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Striking Signs

Malayna Bernstein portrait

Questions by Jake Stump
Photographed by Raymond Thompson Jr.

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On Feb. 22, 2018, roughly 20,000 West Virginia teachers and school workers began a two-week strike over low pay and increasing healthcare costs. The strike was unlike any other in recent memory, inspiring teachers across the country from Arizona to North Carolina to Oklahoma to walk out as well. State and national media showed images of picket lines and seas of protestors wielding colorful, cleverly worded signs at the West Virginia Capitol Complex.


 

Malayna Bernstein, director of learning sciences programs at the College of Education and Human Services, saw the value in chronicling the strike – through the protest signs. Bernstein teamed up with Audra Slocum, assistant professor of English education in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction/Literary Studies, and Rosemary Hathaway, associate professor of English, to study the strike and launch an archive that documents the educators’ experiences.



Why did you choose to study the West Virginia teachers’ strike of 2018?

For those of us in the College of Education, we place our student-teachers in those classrooms. We hold professional development for them here or they come back for a master’s or doctoral degree. We’re in the community supporting teachers and we’re researching teachers all the time. Also, it wasn’t just the teachers who walked out. It was the bus drivers, the cafeteria workers and the custodial staff. It was a hugely coordinated effort across all school personnel. I was with my kid doing homework at a Starbucks when we ran into a teacher who was on the picket lines. I remember her taking me through all these personal details of the timeline surrounding the walkout. Later that weekend, I was at a neighborhood barbecue with [history Professor] Ken Fones-Wolf, and we started talking about the walkout. I said, ‘You know, I feel like there are all of these teachers who didn’t get to tell their stories, and we’re going to lose them.’ That’s when we started thinking about this notion of an archive.

How did you conduct your research?

We realized the rhetorical power of so many of the teachers’ signs. We came across a Facebook page for public employees and asked if they could take a picture of their signs and post them before they threw them out. I went on to save 1,800 posts within a few days. All of the things we value most about educators were being showcased in these signs. Talk about cleverness with words and humor.

So what did that research show?

We found five themes that emerged from our analysis of the protest signs: (From her research in English Education)

1. They showed the teacher as a professional. Responding to dismissive discourse about teachers that positioned them more akin to babysitters, many crafted signs that articulated the variety of tasks, roles and educational requirements of teaching.
2. Teacher as content specialist. There were allusions to literature – Shakespeare, Harry Potter, Dr. Seuss – using quotations, imagery and characters along with other literacy signaling, such as a sign composed as a dictionary entry: “Stupidity: \stoo-pit-e-te\ Expecting HIGHLY QUALIFIED TEACHERS to stay in WV with LOW WAGES and Increasing Premiums!”
3.Teachers as moral authority. In these signs, teachers claimed their right to protest as an inherent part of their work as teachers.
4.Teachers as a valuable resource. Underlying the issue of under-compensation was the general undervaluing of teachers and education. Responsively, many teachers asserted their social value.
5.Teachers as inheritors of cultural legacies. Other signs drew on the complex cultural and economic history of the United States broadly and of West Virginia specifically. The state’s coal and labor histories were evoked in a number of signs, such as one reading, “WV miners fought to keep the lights on. WV teachers are, too.” What is it about the 2018 strike that makes it particularly unique and historic? It was the only walkout in our history where every county was represented. That’s where the “55 Strong” motto really came from. And bottom up – it was driven by the teachers, not the unions, although they were responsive and helpful in organizing the protests. It was dramatic and unbelievably inspirational.