By Jeremy Zwang-Weissman, Los Angeles middle school science and music teacher
Virgil Middle School is the place at which I spend more time than my actual home; it is my home-away-from-home. As a middle school science and music teacher, I spend every single weekday there, from about 7:30 am until at least 5:00 pm, almost entirely with my students.
I teach science during the school day and then coach marathon training (via Students Run L.A.) and drumline after school and two or three weekend days per month. When I’m not with my students, I am constantly thinking and planning about how to help them learn and grow. I believe in them and I know that, with hard work, they can succeed. Nothing gives me more joy than watching my students evolve as people who I know will make remarkable contributions to the world.
But as of Monday, I’m not with them in the classrooms, on the track or in the field because I am on strike alongside over 30,000 other educators in Los Angeles, because the L.A. United School District refuses to show even one percent of the same commitment that I have to the students of Los Angeles.
We’re letting our children grow up thinking that scarcity is the norm. We’re allowing them to believe that, if you get sick in school and there’s no nurse, that’s okay. We are asking them to accept that, if you’re an English-as-a-second-language or special needs student who requires extra time for an assignment and your teacher can’t stay after school because they have to work an additional job to make ends meet, that it’s acceptable to let you down. We’re telling our kids that they’re not a priority.
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As someone who has devoted 10 years to teaching and hopes to continue in this profession, I dream of a district that works with the professionals in the classroom to do what’s best for our students, rather than treating education like a business by seeking to minimize school costs, eliminate student programs and interests and only focus on the bare needs for “maximum efficiency.”
We are striking, because this fight is for the very future of public education.
One of our district’s proposals would allow class sizes in middle and high schools to balloon to 46 students. How are we teachers supposed to provide any individualized attention to our students with classes that large? Another district proposal would reduce funding for after school programs, taking away more student interest groups.
The district has also not yet addressed the need for more guidance counselors and social workers — the sorts of support staff that assist our students with the specific mental health supports they require. The current district ratio of over 900 students to one counselor is simply unacceptable.
These sorts of proposals — which make student learning more challenging — would never be considered acceptable in small school districts with predominantly affluent students. So why would we accept them for the students of Los Angeles?
I didn’t enter this profession to become rich and famous, or to have short days and long vacations; I did it to make a difference in the lives of students. The educators who I work with feel the same.
Last year we saw educators in West Virginia spark walkouts that spread across the nation. We cheered as teachers in Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado, North Carolina and Puerto Rico all rallied and walked out for fair school funding. Years of starving the public schools in these areas led us teachers to the breaking point.
But it’s relatively easy to sit back and offer thoughts and prayers to these other schools around the country. However, our schools in Los Angeles face the same scarcities, and so we’re fighting back too.
This week, as I stood in front of my school to strike in the pouring rain, it was my first time ever on a picket line. I watched as students entered the school that I normally walk into, but I stayed put. It was a bit sad, but I know my fellow educators are beside me and the community has my back. I feel the solidarity.
There are students and parents who joined us on the line, because they know we’re fighting for them, not us. When we marched downtown in a sea of red, banging drums, blowing whistles, and screaming positive chants, the energy was overwhelming. It felt as if the momentum of the whole conflict was being carried on our shoulders.
Together we’ve gone on strike for our students’ future, and for the future of public education in Los Angeles.
I know that many people call teachers selfish and lazy. But you don’t get over 30,000 people to march in dismal weather out of selfishness; you can’t rally this many people behind a single cause if they are lazy.
I don’t think of myself as much of an activist and I certainly never thought I’d be on strike when I decided to become a teacher. However, the quality of the education the district will offer our students is too important to stand in front of my classroom instead of on the street. We will strike to be the voice of those who can’t speak up for themselves. We stand for the future leaders of our society, and of Los Angeles. We demand that district leaders do so as well.
Jeremy Zwang-Weissman is a Los Angeles middle school science and music teacher. He coaches drumline and marathon training after school. He’s a native Angeleno, a product of Los Angeles public schools and a proud member of the United Teachers of Los Angeles.