When the Denver teachers strike reached its official end, I was already up, dressed and ready to picket for a fourth day. It was Valentine’s Day. My sign read, “Roses are red / Violets are blue / Pay your teachers, DPS / So we can go back to school.”
The strike was called off at about 6:15 a.m. I changed clothes quickly and hurried to get to school.
In part, my decision was driven by my finances. Teachers had a choice that Thursday — report to work or take an unpaid day with an assurance that administrators would not otherwise hold the day off against us. I had budgeted for three strike days (as much as any teacher can really budget for) because I believed in the cause and wanted to show solidarity with my coworkers. To take the unpaid day Thursday would cement another lost day of income.
But my decision was also inspired by what had happened during the strike itself. The strike had a more than 89 percent turnout at my school, higher than the district average of 75 percent. Many of my colleagues marched and cheered in unison in front of the school, and the experience became the best team-building of any activity or meeting we experienced this whole year. The strike gave us a chance to get to know each other, to find out how things are going across grade levels and content areas, to sympathize and empathize with one another’s struggles in and outside the classroom, and to be human with each other.
While there were some fun moments, the choice to strike was not an easy decision. We did not want to strike. We wanted to be in our classrooms with our students. We wanted to teach. And we were well aware of the chaos in our school building a few hundred feet from where we stood.
The kids sat at tables in the gymnasium, cafeteria, and auditorium. They filled out packets, played card games, and FaceTimed friends whose parents kept them home. Some of the kids expressed disappointment when we returned because they would no longer receive two recesses per day or be able to curl up on the floor and sleep.
One of my eighth-graders said that one of the good things about the strike was getting to know her classmates, especially students she did not hang out with before the strike happened. She formed friendships in hardship.
So did we.
I hoped that the transition back to work would mark a change at my school, after an intensely emotional and bonding week for teachers. But the reality fell short.
On that Thursday, many DPS schools celebrated the return of their teachers with songs, dances, debriefing meetings, healing conversations, and a unified entrance into the building. We saw this in the news. There were fantastic displays of school spirit, a common mission, and a collective coming together to support teachers and administrators alike.
I wish I could say my school was one of those schools.
We walked into the gym and divvied up the students by grade level. We were told to set our own schedules for the day. It was an essentially a “figure it out, we’re off the clock” mentality from the administrators. We had no lesson plans, no assistance (sans one very generous special education teacher who agreed to hang out in my classroom for all of those hours), and no schedule.
I held 29 seventh-grade students in my classroom for two and a half hours, followed by a second group of 28 seventh-graders for the next two and a half hours (with a 30-minute lunch break). No seventh-grader should be in a classroom for two and a half hours. Ever.
In my book — and in the students’ perspective — this was Strike Day 4, based on the chaotic nature of the day. The only difference? There were a few more recognizable adults around.
By Friday, most teachers were back in the classroom and the schedule returned to its normal operating hours. We rotated through all seven periods of the day, something I never thought to be grateful for. I got to see all of my students in sixth, seventh, and eighth grade, and had elementary kids stop by after school for hugs and Jolly Ranchers, a Friday tradition in my room.
Last week, we continued to work back in the direction of normal, but an unsettled feeling continued. No healing happened. No space was given to conversations that should happen when a return-to-work process occurs. At a 10-minute stand-up meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 19, our administrators told us to reach out to the Employee Assistance Program through HR if we were having a hard time.
Our attempt at a unifying staff breakfast was only supported by the teachers who were on strike, and the weekly bulletin that first Friday back highlighted the teachers and support staff who stayed inside.
My school building is not an example of what happened across all of DPS. But it is an example that I think needs to be shared as we all work to recover from the strike.
I teach my students to use their voices to advocate for what they believe in, and I would be failing to live out my pedagogy if I did not do the same.
In my opinion, the Denver teacher strike was about far more than compensation. It was a chance to raise awareness of how exhausted we are in body, mind, and spirit, and how undervalued our voices are. Teachers came together in the strike to stand up for their profession and to say, collectively, “We are here. We are important. And we are tired of being walked all over.”
In addition to teacher pay, let’s talk about how teachers are treated. Let’s honor their experiences and expertise. Let’s empower them to advocate for change within their school buildings. Let’s give them a voice at the table, not just when they are on strike, but every single day.
Autumn Jones is a teacher at Marie L. Greenwood Academy, a 1st-8th grade school in Denver Public Schools.