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’
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.