While Anchorman’s Ron Burgundy may have been unfamiliar with the Bob Dylan tune, The Times They Are A-Changin’, the song’s message -- the lyrics for which you can read on his website -- is apparently not lost on public school teachers in Arizona, Colorado, Kentucky, Oklahoma, West Virginia, and elsewhere.
A tidal wave of protest and discontent has been sweeping across many states in recent months, swelling up in school districts and spilling out on state capitol grounds, flooding the halls of government. Frustrated with stagnant and insufficient salaries, and discouraged by flat or reduced school funding, teachers have been mobilizing and making their voices heard. State lawmakers have taken note. Teachers’ demands are being met with legislation to increase funding and/or salaries, and while wish lists might not be completely satisfied, great progress has been made in several states with respect to increasing the prospects of better-funded public K-12 education. In Oklahoma, the Legislature passed a $6,000 teacher pay raise nearly two weeks prior to the Teacher Walk-Out which began on April 2. Teachers unions had been organizing for weeks and the politicians took note: the Walk-Out seemed imminent so they finally took action on an important issue that, until passage, had only been given lip service for years. In West Virginia, frontrunners of the recent series of state-wide teacher strikes, schools were closed for nine days but the walk-out resulted in the governor signing legislation for a stepped teacher pay raise and frozen health premium rates for 16 months.
As an Oklahoman, I was privileged to observe first-hand the effects the Teacher Walk-Out had on my community and the State as a whole. Locally, many communities both large and small--including my own--banded together to support the children who were out of school for two weeks during the walk-out. Non-profit organizations, churches, and individual volunteers opened free activity centers and provided meals for children in need of those services. In so doing, these organization and individuals’ actions demonstrated their support for teachers and children in the fight for better funding. Their service was a form of advocacy, and their organization was inspiring.
Social media and technology also played a significant role in recent actions. In my small, rural community, the local ministerial alliance organized a Facebook group under the banner #OperationLunchbox to ensure that no child would go without lunch each day. By leveraging an online sign-up tool, the organization enlisted people to fill over 1,000 volunteer shifts. In all, 9,100 meals were served over 10 days through approximately 3,000 hours of volunteer effort. Initiatives like this were undertaken all across the state. In all instances, associations and individuals joined forces to respond to a pressing need, and the results were quite remarkable.
The power of the association and the individual was also on display in Oklahoma City before, during, and even after the Teacher Walk-Out, and again, social media loomed large. While some might argue that the grassroots organizers were more effective, primarily via a Facebook group started by a Stillwater teacher that quickly grew to nearly 80,000 members, in reality the 40,000-member Oklahoma Education Association (OEA) also played a considerable role due to its resources and structure that supported the rallies. Both entities were highly effective and ultimately helpful in arming teachers, students, and parents with talking points for legislators, up-to-date information on the legislative process, support for traveling to and from the Capitol, and much more. Perhaps the biggest critique of the OEA by lawmakers, numerous teachers, and even the honest observer was that the organization seemed to change their demands by the day. While being nimble in a shifting legislative environment is necessary, associations would do well to develop a well-conceived, comprehensive advocacy platform and deploy their messaging accordingly. Social media can then be a powerful tool to effect change, but the communication must be accurate, timely, and authoritative. That kind of messaging can empower and embolden the grassroots movers and shakers, and ultimately allow the two entities to work in concert toward an achievable end.