It’s not easy being a teacher or a student today, with so much going on in and outside the classroom. There are dehumanizing attacks on the teaching profession, disrespect for educators’ hard work and a refusal to adequately fund public schools. Numerous districts around the country are dealing with disgraceful book bans and prohibitions on teaching honest history—both of which limit the robust and truthful education every child needs to deal with the real world. And students are still coping with the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, including learning loss and loss of family members.
One of the biggest battles we need to overcome now in the District of Columbia Public Schools is the disturbing spike in school violence—by students against peers and by students against teachers. DCPS is seeing an increase in dangerous and frightening episodes that are affecting the physical and mental well-being of students and educators alike. Teachers say the high number of incidents has made them feel anxious and frightened and caused them to consider leaving the teaching profession. This would be a tragedy for both teachers and students.
Doing nothing isn’t a choice that teachers can make. We see the impact on students in the classroom every day, and we must choose a different path. The Washington Teachers’ Union will be starting contract talks with DCPS this fall. We are laser-focused on solving problems and improving learning conditions so that teachers can give students the supports they need. Teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions, and the WTU views a contract as an opportunity to make meaningful, necessary investments in D.C.’s schools that benefit students, families and teachers.
Many of our core issues are related to safety, a serious problem that cannot be ignored. These issues must be addressed immediately and with appropriate measures that will make a difference. The safety-related issues we want addressed at the table include smaller class sizes; effective emergency protocols to give DCPS the capacity to prevent, respond to and recover from traumatic incidents; and additional athletic trainers to ensure the safety of student athletes.
You don’t have to look far to see that we are facing a widespread teacher shortage. Pay is obviously part of the equation, but we know that many teachers are leaving the profession due to working conditions that cause burnout. That’s why we have commonsense proposals like scheduled lunches for elementary school teachers (it’s incredible that this should even need to be negotiated), better protections to ensure teachers can keep their preparation periods rather than being forced to take other assignments, and limits on non-instructional duties for related service providers like social workers and counselors, so they have the time to give students the support they need.
To address the problem of school violence, the WTU has proposed 17 commonsense recommendations. If we can’t resolve these issues before the contract expires on Sept. 30 (and hopefully, it can happen before schools starts on Aug. 28), it will be high on our contract bargaining list. Students’ needs are not aligned with contract expiration dates. The time to act is now. But we can’t implement solutions on our own. The district must work with us—not against us or the students and families of the District of Columbia.
We are focused on the common good, because teachers want what kids need. But we can’t do any of this by ourselves; we need DCPS as a partner.