As part of the women’s strike on Wednesday, public schools in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, North Carolina and in Alexandria, Virginia opted to shut down for the day. School officials made the call after hundreds of faculty members requested leaves for what was otherwise known as “A Day Without a Woman.” The strike urged women across the country to abstain from work and shopping, among other acts, as a show of resistance. In a statement about the school closings, Alexandria City Public School officials noted that their decision was “based solely on our ability to provide sufficient staff to cover all our classrooms, and the impact of high staff absenteeism on student safety and delivery of instruction” and “not based on a political stance or position.”
The school closings naturally agitated parents who felt inconvenienced and critics who suggested that teachers were neglecting their responsibilities. Elsewhere, in cities where schools were open for the day, individual teachers took off to participate in protests. In Philadelphia, 33 teachers at Bayard Taylor Elementary called out from work, citing specific salary issues. The teachers I spoke to from schools that closed were adamant that International Women’s Day wasn’t actually a day off—one teacher spent the day in the office and another spent it grading papers.
“Any teacher worth their salt hates to be out of the classroom. Taking a day off creates much more work than it saves,” a teacher at Chapel Hill High School who asked not to be identified stated via email. “Teachers can’t just not show up. We have an obligation to plan lessons and leave directions for a substitute which makes taking off for any reason a careful calculation.”
Chapel Hill High teachers who planned to observe the strike, she added, did so with advance notice. “Our district identified a potential issue last week, polled the staff, and then made the decision to shift to a teacher workday last Thursday, giving families plenty of time to arrange for alternate childcare.” Another teacher, an administrator at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia who chose to remain anonymous, supported the strike but contended, by phone, that “when we close the schools, we make a point, but we may also hurt women” and that “even if we took the day off, most women are doing a lot” anyhow.
A teacher and labor rights advocate from Carrboro High School in North Carolina who asked not to be identified said her district is largely liberal and many parents had provisions in place. “Although I do support the women’s strike, I’m not sure if it is the best way to impact change,” she stated. “The reality is that most women are not in a position to strike. Whether it be that they would get fired or the fact that many of the jobs women fill are not jobs that can easily be left for a day. Most nurses and teachers are women and these are not the types of jobs in which you can just not show up. It will be interesting to see how many women actually participated in the strike and what professions they mostly came from.”
The broader point, of course, is that schools would cease to even function under a full-force strike, since women make up a majority of teaching staff. One consistent pushback was that a country with a population that’s half women would logically be crippled by the absence of women (Jimmy Kimmel made this joke during his monologue on Wednesday night’s show), which ignores the purpose of a strike. Another teacher from Carrboro High School who supported the women’s strike and asked not to be identified by name reiterated one of the biggest grievances from teachers, which is that “teachers are largely recognized for being an underpaid, underappreciated profession.”
“The purpose of protest is to send the message that the people are unhappy and wish for change,” Kathryn Edelstein, an english teacher at North Carolina’s East Chapel Hill High School, said via email. “We have a long and successful history of this in our country and I am sorry that so many people are shocked by it. Considering that many of our rights in this country are relatively new, and that we just elected a president who has openly spoken about women in derogatory and disrespectful terms, I think it is most appropriate to show our young students that protest is their right and is often necessary.”
A portion of the criticism came, expectedly, from parents with legitimate concerns about childcare. Kristen Morgan, a ceramics teacher at Chapel Hill High says, “There were parents in our district who called to protest the Women’s Strike as a selfish act, that taking time away from student learning was detrimental to their child. However, I would argue that the opposite is true. Is there a better teacher than experiencing history?”
Other critics simply missed the point of teachers leaving their classrooms to demonstrate or make a statement about their necessity. In a story on The Huffington Post about school closings, a Facebook user commented: “With so much research about our school systems needing more time to focus on quality education in the USA, it seems odd to me that a protest seems appropriate when it has a negative impact on today’s youth. I guess that will show those kids!” This is the type of internet response that could be taken with a grain of salt but one that’s also a representative perspective.
“Some of the comments on the local newspapers’ stories about the decision to cancel schools are truly disheartening,” the Chapel Hill High teacher stated. “Lots of rhetoric about ‘lazy’ or ‘corrupt’ teachers who are wasting taxpayer money when we do something like take a day off, whether to attend a protest or take a sick child to the doctor. This, of course, ignores that teachers are taxpayers, too.” She adds, “If you look at the CNN headline about the strike, it’s ‘‘Day Without a Woman’ strike leaves parents scrambling for childcare,’ as if what teachers provide is childcare, not education, and the sole purpose of a school being open in to have somewhere to stash your child.”
Sarah Kiyak, a teacher at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, said much of the criticism she saw came from Facebook. “People believe we shouldn’t be paid today, should stop complaining, and just wait till the summer to do our protesting,” she says. “To the haters, I welcome them to switch places with me for a day. I’m spending all day today grading essays. Every day, I have to encourage my students that their votes will matter, that their voices matter.”
Teachers on both sides, those who couldn’t afford to miss work and those who could, chose to participate in an act that’s designed to disrupt entire systems and organizations. Opposition, though expected, still stung. “Some teachers chose to remain silent and to focus on their curriculum. I find that to be completely understandable. It’s scary to be on the front lines in the classroom, juggling all of the students’ very real and emotional needs, to then switch gears and simultaneously deal with a bureaucratic, top down structure of administration,” said Morgan. “Initially it’s thrilling to take a stance, but then the reality sets in. What kind of difference am I making? Is this counter-intuitive? Will I be held accountable for this action later when my yearly review comes up?”
She adds, “I do feel supported, but there are times when I am afraid to speak my mind because as teachers we are supposed to remain completely neutral. It is our job to make sure that all students are visible and feel valuable in a space, and speaking about political issues can alienate students.”