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A Time to Strike

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Ecclesiastes 3 tells us that to every thing there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven. A time to reap, and a time to sow. A time to break down, and a time to build up. A time to keep silence, and a time to speak.

For North Carolina teachers, now is the time to strike.

The working conditions for teachers in North Carolina have become untenable. On Facebook and Twitter, I am inundated with updates from my home state, pleas from fellow North Carolina Teaching Fellow alumni about their bottom-of-the-barrel pay and their now-worthless Master's degrees. These teachers share heartbreaking letters to the Republican governor written by parents who can no longer support their families on a teacher's salary. They post Instagram photos from Moral Monday, where activists weekly overrun the North Carolina General Assembly, a body under the dominion of a radical Republican majority that would make Jesse Helms blush. But as these teachers -- my former classmates -- despair, they haven't seriously considered the best option on the table: a teacher's strike.

How else can teachers roll back the decision to revoke pay for graduate degrees? How else can teachers decrease class sizes? How else can they reverse the over 9,000 jobs lost?

Imagine the collective power of every teacher not showing up for the first day of school in all of the Old North State's 100 counties. Imagine parents explaining to children why they weren't in school today, parents who remind their children how important it is to treat their teachers with dignity and respect. Imagine Governor Pat McCrory being forced to convene an emergency session to restore teacher pay back towards the national average.

Teachers in North Carolina are not allowed to strike. Nor are they allowed to unionize. But they already have a professional organization without collective bargaining rights, the North Carolina Association of Educators. Its president, Rodney Ellis, has already been courageously arrested during one of the Moral Monday protests. "The legislature passed a budget that will ultimately destroy public education in North Carolina," Ellis said, and he's right. It is time for teachers to follow Ellis's lead and turn desperation and despair into righteous anger.

To put it in concrete terms, if I moved back to North Carolina to teach, I would take a 40-50 percent pay cut compared to my Massachusetts salary. Even before the Republicans began dismantling a century of educational progress, it made more financial sense to remain up north and pay back my Teaching Fellows obligation. Teaching Fellows, a program that recruited high school students into the profession with service-based scholarships, has now been de-funded and replaced by Teach for America. Teachers have been laid off, class sizes increased and salaries cut -- not to mention the private school vouchers, euphemistically called "opportunity scholarships." The only opportunity is for private entities to become rich off the backs of poor people.

Many in the general public question the wisdom of teacher strikes, since they affect the intellectual growth of all children and force parents to scramble for child care. But I would question the hard reality of continuing on this path towards the first school bell, a path where educators will arrive demoralized. The most frequent comment I hear from North Carolina teachers is, "I feel so alone." They have been stripped of their power and stripped of their dignity, and parents should stand with those dedicated, passionate professionals who spend six or more hours a day with their children. Parents should be just as committed to this strike as those whose paychecks have fallen below poverty levels.

And for the students, the lesson is obvious. I taught the oft-quoted essay "Civil Disobedience" by Henry David Thoreau in my Advanced Placement English course. It's an American cliché but still moving, like a familiar hymn or an old battle cry.

Thoreau writes, "Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them." Teachers should not follow this path nor model submission for our children. It may be illegal to strike, but as my students who lived in pervasive poverty read, "If the machine of government is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law."