The teachers union in Portland, Oregon, is on its 12th day of striking. Teacher strikes are on the rise, which in some ways is a good sign: of unions regaining strength in this country; of our need to support public education finally coming to the forefront; and of the growing acknowledgment that we need to make teaching a more sustainable job. Ideally, of course, strikes wouldn’t be necessary. Schools would be well-funded, teachers would be well-compensated and supported, and districts would make decisions with input from teachers at all levels.
But no matter why a teacher strike is happening, how vital it is, or how supported it is by the community, much of the burden will fall on parents, who have to figure out care for their kids while also doing their own jobs. It’s no picnic for teachers either, many of whom are also parents, and who are forgoing pay and risking their health care. It just absolutely bites that we live in a society where educators (mostly women) are so disrespected that they have to take actions that make the lives of primary caregivers (also mostly women) much more difficult.
Having lived through a seven-day strike in my home district of Oakland, California, last spring, I wanted to share a few pointers with parents who are undergoing or anticipating a teachers strike. Of course you will still have times when you feel powerless, angry, or overwhelmed, but these suggestions may help ease the pain:
1. Update yourself in space and time
Many parents still have unresolved trauma or just plain old intense feelings from parenting during the pandemic. Closed schools, online teaching, not knowing when your kids would be among their friends and doing normal kid things we didn’t know we cared so much about: assemblies, field days, piling on top of one another any chance they get. In my experience, a strike will bring all of these feelings back up. Look out for them, and pay attention when they come up, physically and emotionally. Give yourself some compassion, and try to locate your body in time and space. I know it might sound ridiculous, but consider even saying this out loud to yourself: “It is 2023, this is a regular experience that parents have been having all over the country for centuries, and it is temporary.”
This is supposed to suck, but don’t make it harder by spinning out about it. School will resume, the strike will be resolved, and your kid will get back to pig-piling. Promise.
2. Get involved
Even though I didn't 100% understand or agree with everything our teachers were pushing for (common goods negotiations mystified me, but this explainer helped), it gave me energy to carry out my part in the strike (finding a way to keep my kids home) when I spent time on the picket lines and in marches. These were truly beautiful experiences, actually. I met new parents and staff, strengthened my bond with my kids' teachers, and improved my ability to do the Cupid Shuffle, which became a daily picket-line morale-boosting activity. Even just picketing for 10 minutes a day reminded me why I was sacrificing so much, because dedicated educators needed to be treated better.
I brought my kids to the picket line, and taught them about the role of protest, the importance of unions, and why you should never give up on the little guy (or lady). The joy (described beautifully by an Oakland teacher and mother on a recent episode of my podcast, Mother Culture) really does reframe the pain. One day I had work I needed to do, but still found myself marching from our school toward downtown, buoyed by the spirit of collectivity and loyal to the folks I knew must have been exhausted at that point by protesting. People held traffic for us. I ran into friends and made new ones. At one point, I found myself in possession of a very large and loud drum, and for once, I didn’t feel like someone was going to tell me that my vibes were too much. It was beautiful.
If you can't get away from work or don't have the time or are too ambivalent to protest, drive by and honk, or drop off snacks and drinks. Your kids could make art and you could hang them around your house or at the school. This is a historic moment that will soon end. It's worth checking it out, and participating if you can. Really and truly, it helps.
3. Make a care plan
During the Oakland strike, the teachers union set up “solidarity schools,” ad-hoc sites around the community where people could drop off their children if they couldn’t stay home but didn’t want to cross the picket line. They made me choke up with appreciation for my people. Parents and school staff volunteered (but didn’t have to), activities were set up, and snacks materialized out of thin air. Those who had more time to give gave it to support those parents who just could not afford to take days off.
Often, strike camps start popping up when strikes are imminent or ongoing. Usually these cost money, but occasionally there are free ones. Some employers offer reimbursement for unexpected child care needs, and may refund you for camps or for finding short-term care through Bright Horizons, Care.com, or the like. This can be trickier for kids who need specially-trained adults to support them, but it's not impossible. Some parents I know took their children to work with books or a screen. Depending on your kid or your job, it might not be ideal, but it could be doable.
Parents with some flexibility can also set up some mutual care with other parents. One mom told me that she remembered chilling in a church basement with rotating parent supervisors when she herself was a student in our school district. If you don't already have a parent listserv, text chain, or Whatsapp group, now is the time to start one. Over the week and a half that OUSD teachers were on strike, I hosted a wide array of other people's children, and sent my kid all over town to the homes of their friends. Was it a little crazy at times, especially with all the pig-piling my son and his friends like to do? You bet. But it also built my muscles for asking for help and giving what help I could, a critical skill for living well with others. Make a little spreadsheet, pick a day and write the number of kids you can take and where and for how long, and then let people sign up. If you don’t want a bunch of knuckleheads tearing up your home, go to a local park or take them to the library.
If there's a strike on Monday, plan for the whole week off just in case. It's better to assume there will not be school and be pleasantly surprised.
4. Remember that parenting is a lifetime thing
And it’s not about a few days or weeks. The best thing my pediatrician ever told me (other than “looks like your ringworm has finally cleared”) was to think about how my children eat over, say, a week, rather than each finite day. I didn’t have to beat myself up about a day without vegetables, or “nacho night” actually spanning three nights, but rather, it was the overall balance of food intake that mattered. You can apply this rule to many, many things. Maybe you like to avoid screens, but a few days or weeks of easier access is unlikely to make a difference or undermine your general approach. Maybe you like to buy secondhand, but it’s worth investing in some new puzzles. Maybe you don’t love your mom watching your kids, cause she complains about their carb intake and lets them wear her makeup, but maybe in this case it's worth it.
5. Be an imperfect human
And remember that other humans are also imperfect. You will probably cycle through many different feelings about the strike, particularly because it concerns your babies. It’s OK to b*tch about it, declare yourself DONE, or feel animosity toward the union or the district or the unseen forces that pit two under-resourced entities against one another.
But, remember that everyone involved, on all sides, is a person. Even the most checked-out bureaucrat in the front office.
One friend, a working single mother, felt she had to send her kid to school (this was an option for us). She brought him, apologizing as she crossed the picket lines. When the strike was over, she brought our school's union leader a bouquet of flowers to thank her for her efforts. She did her best, and acted with grace and humanity. In the end, that's all you can do.
Also, this is a good time to remember that kids will be stretching themselves over this time too. Your kids might be angels, using their inner rally-monkeys to make this time easier, and then having a delayed reaction to all that effort when the strike is over. Or they might be dysregulated, out of sorts, and hard to handle during the strike, which sucks for you and means you should lean more on whatever comfort, help, and grace you can muster — for everybody.