Arizona teachers gather at the state capitol. Their six-day walkout ended on Thursday.
Arizona teachers gather at the state capitol. Their six-day walkout ended on Thursday. Matt York/AP

The six-day walkout of the state’s public school teachers wasn’t just about paychecks, says one Glendale teacher.

Sarah Rittenhouse has taught English at Challenger Middle School in Glendale, Arizona, for seven years. She loves her students, she loves her community, and, at the end of the day, she loves her job. But she’s tired.

The building in which she works is crumbling. Teacher turnover is high. Class sizes are huge. Counselors are spread too thin to adequately address the trauma experienced by many of her students, who come from refugee populations and low-income neighborhoods.

Rittenhouse is also angry.

A statewide walkout of some 75,000 Arizona teachers, including Rittenhouse, ended on Thursday, after six days of closed schools and a 13-hour debate over the state budget. The educators were demanding many of the same things teachers from West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma have been seeking this year through protests of their own: higher pay, better benefits, and most of all, more funding for public schools. The deal Governor Doug Ducey struck promises teachers a 20 percent raise by 2020; he also agreed to allocate $138 million more in public school funding.

Teachers had said they’d end their walkout once the budget was finalized, and they followed through. As of Friday morning, they are back in their classrooms in most districts. “When we started this movement, Arizona educators pledged to keep fighting for the schools their students deserve until the end, and we were true to our word,” wrote Arizona Education Association President Joe Thomas and National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García in a joint statement. “We will return to our schools, classrooms, and students knowing that we have achieved something truly historic.”

But their victory comes with a host of unresolved questions. The teacher wage raise doesn’t kick in until 2020, when Ducey may no longer be in office. The $138 million in increased school funding might result in a smaller pool of funding for other services like school support staff, who were not granted raises. Legislators failed to even come close to the $1 billion teachers asked for to fill the gaps opened by cuts. On Thursday evening, teachers held a rally at the state capitol, and are planning on releasing further action items in the coming days to let lawmakers know that their concerns are not going away.

Rittenhouse and her colleagues at the Arizona Senate on Wednesday night. (Courtesy of Sarah Rittenhouse)

Rittenhouse stayed in the Senate gallery until 3 a.m. Thursday. “When I awoke this morning to hear that none of our amendments passed (including smaller class sizes, smaller student-to-counselor ratios) but the Governor signed the deal he made with himself that is so woefully inadequate, I did not feel resigned as I had expected to,” she wrote in an email to CityLab on Thursday evening. “I felt, as many of my peers felt, fired up and ready to continue this fight. … [I]f our senators aren’t willing to do it, Arizona educators have shown that they are.”

On Wednesday, one day before the walk-out ended, CityLab spoke with Rittenhouse about what Arizona’s teachers are fighting for, and what’s next for public education in Arizona and beyond. Below is a condensed and edited version of our conversation.

Why did you go into teaching?

I was thinking about becoming a teacher even in high school. But my mother also became a teacher, and I watched her first couple of years teaching and just thought, who would be willing to do that much work for so little pay and so little appreciation? You have to be either insane or a saint or something to do this job. So in college I actually did not pursue teaching at all. The problem is that then, I started volunteering in my mother's classroom, and I loved it. And I knew that I could be good at it.

Part of the reason I went into public school teaching specifically was because I had seen some of the ways that our public schools were struggling, and I wanted to be a part of the solution. I know our governor talks a lot about school choice, but my kids can’t choose where they go to school. Most of my students speak English as a second language. We have a pretty high refugee population, and our population is also very highly transitory: In any given year, about a third of our students leave and are replaced between August and May. Even if they got a school voucher, that wouldn’t make enough of a difference in the price of private school.

Arizona teachers are paid some of the lowest wages in the country, ranked 43rd by the National Education Association. Budget cuts have slashed per-pupil funding by 37 percent between 2008 and 2015. But can you give us a sense of what conditions are like in your school?

In my seven years at Challenger Middle School we’ve just kind of been watching things crumble, literally.

My classroom has flooded three times. Our foundations are sinking: In some of the classrooms you can drop a tennis ball at the front of the room and it will roll to the other side. We’re seeing actual cracks in the wall.

We've had faulty air conditioning that has since been mostly fixed, but they’ve also had to restrict the amount of AC we can use. I have anywhere between 28 and 38 students in my room—more, sometimes. And they’re all 13 to 14 years old. So you can imagine that in the summer when it’s 110 outside and the kids come in and the AC doesn’t kick on until it’s 80-plus degrees in there, it can be pretty hot.

In 2016, we found out our school, which was built in the ‘80s, was deemed not structurally sound. The walls were no longer connected to the foundation, which meant that if there were a significant storm or something the walls could literally cave in on our kids. And so it was obviously upsetting and unprecedented. It was unsafe for students and staff to be in the building, the administration told us, and the school was closed immediately.

All the teachers got an hour to pack up their things, and were gradually distributed into other campuses, other districts, and other buildings. Some students sat on the floor or on folding chairs in the new classrooms; some used clipboards as desks. They’d have to wait for all the other students in the district to get bused to school before a second round came back for them, and they’d get home even later. That went on for about a month.

And so when you ask me what the situation is for our kids, that’s the physical situation, right? My kids—kids that already have the odds stacked against them—are literally having their education displaced in that way.

But their education is also displaced in many other ways. We have extremely high teacher turnover in our district and in our area. I haven’t been teaching for even a decade, and already the faculty has turned over about four times. When my kids come back to visit they’re like, “Oh my gosh, you’re still here. You’re the only one left.”

That’s partly because it’s a very challenging population—our kids come with a lot of trauma to school—and teachers don’t have a lot of support. Teachers are largely underprepared; sometimes they’re coming in cold from programs like Teach for America, and have no teaching background.

Rittenhouse’s classroom has flooded three times. Here, the remnants of a September 2014 flood leave their mark. (Courtesy of Sarah Rittenhouse).

But it’s also so much because of the lack of compensation. I know teachers with master's degrees who get paid $750 per paycheck. I know teachers who are single parents who are trying to make ends meet by taking second or third jobs. I know multiple teachers who have gone multiple Arizona summers without air conditioning in their cars because they can’t afford to fix them.

Still, we look out for each other. When teachers’ cars break down, a coworker’s mechanic husband sometimes fixes them for free. Once, when teachers were freaking out on payday because they didn’t have enough money to pay for rent and childcare and groceries, other teachers went out and purchased groceries for them. We all try so hard not to take days off, because if I do, I only get a sub maybe half the time. So I’m leaving my co-teachers to teach for longer periods with 40 to 45 kids in the room.

But it’s just gotten to the point where we’re so barebones that we’re just completely exhausted—you’re working multiple jobs, and you’re putting 60 hours a week in with your kids, and you’re living with a roommate or depending on your parents.

It’s not just that people leave. It’s terrifying that people are retiring faster than they’re coming into the profession. We posted for an art teacher this year, and we still don’t have one. We posted for an 8th-grade teacher, and in seven months, only one person had applied. And when you can’t just fill positions, the burden increases on all the other teachers, and you end up with much larger class sizes.

I feel guilty when I convince someone to stay another year or even when I’m hiring people. The most incredible teacher started at our school this year, but she’s a single mom and I am so worried. I asked her, “Are you sure you know what you’re getting into?”

To me, that’s part of the devastation: You see these teachers leave who love our kids and our community. They’re absolutely incredible at what they do. And they leave, because they cannot continue to choose their students over their families.

Why have those who have stayed, stayed?

So many of us feel like this is our calling and that, regardless of what our legislature is doing, regardless of what the governor’s doing, our kids are still sitting in our classrooms and they still need us.

It’s hard to turn away from that need. I spend at least $1,000 on my classroom every single year of my own money, and I’ve applied for between 10 and 15 grants a year for my kids to afford new technology and books.

Kids are kids no matter where they go to school, and it’s not OK that my kid in Glendale at a Title 1 school cannot be getting the same opportunities, and the same technology, and the same curriculum, and the same level of support from their teachers because they’re in that school or in this state.

I believe in my kids. I see what they are able to do when the odds are so stacked against them—and I’m so angry that they are this stacked against them because they don’t have to be. Why is it that public education is another thing that we’re shortchanging them on?

Critics of the these recent teacher strikes have framed them as politically motivated attacks on Republican-led states, or as demands solely for bigger paychecks. But you’re talking more about the actual conditions on the ground in your schools. Do you think teachers’ motivations have been fairly characterized?

I think for us the frustration is that the governor has tried to twist this into the narrative that it’s about teacher pay and that’s it. And I can tell you that there are not very many teachers who would have caused this disruption and engaged in this level of civil disobedience if it was just about teacher pay. We have been dealing with this for more than 10 years. We have already been living paycheck-to-paycheck and struggling and buying things for our kids out of our own money. We’re here now because our buildings are really crumbling, because our kids are not getting a fair chance at success. In a school like mine, we should have more resources than anywhere else.

The governor has also been saying that this is just a political thing. But I feel like he’s made it even more political because of his refusal to speak with teachers and the rhetoric of all this. Governor Ducey can come to my classroom and sit there with my 15 kids who are still trying to learn English while the other 13 kids are learning how to write a five-paragraph essay. Have him spend one day as a teacher in my classroom and then look me in the face and say that this is political.

We are here to advocate for our children; we don’t want him to give us a raise only to have our buildings further crumble or to not have money for our support staff that are so essential, or for counselors or for our school resource officers. That doesn’t solve anything.

By granting increases in flex funding, he’s putting the pressure on the districts to determine whether they need to repair our schools and fix that AC and purchase this desperately needed technology, or do they pay their support staff. And that means that either way they fail. And the teacher raise that he’s talking about? It’s only for teachers that have a roster—so not our special education teacher who has been teaching in our district for almost at 25 years. Not the art teacher. Not the counselor who sees 700 students, all alone. I could keep going.

If you could talk directly to the governor, what would you say to him?

I think the biggest thing that we’re trying to communicate is you’re not fooling us: You’re not doing right by our kids. There’s a difference between doing what is right and doing what is easy and you right now are choosing easy. You are trying to brush this under the carpet in your election year. You’re trying to save face and you’re trying to get this done as quickly as you can.

Thee fact of the matter is it’s not going to be easy. You’re not going find money out of nowhere. But I believe in this so strongly that I spend more than $1,000 of my money every year on kids who are not my own. I mean they are my students, but they’re not my blood.

And I do this every year because they matter and they’re our future. And so if I’m willing to spend a grand—which, by the way, is one of my paychecks after two master’s degrees—and I’m willing to do that, then figure out a way. Raise some taxes somewhere, or at the very least, stop cutting taxes. Find a new revenue source and really work at it, because I see my 150 faces in front of me as I’m walking out. And he has more than my 150 on his conscience.

How do you, as a teacher, also acknowledge the fact that walking out and closing the schools may only further disrupt your students’ lives?

I can tell you that our biggest concerns going into this was the impact on our kids, when 100 percent of our students get free breakfast and lunch. I know teachers who were calling up their spouses and families and neighbors and saying, “Here’s the situation—we need resources for our kids.” And so many people answered that call.

We had spouses that were going to Costco and getting bread and peanut butter and jelly to make PB&Js. And we had neighbors dropping off cases of chocolate milk and breakfast bars and things like that. We packed bagged lunches and handed them out at schools. We went out into a community apartment building where many of the refugee families of our students live. Groups of kids come up to us like it was Christmas morning because we had bags of food.

Another issue is that our classified staff—our staff that is hourly— can’t clock in if the district is closed. And they, of course, are also living paycheck-to-paycheck. I know some teachers who were buying gift cards or giving money and trying to give a little extra essentially out of their paycheck for their co-workers.

So the general mood on Wednesday [the day before the walkout started] was extremely heartbreaking and exhausting, because we thought that we weren’t doing right by our kids, or that they were going to suffer more than than they should because of this.

But a lot of us were at this point where we’ve been trying to do things through the correct channels. We’ve been putting up with stuff and making it work and making it work and seeing that that just isn’t doing anything—that our government isn’t listening. So the general feeling was: Our kids might have to struggle, or our community or families might have to struggle for a week, but if we can guarantee anything better than this, it will be worth it.

What happens next in Arizona, and in the rest of the country? Where does public education in America go from here?

I think it will be very hard to undo the progress this movement has inspired. Teachers have always had a voice—we’re very good at being loud. But I think now that we’ve built this statewide community, and we have seen that it’s such an issue across the board, I think it will be very hard for us to go back.

If there’s another rallying call, we’re going to rise to meet it. I hope never again to walk out, because this is absolutely insane and it’s so difficult for our communities. But depending on what happens in November, I think we’re going to see a lot of teachers get a lot more political.

I also want to say that I really believe in public education. I myself received a public education, and it was a really good one. I had some of the most remarkable teachers. And now, I teach with some of the most incredible people that you will ever meet.

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