With signs in hand, educators from across East Texas sat, stood and cheered in front of the Gregg County Courthouse Wednesday to show their support for each other and legislators working for them.
In total, about 800 public school employees – from superintendents and principals to bus drivers and cafeteria workers – gathered on the courthouse lawn with their signs asking that Texas legislators hear their collective voice.
The teachers came to the courthouse with one simple request: to be respected.
“I want to declare before anybody else has a chance that the educators’ sleeping giant is finally awake!” Texas Retired Teachers Association Executive Director Tim Lee told the group.
The July 12 rally came less than a week before the start of the Texas Legislature’s special session begins July 18. Public school funding and teacher retirement and insurance plans are all included on the agenda, along with another dozen items.
“Our love for teaching and our love for children does not disqualify our need for benefits. Those are not two mutually exclusive things,” KISD curriculum director Zevely Hatcher said. “And us standing up for ourselves does not mean we’re not in it for the children.”
“(Educators) don’t want to get to the end of their time of working and then all of a sudden they’ve got to either keep working or get another job because they cannot survive the way it is,” Sabine ISD first grade teacher Sue Quinn said.
“We protect a national treasure, that’s our kids, so it’s important for us to come together because we have a great responsibility for that national treasure,” KISD director of advanced academics Jennie Good said.
The topics are important and concerns for both current and retired teachers, retired Sabine ISD teacher Cheryl Kallenberger said. With a daughter in college, much of her retirement goes into keeping her child on her insurance plan.
Sabine Elementary School Principal Teri Bass said it is not unusual for teachers to spend their own money on classroom supplies also.
“Because of funding, many teachers dig deep in their own pocket to pay for classroom expenses that were not covered by schools because we don’t have it,” she said. “I’m speaking from the administrative end, we don’t have it to give, and they want to make the best opportunity for those children and for it to be exciting.”
Nearly every hand in the crowd shot up when retired teacher Suzanne Bardwell asked if during their careers they had spent their own money on school supplies, fundraisers, payment for a student field trip, clothing for a child in need, a student’s lunch or helped a student struggling with an internal conflict, family issues or other crises both at home and at school.
“The list is endless… And people say, ‘Get a real job,’?” she said. “We’re their parents. We’re their nurse. We’re their counselors. Teachers change lives. Educators change lives… You are heroes. You are educators, and you matter.”
“If you don’t take care of your teachers, who’s going to take care of your kids?” Kilgore High School CTE specialist Jenny Baggett asked.
In her 21 years in teaching, Baggett said, she could not think of another time public school employees rose up to hold a countywide rally.
“This is a great opportunity for us to have a voice in matters that are really affecting public education, our schools, our staff and ultimately our students,” Kilgore Middle School Principal April Cox said.
“Where would the families of Texas be if the most experienced teachers among us decided to walk out of the classroom today because they’re sick and tired of how we’re being treated by folks in the legislature who have the power to make a difference?” Lee asked the crowd, who cheered along with him.
He encouraged the teachers to speak with their votes and show legislators, such as District 1 Rep. Gary Vandeaver, they support those who support them.
“Gary Vandeaver needs to know that when he takes votes in the legislature, when he stands up in front of the front light or the back light and he’s defending teachers that when he goes hone, he’s not going to be primaried and voted out for standing up for teachers,” Lee said. “That’s what we need to do; that is political courage. You will find out that legislators will be able to take a stand when they know that active teachers are going to vote in a primary.”
As a group, Kilgore ISD’s Chandler Elementary School Principal Cindy Lindley said, Texas teachers could be a powerful force because of their size.
“It’s just good to see a lot of teachers out here supporting and speaking out,” she said.
Even though they all represent different districts, she said, they stand united as educators.
They might not have matching hats or badges, but many wore red shirts to show a united front, Hatcher said, and together, Texas educators form an unofficial union.
“We all are part of the same retirement system and insurance, and collectively we’re a really large group that needs to bind together and stand up for ourselves,” she said.
Bass was excited to see how many crowded onto the courtyard lawn as the 10 a.m. start time neared.
“We’ve always said if a lot of teachers would come together, we could make a change, and I think we’re here. We’re here to bring it on,” she said.
Many teachers have dedicated years of their life to giving back to their community through the classroom and the students they encounter, and in return, they want to feel appreciated, Quinn said.
“You ask anyone, ‘Was there a teacher in your life that made a difference?’ Most people will have that teacher’s name on the tip of their tongue,” Gregg County Judge Bill Stoudt said, noting his third grade teacher and his wife, a retired teacher, are the two most influential teachers in his life.
One day in third grade, Stoudt said, he joined in with some friends making spitballs when their teacher’s back was turned.
“I had never done that, but I thought it was kind of neat, so I thought I’d do it,” he said. “Lo and behold, she turned around about the time I did it, and she walked over to where I was sitting, and she looked at me, and she asked if she could have a word with me out in the hall.”
That experience taught Stoudt about the consequences that follow each decision.
In addition to the classroom material, he said, “She even taught me things that she didn’t realize, especially when she was standing over my desk with both her hands on her hip asking me to go outside. On a serious note, it is you who listen to our children, who challenge them and who encourage them to stand up for their values and to do the right thing. Teachers will educate our future leaders on the importance of the Constitution, show the next Van Cliburn how to tickle the keys on a piano and ignite a spark in that bright young student’s mind who might just be the one who cures cancer.”
Stoudt has seen the excitement and disappointment associated with teaching through his wife, Suzanne, and said “Losing just one good teacher is one too many.”
When Lee, executive director of the Texas Retired Teachers Association, visited Longview ISD’s convocation four years ago, there were more than 1,500 employees in attendance, but, he said, “Statistics tell me that more than half of those people are now out of education… “We lose 45,000 school employees in Texas a year.”
Pay, funding, voucher fears and healthcare costs are some of the top reasons teachers leave the profession, he continued.
Lee said he has no problem with elected officials having health insurance benefits and a defined benefit plan when they retire.
“What I have a problem with are some of the elected officials that have a problem with you having those things,” he said. “I am sick and tired of the double standard.”
Although Lee is not a current or retired teacher, he said, he has four children who attend Texas schools, and he wants the best teachers in Texas schools. Teachers need to start standing up for themselves, though.
“Today in Longview let it be known that you are the ones ringing the alarm bell, that you are the ones standing up for what is going to have to be the new normal,” he said. “The normal where teachers are going to say, ‘You’re going to treat us with respect or you’re fired.’ We have a 30-day special session; now is the time. Call your legislators. If they support teachers, you support them. If they support more money for your health care, you support them. If they say, ‘Well, we’ve got to see,’ that’s a no. That’s a no. Bravery and courage is so much easier when 1.3 million people are standing up with us. Today’s the day… Today’s the day. They go into session next week, 30 days. We’ve got to make a difference.”
“You are the largest voting bloc in the state of Texas,” Bardwell said. “One in 20 Texans are a member of the Texas retirement system, and teachers and public school employees vote. We’ve got to begin using our teacher voices people. We’ve got to stand together for ourselves, and we’ve got to stand for the retirees and we’ve got to stand for the teachers and the public school employees in the system right now. My name is Suzanne Bardwell; I’m a retired teacher of 33 years.”
District 1 Rep. Gary Vandeaver, who represents Bowie, Franklin, Lamar and Red River Counties, was a teacher before retiring and moving into the world of politics, and he reminded the crowd teachers do have friends in Austin.
“It’s important that we know who those friends are and we protect them and then we do what we have to do with those who are not friends to make the system work better, work efficiently and be fair,” he said. “That’s really all we’re asking, let’s be fair about the system. We have served our entire careers helping children, give children a boost and most of those children are going to go on to make salaries that will overwhelm the salaries we make as educators, and we’re OK with that. We’re OK with giving them that opportunity.”
Educators influence their communities every day, White Oak ISD Superintendent Mike Gilbert said.
“We talk to our kids about being difference makers. Do things in your life that are good for other people. There are no greater difference makers than there are standing on this lawn and sitting around this courtyard today,” he said. “You make a difference in the lives of kids in your classroom. By making a difference in the lives of your kids in your classroom, it multiplies exponentially into the community around you, into the state in such a way that the Texas public school system and local systems that you’re involved with are the difference makers in this community.”
That impact can be carried to the state level, he said.
“Use your influence, people,” Gilbert continued. “Stand up for your healthcare benefits. Stand up to protect your pension. Stand up to support funded salary increases for teachers. Stand up for the small schools. Stand against vouchers that would not require private schools to adhere to the same standards you have to adhere to. We haven’t had a cost of living raise in 16 years, retired teachers, about time we had one.”
One million votes in the Republican primary election set the slate on state office holders, Longview ISD Superintendent James Wilcox said.
“One million. With our spouses, we’ve got nearly three times that many votes,” he said.
“I don’t like to be political, but I think it’s coming to a point where we’re going to have to be,” Daingerfield-Lone Star ISD teacher Nancy Loyd said. “We’re going to have to start standing up for ourselves because nobody’s going to stand up for us. We’re the least respected career, but where would you be if you didn’t have teachers? People don’t seem to have that philosophy.”
Funding for public education should be a given, not a question, her fellow DLSISD tiger Janet Larsen said. As they continue the fight for Texas public education, though, supporters and educators have to remember someone is fighting on the other side for something else.
“You got to fight just as hard as they are. We’ve got to make it good again. We’ve got to make it what it was,” she said.
Dennis Williams, assistant superintendent at Longview ISD, said he hopes to see the grassroots movement grow, quoting the oft-used adage “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.”
It is not that teachers do not care, Kilgore ISD Superintendent Cara Cooke said. It is that they are focused on doing the best jobs they can in Texas public schools. Proud to see how many fellow educators – both current and retired – helped lend their voices Wednesday morning, she said, teachers must begin paying closer attention to what is happening at the state level regarding education.
“We’ve got to make ourselves stop and listen and then speak up and let our voices be heard because we shouldn’t be treated like this,” she said. “Educators should not be treated like this.”
Bardwell said she was overwhelmed to see the support the rally had.
“I’m so proud of the teachers, and I’m so grateful for all the groups that came from other areas to support this, all the educators because we’ve got to remember it’s not just teachers. It’s the bus drivers and cafeteria workers, all of them,” she said.