By John O’Reilly
The story that came down was simple: we were going to get our hours cut. We work at a school for adults, teaching ESL to immigrants and refugees. Because many of our students are Somali, they use Somali-speaking daycare for their younger kids. Since Friday is the Muslim holy day, their daycare centers generally aren’t open, and so any of our students with children younger than school age can’t come in to learn English on Fridays. The result of this situation is that our student numbers plummet on Friday, and student numbers matter for state funding.
So 3 of us were going to lose our Friday hours. We already work a hard, underpaid and underappreciated part-time job. While teachers in the K12 system are getting attacked by Betsy DeVos and her cronies in Washington, teachers in adult education have long been considered unimportant. No paid time off or sick leave, years since the last raise, and with a management team that wouldn’t know education if it bit them in the eye: it’s tough out here. Losing a whole day a week of pay was intolerable. Tali is a loving mother of two young girls and it’s obvious from talking to her that she would do anything for them. Jane has a bright teenage son looking at colleges. I’m still paying off my debt from the years of college I had to complete to become a teacher in this run-down school and the mice in my apartment eat better than I do some weeks.
We knew what needed to be done. Lacking students, it sure didn’t help that our school’s approach to outreach was to not do any. Rather than cutting hours, what we needed to do was build our program, bring in more students, and expand the student body beyond our primarily Muslim base. After all, there’s lots of people in Minneapolis who could use a free, supportive classroom space to work on their English skills.
Teachers are not known for their interest in shying away from a fight. We talked to all of our coworkers, one by one, over coffee or cheap fast food. We told them that we weren’t okay with losing our hours, that we couldn’t afford it, and they agreed with us. “I don’t understand why they run things this way,” our newest coworker whispered to me over the table at a coffeeshop, looking both ways to make sure nobody was watching us, “It’s like they’re trying to make the school fail.” It turned out the three of us weren’t the only people who had complaints. We promised to support our coworkers if they had our backs this time around.
On the day before the cuts were to go into effect, we marched into management’s office. Appointments be damned. The manager’s eyes went wide as saucer plates when she saw us. The director, smooth as he is, slapped everybody on the back and sat down with us in the plush conference room. He’s got a reputation as someone who will show you the nice things one day and fire you the next for looking at him funny. Great view, I thought as I looked out the large window in his second floor office and settled into a cushy chair, better than the dingy, windowless basement that my students are subjected to all day. We stuck to our plan, each said our piece, delivered the letter with our proposal and signatures, and got up to walk away before he could get a word in edgewise. Everybody’s knees were shaky as we walked out of there but we had gotten through it.
Four hours later, we got an email: the director had approved our plan. Sure, it was good for the whole school, but it wasn’t like those geniuses, who’ve never actually taught a day in their lives, had come up with it. We, the workers who keep the school going, knew what we needed to succeed. “Praise Jesus,” Tali said when I texted her that we’d won, waiting in the school parking lot to pick up her girls. “I realized, he’s just another guy. He’s not better than us, and we made him listen to us,” Jane said as we debriefed. We did it together. We kept our hours. We built our program. The teachers, all women save myself, served our students, overwhelmingly women themselves. We made the big man upstairs listen to us. And we, the workers, did it on our own. It turns out that when you get a bunch of teachers mad, sometimes they fight back. And when we fight, we win!