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Every day in my class we watch a 10-minute news segment. Recently the Oklahoma teachers' strike flashed across the screen and one of my students raised her hand.

"Tell me y'all ain't gonna do that."

"Go on strike?"

"Yeah."

"Might be cool," I said. "You'd get out of school."

She looked at me like I was stupid. "This place better than the trailer."

I teach ninth through 12th grade in Arkansas. My school is called the Secondary Learning Center. If you asked other teachers in the district, they'd probably tell you, "It's where we send the bad kids."

Sure, my students fight. Sure, they battle with substance abuse. Sure, they have problems. They're kids. But let me tell you something about my students: They need me. They need school. They need teachers, here, in the classrooms, giving them high fives when they walk through the door. They need us more than new textbooks or iPads.

Which leads me to America's teacher-strike epidemic. Educators from West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma certainly had their reasons. Data from the National Education Association show that in 2016, West Virginia ranked 48th in average teacher salaries. Oklahoma ranked 49th. After adjusting for inflation, teacher salaries have slipped 1.3 percent since 2000, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

I'm a teacher. My parents were teachers. We never had the fanciest cars or name-brand clothes, but we made it. I know single-parent teachers who work extra jobs in the summer, women with master's degrees waiting tables on the weekends.

But is that reason enough to strike? For some it is, but what about the country as a whole? I'm worried the strikes will spread like wildfire to states where conditions aren't as bad as Oklahoma or West Virginia. We'll see teachers across the country in mass exodus--students and parents left to fend for themselves. And that's scary.

Here's why: That girl who raised her hand earlier, the one who said, "This place better than the trailer," she knows. She gets free breakfast and lunch from our school. She has a daughter, almost 2 years old, and she's working hard to graduate. She values her education, even if she cusses in the cafeteria. Even if some mornings, after her toddler cried all night, she sleeps in class. She wants to be at school because school is safe.

But if teachers go on strike, that girl goes back to the trailer. We're talking about strikes that could span from now through November. We're talking about students missing a lot of school.

If we see widespread teacher strikes, there will be ramifications for our students. Maybe they'll look upon the strikes and learn to be brave, to stand up for what they believe in. Or maybe they'll sit at home for a few weeks and miss their prom or senior football season.

If the strikes die off and the kids stay in the classroom, there will also be consequences. Hardworking teachers could miss out on a chance at extra income for their families.

So what's the answer? Maybe politicians need to think back to the first rule they learned in kindergarten. It's golden: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

American schools teach us how to be an American. I've never used the quadratic equation, but the life lessons I learned in school--those remain. Lessons like: "Show up on time"; "be prepared"; and "you can be anything you set your mind to." What we teach matters; it's the foundation of our society.

So we keep teaching (or striking, if need be). And maybe we'll have to wait until today's student--that girl who raised her hand--runs for office, or votes, or raises up the next generation of Americans, and maybe then she'll remember a lesson she learned in school: The classroom is always better than the trailer.

Maybe.

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Eli Cranor writes and teaches in Arkansas. He is the recipient of the Greensboro Review's 2018 Robert Watson Literary Prize. He can be reached at elicranor.com.

Editorial on 04/23/2018

Print Headline: Lessons learned

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