I am not a teacher.
That became tremendously obvious the other day as I tried to help a couple of second-graders solve math problems at a “solidarity school,” which gives kids a place to go and learn during the teachers strike that is unfolding in Oakland, California.
TJ and Alejandro had been leaping out of their seats, crawling under tables, talking out of turn, all the usual kid stuff. When it came time to do some math worksheets, they weren’t having it. I felt pretty useless. In point of fact, I was useless.
Then I called them both over to a blackboard, took out some chalk, and asked them to draw. This they did. After a bit, I pulled up the worksheets and coaxed them to solve just one problem together. Alejandro would write, TJ would do the math.
This approach worked—purely by accident, I can assure you—and the kids, despite their resistance, turned out to be really great at adding and subtracting. I felt proud of myself in that moment—but there was another feeling that stayed with me. It was a sense that I’d contributed in some teeny tiny way to helping them along in life. Squatting on the floor, dusted with chalk, I somehow felt bigger, more important.
I wondered: Is this how teachers feel all the time?
The answer, I discovered in picket-line conversations, is yes—and participating in the strike is making them feel bigger still. But the strike is revealing something else about the work of teachers, a vulnerability that our society exploits: a teacher’s sense of meaning can be turned against them. Despite a robust economy—coast to coast, from West Virginia to California—education budgets are being slashed. This means larger class sizes and more daily burdens for teachers, as their pay flattens and the cost of living rises.
However, most teachers don’t appear to reduce their efforts in the classroom. That would fail the kids, which would make the work feel less meaningful—and meaning sometimes feels like all they have. Teachers have proven that they will keep working hard under poor conditions, which many politicians and, sadly, members of the public seem to be counting on.
So, teachers around the country are saying “enough”—and they’re walking out of their classrooms. The strikes are indeed about funding for education. But, in a very concrete way, they’re also about the meaning of education.
Teachers have lots of meaning—but little money
Lou is a teacher I interviewed on the Montclair Elementary School picket line in Oakland. Growing up, she had always wanted to teach, but her mother said, “teaching was a crummy idea.” Instead, argued her mom, she should study business.
“I did that work for a long time—and it was awful,” she said. At age 40, she quit her business job and learned to be a teacher. Today, she said, “Working with kids is the single most fun, rewarding thing I’ve ever done in my life. It energizes me to come to school and be around the kids and fuss with them and fight with them and watch them learn and grow and change.”
As a social-scientific construct, “meaning” has a fairly specific definition. It’s a sense that our actions will have an impact beyond us. Meaning involves purpose, value, self-worth, and a feeling that we can effectively change the world for the better, in ways small or large. When I was failing to engage TJ and Alejandro, my presence in the solidarity school felt futile. After I managed to help them focus and solve some problems, I felt like I was making a difference in their lives. That’s what meaningful work looks like, on a subjective level. It’s not hard for me, having briefly struggled to teach some math, to see why teachers might have meaning in abundance.
There is, however, one thing most teachers don’t have in abundance: money.
That’s why Oakland teachers are striking, and I heard plenty on picket lines about how they struggle to survive in the costly Bay Area. One math teacher I spoke with said that he tutors kids after school. An English teacher picks up income freelance editing college applications. Many work in retail during the summer. I heard tales of teachers struggling to find and keep housing.
“I was in a cohort 17 years ago getting my teaching credential in Oakland,” said Lou. “There were sixty of us, all Oakland residents. There are now five of us left in the district.” For most of those five, she claimed, it was a high-earning spouse who allowed them to stay in teaching. But it’s not just the pay that drove the others away. It’s also that classes are too large, bathrooms are dirty, and kids with disabilities lack support, among other issues.
“A lot of us would be willing to do this work for free, and our bosses know that. So, when they have to cut, they cut our salaries.”
In the long term, this scarcity and instability undermine the meaningfulness that drives so many educators—which profoundly hurts their job satisfaction. Om Chitale, who runs the social-media project Teachers of Oakland, has heard the stories of 122 educators (so far).
“Budget cuts definitely affect how teachers show up, despite the meaningfulness of their work,” he told me. “If a teacher has to be a nurse and therapist and coach and counselor, they can’t be a teacher during those times. If they have to spend their personal money on supporting students, that takes away from their opportunities to build personal stability, which can turn passion for their work into resentment.”
This isn’t just a problem local to Oakland. During the past year, teachers strikes have erupted down the California coast in Los Angeles (the second largest district in the U.S.), as well as West Virginia, Colorado, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Kentucky. For many educators, these walkouts aren’t just fights for more pay, but for public education as an ideal.
“This is not about getting what we’re asking for, because it’s highly likely that we won’t get that with this strike,” said Aimee, a teacher on the picket line at Montclair Elementary. “It’s just a bigger part of this national movement to get this country to invest in education.”
The double-edged sword of meaningful work
In 2009, researchers J. Stuart Bunderson and Jeffery A. Thompson published a unique study of zookeepers at 157 different zoos in the U.S. and Canada, trying to understand how a sense of meaning affected their pay and working conditions. These zookeepers, they discovered, had a very strong sense of calling to care for animals and nature. But the strength of this calling led them “to sacrifice pay, personal time, and comfort for their work.”
In this way, the researchers write, “deeply meaningful work can become a double-edged sword”—making employees vulnerable to exploitation.
Anita Gutierrez—a special-education teacher at Burbank Preschool Center in Oakland—feels both edges of that blade. “I always say that I consider this my heart’s work, and I truly believe that,” she told me. However, “I do think special education has been taken advantage of because I cannot turn away a three year old who needs a classroom placement. So, I’ve been over my ‘soft caps’ by four kids since November. Do I complain? Sure. Do I ever say no? Never. Neither do any of my coworkers.”
Michael F. Steger researches workplace meaning at Colorado State University. His studies suggest that most Americans feel that there should be a tradeoff between meaning and pay—but that this relationship can be manipulated to our disadvantage. “A lot of us would be willing to do this work for free, and our bosses know that,” he said. “So, when they have to cut, they cut our salaries. When they have a chance to expand, they expand in areas that don’t benefit the people working there.”
To Steger, the strikes are the result of a “collision of value systems.” On one hand, teachers bring values to schools that emphasize helping, giving, and curiosity—and in the strikes, they are running up against another group that is striving for “the most efficient outcome,” as measured by, for example, expenditures per student.
My colleague Vicki Zakrzewski is a former teacher and administrator who is now education director at the Greater Good Science Center. “When you put teachers into impossible situations to do their jobs, it can appear as exploitation,” she told me. But Zakrzewski—like all the teachers and researchers I interviewed for this article—doesn’t see the exploitation as intentional or malicious. Instead, it’s the byproduct of top-down “power structures” that deny teachers authority and input into the decisions that affect their work.
“Do I complain? Sure. Do I ever say no? Never. Neither do any of my coworkers.”
“Even though teachers are in charge of their own classroom, the way schools and districts are set up often leaves teachers feeling powerless,” she said. “Policymakers—who usually have zero experience in the classroom—are dictating what happens in districts and schools.”
Steger points out another factor in this process of impersonal, society-wide exploitation of altruistic professions: gender. The number of women dwarfed the number of men on each of the three picket lines I visited. Many of the types of jobs that we consider the most meaningful are staffed by women, according to Steger. Teaching, yes, but also child care, therapy, librarianship, social work, and some health care jobs.
“Compensation is set by overall economic and political priorities—and those are pretty heavily stacked in favor of men,” said Steger. In this light, it’s no accident that picket lines in the Oakland public-school strike are filled with women: They’re more drawn to relational, purposeful, helping professions, and there they won’t make as much money as male counterparts. It’s not impossible, to my mind, that if women’s economic and political power continues to grow, those priorities will change. Teachers strikes help build that power.
How teachers strikes transform relationships
The strike is shutting down Oakland’s schools—and it’s also transforming the relationships among and between teachers, parents, and children.
“The strike has brought us together and made us more committed to the school, to the teachers, and to OUSD public schools.”
“My strike line has been awesome and has positively affected my relationship with colleagues,” says Gutierrez. “As classroom teachers, we are stuck inside a lot of the day attending to kids, so with this it’s a lot of getting to know each other better, gossiping, being honest about our worries and fears with this strike. I feel even more grateful that I get to work where I do because of the ladies on the line.”
The teachers at Montclair agree. When I asked if the strike was changing their relationships with each other, three answered at the same time with a resounding “Yes!” During the normal workweek, “We usually spend an hour a week together, under structured circumstances,” said a teacher named Hannah:
On the picket line, we’re spending up to eight or nine hours together and there’s no one to guide our conversations or tell us what to talk about, and I’m seeing my colleagues as real people and learning more about them. We had a history of being fractured into different sections, and I think now we feel very connected on a very personal level.
This transformation extends to the parents and to the children. I talked to numerous children like TJ and Alejandro, who were remarkably well-informed about the issues behind the picket lines. I also spoke to six moms who are involved in solidarity schools or child care, and each one described a process—similar to my own—of coming to appreciate education and teachers in a way they hadn’t before.
They all spoke movingly of marching, donating supplies, helping arrange transportation, and meeting new people. “The strike has brought us together and made us more committed to the school, to the teachers, and to OUSD public schools,” said one mother, Erica Mohan, whose children attend Joaquin Miller Elementary. “I’ve been surprised by how much solidarity there’s been,” said Heather Ladov, who volunteers in the solidarity school with Erica. “We trust our teachers with our kids. How are we not going to fight for them?”
In fact, on the picket lines and solidarity schools I visited, teachers, parents, and children seemed happy, even at eight o’clock on chilly mornings, even in the worst rain. They sang, danced, chanted, and laughed.
That doesn’t surprise Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychologist who studies happiness at the University of California, Riverside.
During the recent teacher strike in Los Angeles, “not only were teachers connecting on the picket line, but all these parents and teachers banded together to have informal classrooms in people’s houses,” she told me. “They really built a sense of community.” And it’s this sense of connection, Lyubomirsky told me, that her research suggests is the single most important factor in happiness, along with a sense of purpose.
I am not a teacher—and in the Oakland teachers strike, I’m not an objective journalist. There are people I love who teach in Oakland Unified. There are children I adore who are students there. I shared rally information on social media. I marched with hundreds of others on the first day of the strike. The next day, I stood in the rain with an increasingly soggy handmade sign that said, “Make teachers middle class again.” I signed up to work at solidarity schools.
When the mom who ran one asked me to work with the kids on some kind of journalism project, I wanted to help, because how could I not? Watching the kids, these cub reporters, interview their teachers on the sidewalk outside of their school, I felt good in a way I hadn’t for a long time. My little problems mattered less; at the same time, I mattered more. All the people involved were seeing themselves and each other in a new light. The strike didn’t feel like someone else asking for a raise. For me and for the city’s families, it seems, the strike is a force for meaning.
The names of children have been changed. On the day this report appeared, the teachers’ union and OUSD reached a tentative agreement, which was accepted the following Sunday by the membership. According to the Oakland Education Association, 95 percent of teachers and 97 percent of students did not cross the picket line.