A Tacoma Teacher Strike Reflection

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The strike is over and school starts Monday. When I got the email letting me know we’d reached a tentative agreement, I was so giddy I screamed to my wife “TA, TA, WE GOT A TAAAAAAAAA.” Words can’t describe how glad I am this is over. But, before I move on to my usual fall routines: learning names, custom handshakes, teaching about the Federalists vs the Anti-Federalists, and Friday Night Lights--I think it’s important to stop and take stock of what happened in our community.

Tacoma, thank you. Teachers owe the parents and community a massive debt. You had our backs! You brought provisions, you organized a 2,000+ member Facebook group, you told us to fight and keep our heads high. Every honk, every donut, every text was appreciated, and I thank you. You’ve always supported our schools through levy votes, voting for bonds, and random fundraisers (I mean seriously, wrapping paper?). But the support you showed during the strike went above and beyond and brought tears to my eyes, repeatedly.

We also need to thank the labor community. Doctors, nurses, firefighters, ILWU longshoreman, and pipefitters all came out and walked the lines. Teachers, if we don't return this solidarity when they need us--especially to the paras, school bus drivers, and food service workers who serve our students--shame on us.

To Tacoma’s students, we all owe you an apology. Adult issues kept you out of the classroom where you belong. That’s an injustice and there’s no way to spin that. There shouldn’t have been a strike. I found the last two weeks mind-numbingly frustrating because it was preventable. If the McCleary Settlement was done with transparency, rather than dead-of-night-last-second deal making, we wouldn’t be here. If a fair contract had been offered from the beginning of negotiations, we wouldn’t be here. If young teachers in our city felt valued and knew they wouldn’t have to pick-up side-hustles to stay in their apartments, we wouldn’t be here.

Lastly for the school board, we elect school board members not spokespeople. Canceling school board meetings, ghosting from social media, and responding to community members with auto-form replies is not the way for school board members to lead. The community didn’t vote for the district public information office, we elected you. If you don’t want to face an angry public when things are bad, perhaps elected office isn’t your calling.

This will be my thirteenth year of teaching. I have worked in Tacoma my entire teaching career. But, my mentor in the profession departed during this strike. I am still not over that. Despite reaching a contract agreement, I have lingering concerns about our ability to retain many of the great teachers we have. I want for Tacoma Schools to be the world-class system our students deserve, but nothing that happened over the last two weeks brought us closer to that.

I’ve heard from a lot of parents and community members. People are angry and we have to win their trust back. I often say in my talks that “teaching is relational.” Classrooms are places where if trust is absent, learning will be as well. For the sake of my students, I hope Tacoma Schools can spend this year rebuilding that trust.

I’m off to go lesson plan.

Nathan Bowling

Republic of Cascadia