Reflections of an Oakland Unified School District teacher on strike – Day 3

Magdaline Armstrong (right), a first-grade teacher, and her 8-year-old daughter, Nilaya, picket outside Futures Elementary School in Oakland. – Photo: Rosa Furneaux, Mother Jones

by Taiwo Kujichagulia-Seitu

“So what is it that teachers want? Is this just for more pay?”

I spoke with a frustrated parent who came to the EOYDC (East Oakland Youth Development Center, which is hosting a solidarity school site during the strike) today to see what was going on. A couple of her friends enrolled their children in the solidarity school and she was trying to determine whether or not she would need to do the same.”

“No. It’s not just pay. It’s smaller class sizes, more supports. I’ve had students on a year long wait list to speak with a counselor. I’ve taught classes with 54 students in a room designed for 28 students. It’s crazy.”

“I mean, but the district doesn’t have any money, right?”

This is the sad sob story that OUSD keeps pushing out to the media. OUSD claims to be broke. Yet, it ran ads to hire subs to teach during the strike at a rate of $300 per day. Certificated full time teachers do not even make $300 a day.

“Don’t believe anything the district tells you. OUSD wants people to believe it doesn’t have any money when it had a $30,000,000 surplus at the end of last school year under the budget line item ‘books and supplies’.”

The shocked look on the parent’s face said it all. OUSD doesn’t have a money problem. It has a credibility problem.

“The district is sitting on $30,000,000 and there are times teachers don’t even have paper and toner for the printers. We don’t have paper towels in the staff lounge. Classrooms don’t have textbooks.” I could have said more, but had to stop to tell a new student that they were not allowed to roam the hallways.

“The district is sitting on $30,000,000 and there are times teachers don’t even have paper and toner for the printers. We don’t have paper towels in the staff lounge. Classrooms don’t have textbooks.”

“So, when will the strike be over?” That is the million dollar, or $30,000,000, question.

“When the district decides to stop being jerks and offer a contract that makes sense.”

We spoke a little longer. She will probably be back tomorrow, with children in tow, as will several other frustrated parents who were hoping the strike would be over today.

As frustrated as parents are, teachers are more so. The mainstream media coverage of the strike paints teachers as irrational people fighting a losing battle against a broke school district.

The truth of the matter, however, is that OUSD (Oakland Unified School District) spends considerably more than other districts on administrators and consultants – who never work directly with students – and overwhelm, overwork and underpay the people working directly with the students, i.e. teachers, teachers’ aides, nurses, counselors, food service workers and so on.

OUSD has a teacher retention crisis. What exactly does that mean? Imagine your caregivers growing up changing every 3 to 9 months. Every few months, you would have a different person responsible for your upbringing. Imagine how unstable your homelife would be. That instability is what’s currently happening in OUSD schools.

Seasoned educators, in large part, are unwilling to come teach in Oakland. For experienced teachers, teaching in OUSD means taking a pay cut and working without the support and resources they need. As a result, many OUSD teachers are new, inexperienced teachers.

For experienced teachers, teaching in OUSD means taking a pay cut …
Most new teachers are working without access to the basic resources they need to do their jobs well, in ridiculously large classes, with little or no support. Overwhelmed and underpaid teachers quit to go work in districts with higher pay and less stress. Students are lucky to get teachers who stay for an entire school year.

New, inexperienced teachers can thrive under the right conditions. However, most new teachers are working without access to the basic resources they need to do their jobs well, in ridiculously large classes, with little or no support. It is sink or swim, without a financial life jacket to keep teachers’ heads above water.

What does this mean for students? Overwhelmed and underpaid teachers quit to go work in districts with higher pay and less stress. As a result, students are taught by teachers in a revolving door.

Students are lucky to get teachers who stay for an entire school year. Some teachers leave halfway through. All of this means that schools are scrambling, year after year, to maintain a sense of consistency, and students, year after year, give new teachers a hard time because they doubt that the teacher will stick around.

This teacher, though, this teacher right here is an experienced teacher / product of OUSD / parent of two OUSD students / child and grandchild of OUSD teachers / OUSD after-school program provider / community activist / truth teller / thorn in the side; and there are currently a few thousand more thorns in OUSD’s side called teachers.

Tell the truth and shame the devil. We are here to tell the truth about OUSD, that it plans to close 24 schools and cut program funding for:

African American, Latino and Asian achievement

Restorative justice

Mental health and wellness

College and career

This is OUSD. OUSD doesn’t have a budget problem. It has an honor and accountability problem and our job as teachers is to educate the public about it. If you want to know the truth about OUSD, do like this parent did and ask a teacher. We will gladly answer all of your questions or point you to someone who can. We’ve got lots of practice.

Contact Oakland-teacher-on-strike Taiwo Kujichagulia at taiwoseitu@gmail.com.

Teachers and students rally in downtown Oakland on Day 3 of the Oakland Teachers Strike. – Video: Matthew Levy