuses instead of on teachers’ salaries.
Because I could never afford to live in Denver on the salary I earn today.
Because I have 28 students with one to two essays due EACH WEEK in my latest University of Phoenix class, my second job that pays $225 a week on the occasional basis that I am granted a section.
I keep this job to fund the $2000 I’m paying, in addition to doing hundreds of hours of work, to try to obtain National Board Certification, the only possible way for me to get a raise in Denver without investing thousands of dollars on a third degree.
The disheartening reality of what every teacher I know does to survive is that we must jump through every hoop imaginable to make ends meet.
We teach summer school. We do home visits. We coach. We spend our own money on advanced degrees with the hope of improving our instruction and earning mediocre raises.
This is on top of the 50 or more hours a week we work to plan and teach lessons, grade papers, collect data, counsel students in trauma at lunch and after school, and attend meetings, sports events, professional development, and student recruitment events (because we have to sell our schools now).
So, when my state, my “blue” but really purple state, calls us actors on a “political theater” stage, I am at my wit’s end:
“Criticizing the most recent teacher pay bargaining session as ‘political theater,’ the head of the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment urged the Denver school district and its teachers union … to work harder to find common ground” (Chalkbeat).
Was it theatrical that we gave up the tenth evening in as many weeknights to wait for our district to come to the table with an actual proposal rather than a cost-of-living increase already in the budget?
Was it theatrical that young children stood behind the fraudulent superintendent with signs begging her not to deport our teachers after the HR department more or less threatened their right to strike?
Was it theatrical that we have negotiated for 15 months, yes over “philosophy disagreements” because the PHILOSOPHY OF OUR DISTRICT IS TO SHUT DOWN PUBLIC SCHOOLS, TAKE OPPORTUNITIES AWAY FROM STUDENTS OF COLOR, AND GENTRIFY EVERYTHING FROM NEIGHBORHOODS TO CURRICULUM?
What has brought us to this strike?
All the hours. All the years. All the goddamn blood, sweat, and tears that have been put on stage for the world to see: failed negotiations, ignored community voices, and livelihoods on the line.
For political theater of the worst show you will ever wish you didn’t buy a ticket to see.
Your time is up, DPS. Three strikes. You’re out. It’s time for the teachers to earn the respect they deserve, for the students to have equitable access to education with teachers who will stay in Denver, and for the curtain to close on this performance (pay).