With a guitar hanging across his chest, Lyon Terry began to play. In seconds, dozens of his colleagues joined him in song as they marched in front of Lawton Elementary School (4000 27th Ave. W.).
This is not how the 2015 Washington Teacher of the Year wanted to spend his Wednesday morning.
“It’s Sept. 9 — I should be in there teaching, and I want to be,” he said. “But I need to be out here, to support what kids need.”
That was a sentiment repeated time and time again across Magnolia and Queen Anne, as teachers hit the picket line for the first work stoppage in Seattle Public Schools in 30 years.
“None of us really want to be here,” said Joe Bailey-Fogarty, a fourth-grade teacher at Queen Anne Elementary School (411 Boston St.). “I guess I’m here because I want to be in my classroom; I want to be with my kids. I don’t really feel celebratory about the strike. It’s not something I can hoot and holler and jump up and down about.”
But for many, the desire to be in the classroom had to take a back seat to a pushback against what they feel are proposals from the district that don’t adequately address their biggest concerns.
Not ‘where anybody wants to be’
While the district and Seattle Education Association (SEA) had made some progress in recent days over some sticking points in negotiations — including the establishment of a 30-minute minimum for elementary school recess and pay increases for certified and classified substitute teachers — the sides remained far apart on increased pay for full-time teachers, the amount of instructional time and caseload caps for educational staff associates.
“We need to be able to recruit and retain the best and the brightest into teaching and to educating, and people need to make a livable wage,” said Mary Whisenhunt, a sixth-grade language arts and social studies teacher at McClure Middle School (1915 First Ave. W.).
The work stoppage also put the breaks on weeks of preparations for the first day.
Lawton librarian Audra Gallegos said the situation was just “really sad.
“I’m a parent, too, and it’s just that feeling of not knowing what’s happening,” she said. “I really hope that we can resolve this quickly, but I was hoping all summer it would be resolved. It’s so disruptive to families; it’s disruptive to kids, psychologically. It’s not good for anybody, I don’t think. We’re united and with a purpose, but I don’t think this is where anybody wants to be.”
Bailey-Fogarty said after working over the past week and all of Labor Day weekend to get his classroom ready for the year, having to walk away, even temporarily, is difficult.
“To walk out of here yesterday at 3:30, and to look back thinking that I’m leaving something behind, it’s incredibly sad,” he said.
Whisenhunt said she had the chance to meet with some of her incoming students earlier in the week. Now, she doesn’t know how long it will be before they’re in her classroom.
“I got to meet some great kids,” she said, “and I can’t wait to teach them. So it’s hard.”
While they wonder when they’ll be back in school, teachers and staff were buoyed by community support at several picketing sites, with drivers honking their horns or giving a thumbs-up while passing by. That backing was especially apparent at Queen Anne Elementary School, where scores of parents and students made signs, walked the picket line and filled tables with food and refreshments.
It was a family affair for Gillian Jorgensen, her husband and their daughter Nora, who was slated to start the second grade at the school.
“When you can see people, you know that they’re real,” Jorgensen said. “I think that’s really it. If you don’t see anybody, it doesn’t really count to some degree.”
That in-person support is something she said will continue as necessary.
“We’ll be out here as long it takes,” she said, “but we hope that [school district officials] come to their senses.”
For Whisenhunt, the support from the community was crucial. “Every parent, every community member that says something positive, it gives us strength to fight for better schools, better conditions for ourselves and our students,” she said.
The school district said it intends to return to negotiations on Thursday morning, but the SEA has said only bargaining team chair Phyllis Campano and president Jonathan Knapp will meet with state mediators, while the full team has no plans to return to the table at this time.
In the meantime, the teachers will continue on the picket line, even if they don’t want to be there.
“We’re sorry it had to come to this,” Terry said. “We want to be teaching your kids. We desperately want to get back to work, but we’re not willing to do so in a way that is showing disrespect to us.”
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