On May 16, substitute teachers converged on the John A. Wilson Building for the 18th time this year in demand of higher wages and benefits. (Sam P.K. Collins/The Washington Informer)
On May 16, substitute teachers converged on the John A. Wilson Building for the 18th time this year in demand of higher wages and benefits. (Sam P.K. Collins/The Washington Informer)

As substitute teachers in the District public school system continue to fight for a substantial wage increase and benefits package, leaders of the movement have also explored the possibility of forming a union that they believe would better position them to realize their goals. 

But forming a union has become an uphill battle of sorts because of what Myrtle Washington described as a lack of support from the Washington Teachers’ Union (WTU) and other organizations with which she and other members of Washington Substitute Teachers United (WSTU) have tried to collaborate. 

In speaking about the progress on forming a union, Washington, president of WSTU, said they’re at “Level Zero.”  

“We would like to join the WTU but they’re going through an election. We don’t have the ‘in’ we thought we had,” Washington said. 

“We recently made contact with WTU, Mary Kay Henry at SEIU and leaders at AFSCME,” she said. “We had an organizer from the American Federation of Teachers working with us but she left her job. We haven’t had help since then. We’ve been working on our own and need a support system for unionizing.” 

In the aftermath of WTU President Elizabeth Davis’ death last year, Jacqueline Pogue Lyons, who would later assume the helm of WTU, espoused support for WSTU. In the months to follow, WTU leadership joined WSTU at rallies and even hosted a rally of their own for substitute teachers. 

Lyons said much of the WTU’s focus has been on strengthening the post-pandemic substitute teacher pipeline and providing substitute teachers the tools needed to advance their fight for better wages. 

When it came to the issue of whether to include substitute teachers in the WTU or help them form a union of their own, Lyons hinted at both parties entering the early stages of a conversation but declined to divulge much about what, if anything, had taken place. 

Meanwhile, WSTU members and supporters once again converged on the John A. Wilson Building in Northwest on Monday where, for the 18th consecutive week, they marched with signs in hand and chanted demands for a $35 per hour wage. 

In their chants, they connected their plight to gentrification and demanded an abolishment of poverty. 

Over the last several months, WSTU has attracted the support of the AFSCME and the Party for Socialism and Liberation. As substitute teachers on the frontlines have told The Informer, they may have also received unwanted attention. 

Just minutes after arriving at the Wilson Building on Monday, Washington and others learned from uniformed officers that they would no longer be able to park alongside Pennsylvania Avenue between 13th and 14th Street, as had been the case since January 10 when the weekly protests started. 

While organizers said they hadn’t determined who imposed that restriction, they speculated that it might be in reaction to the weekly protests. 

Until earlier this month, when substitute teachers experienced a $5 to $10 pay increase, subs in the District’s public schools made $15 per hour. The D.C. government set that amount in 2008. In the years following, substitute teachers have attended D.C. Council hearings, met with elected officials and picketed as part of an attempt to secure a pay increase that better enables them to live comfortably in the District.  

Toward the end of the last calendar year, substitute teachers’ frustrations reached their apex when the DC Public Schools (DCPS) central office issued a call for retirees to return to the classroom. The compensation package included a $4,500 signing bonus for those who agreed to serve 90 consecutive days, along with $300 in daily pay after their first 30 days on the job. 

Amid a systemwide staffing shortage this academic year, substitute teachers have provided support at District public schools. Even so, some have recounted numerous examples of disrespect from both students and staff alike. Others equated their daily responsibilities to babysitting and said they lacked the latitude needed to utilize the formal education and life experiences they’ve accumulated. 

For Lisa Christopher, a substitute teacher of three years, the most gruesome part of the substitute teacher experience centered on the lack of sick days afforded to full-time teachers. On Monday, Christopher, a former DCPS teacher of 35 years, once again marched up and down 14th Street near the Wilson Building with her fellow substitute teachers. 

 Christopher expressed her full support for a substitute teachers union and said she and her colleagues deserve equal treatment within the public school system. 

“A union would protect us against any kind of decisions made against substitute teachers and guarantee us benefits,” Christopher said. “We would become eligible for sick leave and the things that full-time teachers are getting. We teach the content and are asked to do the lesson plans. I see the hard work it takes because of our loyalty to education.”

Sam P.K. Collins

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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