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Sandy Merz Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Parent Involvment, Social Issues

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I’d rather cough than take medicine. Sure, the medicine provides a good night’s sleep. But it makes me feel weird for days after. My mind lacks focus and doesn’t follow through on thoughts. My work ethic goes into the toilet. My body feels generally relaxed, but my skin is sensitive to the touch. And I’m depressed.

That describes exactly how I feel about #REDforED. I took the medicine and voted to walk out. I wore my T-shirt and attended three local marches. I wrote the governor and my representatives to increase education funding.

But throughout the action, I’ve felt unmoored and insecure as thoughts, both negative and positive, bounced around my head like billiard balls.

First, something positive – the thousands of protesters gathering on the streets and in social media mostly represented our profession well. We were polite and nonviolent, upbeat and having fun. The posters we carried didn’t offend and mostly informed. The most risqué I saw was, “WTF? – Where’s The Funding?” One funny poster that also made a point had pictures from a currently used social studies book that identified our governor as Janet Napolitano, who served from 2003 – 2009. Lots had data comparing Arizona’s dismal per student budget to the national average, which could have been an eye-opener to many in the public.

The movement was largely bipartisan, too. I saw as many posters saying, “I’m a conservative Republican and support fully funding public education,” as I saw saying, “Stop corporate greed.”

But here’s where some weirdness for me comes in. First, on a personal level, I feel lonely in crowds; so, even though I found friends to hang out with during marches, I couldn’t wait to bolt.

More importantly, throughout the walkout, I felt we were setting ourselves up. Fifty thousand marchers is a lot, and packing the galleries in the House and Senate with red made great optics. But to win, we needed to get three Republican senators and six Republican representatives to create majorities to pass our proposals and then convince the governor not to veto the bill. In those nuts and bolts challenges, we failed – an easily predictable outcome in Arizona.

Sure, we moved the needle on education funding, and we’ll get a proposition on the ballot, and the state may finally properly fund public education. So, maybe the walkout was a necessary condition to produce the results we seek in November. But for now the walkout wasn’t sufficient, and any solace we take feels more like kissing a sibling than going on a honeymoon.

Sliding into the negative, whereas we mostly represented the profession well, I think in some areas we could do better. Every school employee should have had a chance to vote, but I know at my wife’s school, her cafeteria team was never approached by #REDforED. I also heard from a colleague that at her school only teachers voted. Additionally, the only result that was reported was the final count. The was no breakdown based on job titles or location (rural or urban). That data would be informative and it’s fair to ask, Where’s the transparency?

Another problem with the voting was that the only question was whether we favored walking out. Before the voting was even concluded, many were asking if it was just for two days, or if we were all in, no matter how long it took, and who would make those decisions? So, really, no one knew exactly what we were voting for. Given the option, I would have voted only for a two-day walkout. Without the option, I took a leap of faith, accepted the uncertainty, and felt weird about it.

I also want to push back against three common statements that I often hear. First, whenever anyone pointed out the disparate economic impact that a walkout would have on our lowest-paid employees, someone would always say, “We’re doing it for them.” Well, maybe, but considering we don’t know how “they” voted, or even if “they” were given the chance, it’s patronizing to make such a claim. Moreover, you have to be pretty out of touch to cavalierly dismiss the impact of losing seven of ten days’ wages in a single pay period on someone who may only bring home $600 to begin with.

Second, whenever anyone referred to the disruption to families who had to find care for their children, you’d hear a teacher say, “See, the public just sees us as daycare!” Well, for 180 days a year, we do take care of our students during the day. When districts decided to close schools, the number one reason was that not enough staff would be present to ensure the safety of the students, rather than not enough present to educate them. So, no, we’re not babysitters, but why the hostility toward parents voicing a legitimate concern? Ironically, a leading comment from #REDtoED’s opponents was, “Teachers need to be in classes educating our children.” That suggests that at least they don’t see us as mere daycare.

Finally, about the general disruption the walkout produced, many supporters would say, “That’s the point!” But I thought the point was to convince the public to fully fund education. To that end, we have enough enemies, and it seems counterproductive to gratuitously antagonize anybody, as the comment implies we should. After it was clear we would fall short of our goals, some posters showed up saying, “We’ll remember in November.” An attendant question should be, “What do we want others to remember?” If the answer is how we disrupted their daily lives for seven days, we shouldn’t be disillusioned if the elections backfire.

I could go on, but that’s enough to illustrate why I worry that like cough medicine, #REDforED might only provide something that feels like a cure, but really just leaves me depressed.


I grew up in Silver City, New Mexico and went the University of New Mexico, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in Geology. After working for the U.S. Geological Survey in remote regions of western New Mexico, I moved to Tucson to attend graduate school at the University of Arizona, earning a Master of Science degree in Hydrogeology. While working as an intern hydrologist for a local county agency, I started doing volunteer work that involved making presentations in schools. At that moment I knew teaching was the path to follow. It must have been a good decision because I’m still on the path after thirty-two years. My teaching certificates are in math and science and I am a National Board Certified Teacher in Career and Technical Education. After teaching engineering and math and elective classes at the same school in downtown Tucson my whole career, I've moved to a different middle school and district on the edge of town to teach math. In addition to full time teaching, I am actively involved in the teacher leadership movement by facilitating National Board candidates, blogging for Stories from School Arizona, and serving on the Arizona K12 Center’s TeacherSolutions team. In January 2017, Raytheon Missile System named me a Leader in Education and I'm a former Arizona Hope Street Fellow.

Comments 11

  1. Jess Ledbetter

    Sandy, this is such a wise blog that echoes a feeling I’m having myself. Things were especially weird for me since I was an observer of all these things vicariously while house bound with a very young infant. Watching from afar, I can’t help but think that the #REDforED movement swept up teachers like a flash flood before anyone had a direction in mind. I felt highly concerned when the media kept making it about teacher pay…and of course, they interviewed plenty of teachers who talked only about their pay. I kept feeling that the message was wrong. Whether that was the media controlling the dialogue or teachers making naive mistakes, I will never know. But I can see why some citizens had difficulty getting behind #REDforED. The movement appeared to be self-serving. The result is that our legislature got by with hardly any increased funding for AZ kids. What could have been a whole-state movement of concerned citizens asking for money for kids turned into a divided movement of people who either supported teachers’ personal interests (more pay) and those who didn’t. Those who did support teachers’ quest for more pay were loving, generous people. But I can’t blame those who couldn’t support us. We should have made it more clear that we were focused on the kids. There is a great book by Lois Weiner that talks about how teachers unions need to take on social justice topics and work together with the community to achieve them rather than focusing on self interests. What happened with #REDforED is a perfect illustration of what happens when people don’t take her advice. I hope that we can work together to rebuild what has been lost and to strengthen the good things that have come out of it. I think the yucky feeling we have left is that teachers somewhat benefited out of the movement (slightly more pay) but we actually weren’t able to achieve the goal of getting more money for kids. I think the best way to shake the yucky feeling is for teachers to commit that we will continue working toward that goal in professional ways that involve our community and all stakeholders in the dialogue and the actions. Thanks for what you have written here. I am looking forward to the dialogue it promotes.

    1. Sandy Merz

      Oh, man, I wish I had written, “I can’t help but think that the #REDforED movement swept up teachers like a flash flood before anyone had a direction in mind.” I’m really concerned that perhaps the leaders did have a direction in mind but kept it vague by design. Almost immediaty after the voting results were in I received daily updates to call in and report my absence for the next few days as if a long walkout was intended from the beginning. If that were the case, the ballot should have been clearer. I listen a lot to NPR and whereas they started talking about how it was all about teachers’ pay, they did change their reporting to make sure they gave a more comprehensive summary of our goals. Thanks for the book recommendation, I look for the time to check it out, but need the title. Here is a link to her books at Amazon:

      1. Jess Ledbetter

        Yes, I felt swept away. The idea of getting better funding for education was so appealing that I jumped in the water immediately. It wasn’t until we were all headed down river that I started wondering about the decision we had made. It was concerning to see that we lost so much community support. I think we made a big mistake voting for the walkout when we did. I know that the timeline was short before the legislative budget was done–and perhaps the timing was right in that case. But I think we should have foreseen the loss of public support when we immediately voted for a walkout right on the heels of the #20by2020 proposal. Perhaps we should have waited for a few days until there had been enough time for the public to read about the flaws of the proposal–or given them time to see that it wasn’t really going anywhere. I also really wish that #REDforED had made a call to action for the community during the press conference. The leaders could have said how we empathize with the challenges it creates for families, but that we need to band together on behalf of kids. I think the #REDforED movement made the mistake of assuming that the community would understand why it was necessary, but we didn’t involve them enough as stakeholders or ask them to come along on the wild ride. It seemed like we were well down the river before we realized how many parents were still on the shore. I think there is a lot to be learned from AZ for any other states that find this type of movement necessary in their future. Anyhow, thanks for the discussion. The title of the book is called “The Future of Our Schools” (Lois Weiner). It’s written as advice for unions, but I actually wrote a paper after reading the book making the case that it’s advice for all groups of teachers (union or non-union) who seek to accomplish a goal in the community. If you read the book, I’d love to chat about it :)

        1. Sandy Merz

          What great points, as always. I wish they had made a call to community action. I’ll see if I can get my hands on the book so we can chat – and maybe write about it.

  2. Amethyst Hinton Sainz

    I sure hope you are wrong, but your concerns are what made being a site liaison so stressful, for sure. That uncertainty, that partial helplessness that came along with signing on to something I largely believed in, but the results of which I could not predict… it still weighs on me.

    Our campus was very concerned with the impact on classified workers. I still am. We made sure to get their votes and include them in our communications. But I know that couldn’t have been the case everywhere, and at any rate our donations can’t make up for half a paycheck lost. It’s significant.

    Ay our district we have decided to put eyes from each school on meet and confer. Some of the eyes at our school will be of ESP’s, and I am glad, because all perspectives need to be represented.

    My district has a bond election this fall. We really need to be careful to keep the issues as non-partisan as possible… I worry, though, with fresh wounds for many parents.

    Great points as the movement marches on.

    1. Sandy Merz

      Thank you for this comment. I suppose my biggest concern is the collateral impact our actions have on those who aren’t sufficiently or inconsistently consulted.

      1. Jess Ledbetter

        I completely agree. In my district, the people who were not teachers of record were not included on Return to Work survey. I know this was because our leadership was trying to get straight to the facts from the group of people that are required to attend work for kids to be present. I doubt that they anticipated the hurt that would come from the many teachers and classified workers who did not get the opportunity to vote each time. I heard from colleagues in many other districts who DID have classified included in the survey. I think this was wise and acknowledges the importance of these people in those districts. I completely believe that my district values classified workers and special areas teachers as much as other districts (because it shows in other actions). But there were certainly unintended consequences by not including them on the survey. If there are lessons to be learned from Arizona, I really think this is one of them.

  3. Susan Roberta Kurtz

    I have been teaching for over 20 years and I do not feel that asking for better pay is self-serving. Yes, it benefits the children, although indirectly, by keeping good teachers in our state and being able to competively recruit new teachers. I am appalled at the large number of longterm substitute teachers in our classrooms. They are good people, but are they at all invested in their school knowing that they are there temporarily? I think the support staff were brutally screwed in this bill and hope that will change, but in no way am I ashamed to say that I deserve better pay.

  4. Susan Collins

    Thank you for voicing some of the same concerns I have had. I kept voicing as a liaison and rural representative, that the rural communities needed more time. My community mobilized quickly (which has surprised all of us), but many smaller communities surrounding us, never even had a voice. I would also have like to have seen a break down by county, rural, urban, and suburban, classified, certified, and non-instructional personnel. I love what Jess said about being swept up in a flash flood…that’s exactly what it felt like. I feel like we have the backing of our community here, we are stronger and are still working on educating the “non school” portion of our population. There could be a good bit of collateral damage, time will tell. I’m sure it will look different in every community.

  5. Beth Maloney

    Thanks for sharing this perspective, Sandy. It’s really interesting to hear how different districts and schools handled this unprecedented situation. My school included our support and classified staff in our vote, but now that you mentioned cafeteria staff, I do not know that they were offered a vote. My district (through the IBA process) voted to give classified staff a 5% raise and all certified staff (including non-rostered teachers) a 10% raise. Classified staff was also given the opportunity to make up the lost hours on our make-up days. I know that I learned so much about organizing and mobilizing through the process. I hope it is the beginning of a larger conversation in Arizona about education.

  6. Angela Buzan

    Personally, I take solace in reading testimonials that admit at least a degree of ambivalence about the movement. My father-in-law is a millwright who attributes the success of his career to a strong union and workers who were willing to strike (he said they called non-participants “scabs”, hahah), but when our professional revolves around children instead of heavy machinery, it’s only natural that participation (in its varied forms) would be emotional , or at least subjective.

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