On the morning of September 28th, hundreds of students filed into the Garfield High School gymnasium. Some held signs, some took pictures, and some had no idea why they were there. Teachers held binders with their names on them, hoping to organize their disoriented pupils amidst the chaos.
“We realize this looks messy,” said Nathan Simoneaux, an 11th grade humanities teacher, while addressing the crowd. “Democracy is messy. Civic action is messy.”
When the sudden news broke the day before that two Garfield teachers, Jessie Purcell and Amy Miller, were being displaced, their fellow educators knew they had to take immediate action. They assembled rapidly on Friday morning and decided to give students the option to join them in a sit-in, which lasted until lunch. Students who did not wish to partake could stay in the school commons with other teachers.
Such displacements are not uncommon. In fact, they happen every year. The difference this year is that the displacements took place several weeks after school had started, when schedules and classes had already been solidified. It is also unusual to remove educators who instruct courses that are required for graduation. These courses—PE and health —disproportionately serve students of color and low-income students, who often cannot take part in after school sports or enroll in an expensive online health class. (Such actions would allow students to waive these mandatory courses.) This decision does not appear to be based on seniority or on a lack of enrollment in Purcell or Miller’s courses which is why many are left with unanswered questions.
“I am heartbroken,” said Purcell, who has taught at Garfield for six years to the crowd in the gym.
Purcell’s students gathered around her, giving her hugs. Many were crying. It was apparent to every person in that gym how many lives she had touched.
“I provide a home for a large population of our students,” Purcell wrote in an email to the Garfield staff that Thursday, “…This population at Garfield doesn’t get enough love and support and I truly believe that I provide that by being their teacher.”
As students began to rally around their educators, frustration on the district’s side fueled a retaliation effort. First, a human resources email was sent to the Garfield staff, directing them to “return to [their] professional and instructional duties as outlined in [their] collective bargaining agreement.” The district then dispatched over fifty certified teaching officials from the central office to Garfield to serve as stand-ins in the event that the protest continued after lunch.
When interviewed, the majority of these officials had little understanding of the situation, with some even asking us to explain to them why they had been sent.
These actions speak volumes about the district’s view of learning. They appear to care more about keeping up appearances and checking off boxes than allowing students to take part in authentic learning experiences.
“We have the opportunity to learn far more on a day like today,” said ethnic studies teacher and union representative Jesse Hagopian during the sit in. “This is learning through being,” added english teacher Adam Gish.
The issue here is a lack of transparency on many levels. While the new teacher contract does have a clear “no strike” clause, students do have the right to freedom of assembly, as noted by Mr. Howard in a letter to families sent out on Friday. Had students and teachers been informed of the possibility of teacher displacement earlier, there may have been time for a more thought out plan of action led by students.
While the sit in itself was spearheaded by teachers, many students demonstrated their solidarity by standing up to speak about personal experiences with the displaced teachers. They also discussed the importance of sex education and consent education learned in health class, and the disproportionate impact this decision will have on disadvantaged students. Many students and teachers claimed that the displacements were alltogether unnecessary because the district has enough money in reserves, though the details of this are unclear.
Although Sarah Pritchett, Executive Director of Schools for the Central region of Seattle Public Schools, claims that this is an “adult issue, not a kid issue,” these decisions impact students directly. By now, Pritchett and much of the Seattle school district is aware that Garfield is not a school that will sit idly in the face of injustices, even “adult” ones.
“It takes a lot of bravery to stand up to something that is terribly wrong,” said Ke’Von Avery, a senior at Garfield and member of local student activist group New Generation in a speech to the gym. “If you’re sitting in this gym, I appreciate you. This is the Garfield that I want to be a part of, this is the Garfield that is unified.”
The following Wednesday, October 3rd, the Building Leadership Team, along with other staff, met to discuss the actions taken by teachers the Friday before. Although Clover Codd, Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources, repeatedly said she was “here with a spirit of listening,” despite repeated explanations from members of the Garfield staff, she continued to express her confusion and lack of understanding for the teachers’ actions. The visible divide and lack of clarity for both sides led to all GHS teachers’ salaries being docked two hours worth of pay. This demonstrates a flaw in the system: another example of issues pertaining directly to students without any students included in the conversation.
There are many narratives surrounding the sit in. Teachers were outraged at the sudden displacement of two of their colleagues. The district was upset with the teachers decision to protest. But the students are the ones being left out of these narratives. We are the ones who are directly impacted by the bureaucratic confusion.
While students may not have been sitting in classrooms and studying from textbooks that Friday, learning was definitely taking place. Education should not look like students at desks all day; education should look like students being inspired by teachers who stand up for themselves and for their students, even in the face of uncertainty.
Since that Friday, we have asked a lot of questions. Of teachers, of students, of district officials. We do not know exactly who told Principal Howard he needed to displace two teachers, but we do know that being a principal for a school as civically engaged as Garfield is not an easy job. We do not know how the health and PE teachers were selected to be displaced, but we do know that these classes are crucial graduation requirements. We do not know if it is true that the district has 50 million dollars sitting in a reserve fund waiting to be spent, but we do know that the city is spending 200 million dollars on a youth jail rather than investing more in educating youth.
We do not know a lot of things. But we are learning. And our teachers are teaching us.