Teacher Strike Becomes a Teachable Moment

Mar 15, 2018

Andrew Thomas doesn’t teach math, but there was important equation on the whiteboard of his classroom at Mullens Middle School in Wyoming County two days after the end of the statewide teacher strike: $32,000 X 5 percent = $1,600. The bigger number is his salary, and the rest, he told his students, is what he and the thousands of other teachers fought for at the Capitol in Charleston.

"We are so underpaid, guys," he told them. "I make $1,042 every two weeks. … Guys, this is a hard way to live in southern West Virginia, particularly, especially as a teacher."

Next to an American Federation of Teachers poster in Thomas' classroom was a laminated copy of a newspaper front-page about Donald Trump. Thomas, 25, of Mullens, said he considers himself a changed man, and he spoke candidly with his students.

"As y’all know, I am conservative Republican, I fight for the rights of conservatives. However, I am very disappointed the behavior and the attitudes of the Republicans in the Senate," he said.

A group of Senate Republicans held out for days, backing a 4 percent raise, less than the 5 percent one teachers were demanding. Thomas, a steadfast Donald Trump supporter, said he's never voted for a Democrat, but his allegiance to some state Republicans was shaken during the strike. He showed students a video featuring state Senator Richard Ojeda, a Democratic candidate for Congress who has gained something of a celebrity status among conservatives and liberals alike.

"I typically don’t like to endorse candidates, ‘cause it’s just not necessarily appropriate for fifth-grade class. But I want them to see the ones that are fighting for us," he said after class. "I’m not an emotional person, but it’s just sparked a little bit of a revolution in me."

Wyoming County is in the heart of West Virginia’s southern coalfields, and it was among the first school districts in the state to announce a work stoppage. After the strike, at least a handful of school systems discouraged or outright barred teachers from discussing it in their classrooms, according to some teachers. But not at Mullens Middle, where Principal Terri Smith encouraged it.

"I didn’t have any reservations with my teachers because I like to have answers for students, and if they hear it on the television or on the radio, they can’t ask questions, and this way their questions can be answered with someone who was there and actually knows what’s going on," she said.

Kylie Simmons, 11, was among the students in the class. Her parents are teachers at Mullens Elementary who joined fellow educators at the Capitol.

"It’s just cool to be here while it’s happening instead of learning about it through a book, from a long time ago," she said.

Some of the lessons bring painful reminders of what life is like in this part of the state.

"In southern West Virginia, guys, what the one thing that we all are. Starts with P -- POOR  A lot of times we’re the forgotten ones," Thomas told his students. "Who are the forgotten ones? Not just teachers -- cops, teachers, the middle class."