Education Week - May 16, 2018 - 8
The Faces of the Teacher Revolt: Young, Rookie Organizers
Rank and file lead the way
By Madeline Will
It's been called the teacher revolt. Teachers in five
states so far have risen up and walked out of their
classrooms to protest low pay, cuts to education funding, or changes to their pensions.
In all of these states, individual teachers-some of
whom are in their 20s and most of whom have little
or no organizing experience-have taken charge of
the grassroots movement through social media. Most
of the states with teacher activism have right-towork laws, meaning teachers don't have to pay dues
to a union as a condition of employment. Because of
that, the teachers' unions may have fewer resources
and members. Their officials have not always taken
the lead in the teacher activism.
Instead, rank-and-file educators are the faces of
the movement. Here are some of their stories.
The Spark That Lit the Wildfire:
Organizing West Virginia Teachers
Emily Comer and Jay O'Neal never expected that
organizing teachers in West Virginia would set off a
wave of labor unrest across the country. They just
wanted to avoid paying more in health insurance
Comer, 27, and O'Neal, 37, had founded a Facebook
group to create a place for teachers to pay attention
to legislative proposals regarding state employees'
health care. (In West Virginia, teachers receive health
insurance through a state agency. Policymakers were
planning to increase employee premiums.)
"It was more just about engagement, getting more
people to pay attention, and it snowballed from
there," Comer said.
O'Neal, a 7th grade English teacher in Charleston,
added their Facebook page was an attempt to bridge
the divide between the two active teachers' unions
in the state.
Comer is one of her school's building representatives to the West Virginia chapter of the American
Federation of Teachers. O'Neal is the treasurer for his
local affiliate of the West Virginia Education Association. Neither of them had prior organizing experience
on this scale.
"I think that as teachers, we're leaders," Comer
said. "We're leaders in our schools."
And now, they're watching teachers in other states
take the baton.
"It feels amazing, but it also kind of speaks to how
bad it's gotten for teachers and education employees
across the country," O'Neal said.
Seeing teachers elsewhere seal victories is a little
bittersweet: Teachers in Oklahoma and Arizona have
both gotten higher salary increases than West Virginia teachers, who received a 5 percent pay raise.
"There was the sense that maybe we should have
asked for more, but we were the first, we didn't
know," O'Neal said. "We're learning."
Next, Comer and O'Neal say they will continue to
fight for teachers' health-care coverage. To end the
strike, the governor agreed to freeze insurance rate
increases for 16 months while he convened a task
force to find a solution.
The strike has given teachers a certain amount of
leverage, Comer said.
"We realized we [were] not going to get anywhere
unless we go out on strike," she said. "But there was
a part of me that thought, it's not going to happen.
The fact that it even happened here is really amazing. To see it spread like wildfire across the country
is like a dream."
'We Can Do It, Too':
The Colorado Teacher Walkout
Colorado teachers flooded the state Capitol in
Denver last month, protesting low wages and education funding cuts, as well as proposed changes to
teachers' retirement benefits.
"There became this momentum from within
8 | EDUCATION WEEK | May 16, 2018 | www.edweek.org
and from the bottom up," said Angela Anderson,
a teacher in Lakewood who is active in her local
affiliate of the Colorado Education Association and
on the board of the CEA.
The CEA didn't plan the protests, she said. The
state teachers' union facilitated the conversation,
but the decisionmaking and organizing happened
at the local level. Anderson, 44, took an active leadership role in her own community.
Watching teachers in other states plan massive
strikes and walkouts emboldened teachers here,
"It was like, well, they're all doing it, we can do
it, too," Anderson said. "The other thing that was
inspiring for teachers is their community was supporting them. It felt like a long time since teachers
felt supported for doing this rather than attacked."
About 30 districts closed their doors on April 27,
as thousands of teachers rallied at the state Capitol. (Some districts, including Anderson's, closed
the day before.) Anderson, who has been teaching
for 19 years, has never held an organizing role before. But she felt like legislators weren't listening
"We live by rules that are made by people who
have no experience teaching," she said.
On the last day of the legislative session, Colorado lawmakers passed a compromise bill to enact
a series of reforms to the state's underfunded pension system, including raising the minimum retirement age, increasing employee contributions
to the retirement fund, and reducing cost-of-living
annual raises. (Retirees will also lose those raises
for two years.) Still, Anderson said lawmakers ultimately took out some provisions from the original
bill that "would have really hurt teachers."
Now, she's focused on a November ballot initiative that would increase the corporate tax rate and
income taxes for people earning more than $150,000
a year, as well as adjust the school finance formula.
If passed, the revenue would boost school funding.
State law requires voters to approve tax increases.
Still, Anderson won't rule out another mass protest at the Capitol down the road.
"If [legislators] do something that's not OK for
teachers and students, we definitely have the energy to go back there again," she said.
In Arizona, a Novice Teacher
Noah Karvelis is 23 years old and a second-year
teacher. He's also, perhaps, the most recognizable
teacher in Arizona right now.
Karvelis, an elementary music teacher in Tolleson,
is one of the creators of the 54,000-member Facebook group Arizona Educators United, which helped
organize Arizona's first statewide strike.
Teachers in the state went on strike April 26, demanding higher wages and more education funding.
On May 3, the governor signed a budget deal that-
while not giving teachers everything they asked
for-granted a 20 percent pay raise over three years
and restored nearly $400 million in recession-era
cuts to schools.
During both of the official press conferences near
the start and end of the strike, Karvelis stood beside
the Arizona Education Association president, Joe
Thomas. The state teachers' union has encouraged
the grassroots nature of the movement, said Karvelis, who just recently joined the union.
"The unions really let us continue to lead and stay
out front and make a lot of decisions," he said, adding that the AEA had offered its "decades and decades of organizing infrastructure. ... It's a powerful
Karvelis, who moved to Arizona from Illinois two
years ago after graduating from college, has never
had a formal leadership role before-"Nothing like
leading a statewide labor struggle," he said.
He's never taken a public speaking class. But at
this point, he has spoken in front of tens of thousands during rallies at the state Capitol.
"It's really fun to see yourself grow into that role. ...
It's also weird," he said. "I was lucky a month ago if I
could get my 3rd graders to focus and listen, and now
[I'm] walking up and down the Capitol and people
are shaking hands and taking selfies with [me]."
A Coal Miner's Daughter Organized
Thousands of Kentucky Teachers
Nema Brewer calls herself an "accidental activist."
A multimedia specialist for the Fayette County, Ky.,
school district, Brewer didn't have any experience or-
1. West Virginia educators
Emily Comer and Jay O'Neal
stand outside the Capitol in
Charleston. O'Neal and
Comer established a
Facebook page for
educators last year that
grew to more than 24,000
members during a teacher
strike in all 55 counties.
2. Angela Anderson, front
right, joins Kimberly Douglas
in using bullhorns to direct
fellow educators into the
state Capitol to talk to
lawmakers during a teacher
rally last month in Denver.
3. Music teacher Noah
Karvelis, who helped
organize Arizona Educators
United, speaks to thousands
as they participate in a
protest at the Capitol in
4. Nema Brewer, a
multimedia specialist in
Fayette County, uses a
protest sign as a makeshift
bullhorn to shout at the
Kentucky senate chambers