“Can I afford to do the job I love?” It’s an important question most of us have asked ourselves, especially if our passion lends itself to nontraditional employment; after all, the “starving artist” cliché exists for a reason. But now, teachers and public employees in West Virginia have to ask themselves this question on a daily basis. Can they afford to continue doing the job they love?
No one goes into teaching for the money. In West Virginia there are 680 public schools, over a quarter-million students, and 19,488 teachers. There are also 727 teacher vacancies, a problem attributed to the state’s low pay (48th in the country) and now, skyrocketing health care costs through PEIA, the Public Employees Insurance Agency. Rising costs of health care coupled with low pay means that teachers and public employees are now losing even more of their take-home pay. Many are leaving the state simply because they can’t afford to stay.
Currently the unions representing teachers have called for a work stoppage, meaning that every single public school in West Virginia is currently closed. If a resolution is not reached, the governor may call for an injunction, ordering all teachers and public employees to return to work. At that point, the work stoppage becomes a strike, which is illegal in West Virginia and puts teachers at risk of legal action.
I spoke to Jessica Salfia, an English teacher at Spring Mills High School in Berkeley County, West Virginia. Salfia is a miraculous force of nature, the kind of person I aspire to be one day. She teaches Advanced Placement classes, coaches youth basketball, advises the Diversity Club, organizes school events, and prepares students for college and the workforce. She’s also the recipient of the 2015 Arch Coal Teacher Achievement Award, the 2016 Berkeley County Teacher of the Year Award, and is nominated for the 2018 Stephen L. Fisher teaching award. Salfia is also the president of the West Virginia Council of Teachers of English. She also has three children with her husband, a fellow educator in West Virginia.
I first met Salfia when she was an adjunct professor at my alma mater. Her enthusiasm and dedication to her profession was my tipping point, the reason I decided to begin writing about the things that matter to me and my community, which in turn opened doors I never thought possible. She changed my life because that’s what teachers do – encourage us to grow.
During our chat Salfia spoke passionately and earnestly about the realities facing educators in her home state. She says many simply want to continue to do the work they love, which is only possible with a change in pay, health insurance, or both. Over the past week Salfia and many of her colleagues have met with legislators, delegates, superintendents, union reps, and various media outlets to advocate for their cause. According to Salfia, if a strike goes into effect the teachers of West Virginia have decided to focus their efforts on PEIA, which would significantly lower health care costs for all public employees and benefit more individuals and families than giving a raise to teachers only.
And that, dear reader, speaks volumes about the teachers who choose to stay. Remember that all this is happening during a time when teachers are expected to try and meet the needs of each individual student, bring out the best in our young people, and even take a bullet for them if necessary. Give them your support as this plays out because they’re still teaching – teaching us to respect and stand up for ourselves, to know our worth, and to ask for it. Isn’t that worth a living wage and affordable benefits?