For This PPS Teacher, It's More Than Just a Contract

By Don Gavitte of Portland, Oregon. Don is a history, government & philosophy teacher at Grant High School. He is the founder of UPSET (Underfunded Parents, Students & Educators Together) and a Democratic candidate for the House in District 42.

I am not a union building rep, and there are many people who have always been more involved in PAT organizing and advocacy than me. However, I was at the Schnitz for the strike vote, and what I experienced and how I feel about it needs to be explained. For personally, my full-throated approval to strike comes from a place deeper than contract language, displeasing sound bites from PPS, or numbers on a spread sheet. I also believe many teachers feel exactly as I do (feel free to confirm this at a Friday happy hour near any PDX school).

Firstly, there is no way to really spin it. The vast majority of PAT members were in attendance last Wednesday evening and we overwhelming voted to strike with a clear voice. I met a lot of people that night I haven't seen in years - and by the amount of hugging, back slapping, and overall exclamations heard in the lobby, I wasn't alone. In the theater, there were open mikes and a few colleagues spoke passionately about why they would vote no, others spoke with equal passion about why their vote would be the opposite. Most of us just listened and applauded upon agreement. The union leadership obviously had a longer program planned, but it was truncated by chants to cut the speeches and get to the vote.

The main reason I, personally, am willing to strike is not because of any single benefit or money issue. I am willing to strike because I feel I have no other choice. I feel that our profession is being eroded out from under us. I feel that we have to take increasing responsibility for pedagogical outcomes in the face of decreasing professional authority. I constantly hear that the relationship I have with my students is the single most important aspect of my work, but yet it seems that every year there is more interference in how that relationship is fostered and nurtured. This interference comes from state mandates, district mandates, federal suggestions that come with chunks of money (thus, essentially mandates) - I'm not even going to get started with corporate efforts to influence what happens in my classroom. Look! There's Bill Gates, let's all pay attention to what he thinks schools should do, he invented a well-known operating system!

Sarcasm aside, these are the issues at the root of my yelling "yea" to strike. They are why I take such things as transfer policies, the definition of "incompetence" and overall workload stipulations very seriously. If we hold here the floodgates can't open, and our profession can stay intact.

Moreover, the fight PAT has with PPS district leadership is hardly something unique or anomalous. Medford is already on strike. Portland State professors are in tense negotiations, and we all know what happened in Chicago in 2012. As I type this, scores of school districts and unions around the country are in late stage remediation and the issues are the same. As a teacher I feel that my profession and the work I have chosen to dedicate my life to is in jeopardy. I feel that educational leadership doesn't realize how much blood, sweat and tears has gone into keeping schools legitimate in the face of the illegitimate budgets we have faced here in Oregon year after year. It is the very stuff that data can't capture, there is no column to list "Heroic Effort When Nobody was Looking." I feel that educational leadership trusts corporate test and curriculum salespeople more than they do my collection of college pennants and letters I've received from grateful students. If we want our high schools to be more successful in getting kids to college, why don't we just let Susan Bartley come up with the plan? Never heard of her? Well, without any state or district help she pretty much turned things around at Franklin High School in SE Portland by founding and building the Advanced Scholars Program. She is someone who should be making state level decisions, she is a true professional that doesn't wait for someone else to define what 'excellence' is, she is not following a mandated rubric, and she's not alone in Oregon schools.

Ultimately, I can't strike on something like "let me teach, I'm a professional dammit" if you want to help, hire some more of us, contract language doesn't sound like that, but that's how I feel.

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