There are more than 4,500 educators and 45,000 students in Portland Public Schools (PPS) in Oregon —and that adds up to about 50,000 reasons why Portland Association of Teachers (PAT) members are going on strike tomorrow. These dedicated educators and students don’t have what they need—and deserve—to be successful.
Here are 50 more reasons:
Enormous Class Sizes: Portland teacher Tiffany Koyoma-Lane has had as many as 31 students in her third-grade class, competing for her attention. Frankly, not all of them get it. “The difference between 21 and 31? Every student and family gets less of me,” she says. Class size caps would improve learning, union members say.
Low Pay: “We couldn’t afford to buy our house today,” says fifth-grade teacher David Scholten who lives with his family in Portland. As costs have risen here, teachers’ salaries haven’t kept up. If Portland wants to retain its teachers, it needs to pay them enough money to pay their bills.
Too Little Planning Time: On Mondays and Tuesday, Koyoma-Lane has not a single minute to herself to plan effective lessons. She tells students to practice their cursive Rs while she pulls together math materials. More planning would mean better teaching—and more learning, teachers say.
Outrageous Caseloads: Last year, special education teacher Ginger Huizar had 42 students. This year she has 32 but expects that number to rise as the year goes on. “I’m not able to meet the needs of all my students as effectively as I would if I had half the caseload, or even just 20!” she says.
Unsafe Temperatures: Last year, English Language Development teacher Beyoung Yu taught in a classroom that topped 90 degrees on hot days. “It’s tough for students to focus in that heat,” he says. Union members want the district to commit to safe and healthy schools.
Sexual Harassment: A few weeks ago, a Portland custodian spoke at a school board meeting, describing sexual harassment she endured at work. And she’s not the only one. “We’ve been talking about rodents and mold in school, but I think an even more pressing safety issue is this issue of sexual harassment which has been happening for a long time,” says Scholten. The union wants the district to commit to investigating incidents of sexual harassment—and its responses.
Issues with Racial Equity: When it comes to supporting its educators of color—and its students of color—Portland school officials say a lot of things. Union members want to see action in their next contract. That includes a pay raise so that the district can attract and retain teachers of color.
Caseloads (cont’d): Special education teacher Alisha Chavez-Downing has 13 students. Doesn’t sound like much? Well, each needs assistance using the toilet—and each needs to go at least twice a day. “It adds up to 6 and a half hours. That’s an entire day!” she says.
Low Pay (cont’d): “I’m a single mom. I work two jobs, sometimes three or four,” says Huizar. “I have cheap housing because I’ve lived in the same place for 15 years and I have a very nice owner…If I were to try to move to a 3-bedroom anywhere else in my neighborhood, my rent would be $3,500.” This is one of the reasons Portland teachers are leaving—they can’t afford to stay.
Community Schools: Union members want the district to invest in wrap-around services like after-school services and health centers in schools, so that students and families can get what they truly need to succeed.
Student Behaviors: When students’ needs aren’t met, educators see more violence in their classrooms, notes Huizar. Writing referrals doesn’t help. Pushing kids out doesn’t help either. Hiring additional staff—like school psychologists, social workers, behavioral specialists, and others—would actually help.
Class Sizes (cont’d): Last year, the 36th student assigned to Scholten’s fifth-grade class was a child who’d never attended school before. She also had no English. She needed a lot of support—but so did his other 35 students. Did they get it? “When you have 36 kids, you’re literally just trying to make it through the day,” says Scholten.
Class Sizes (cont’d): Too-big class sizes mean Portland teachers can’t be the educators they want to be, Scholten says. To minimize disruptions, he gets harsh. He governs with fear, instead of love. The fact is that when one teacher has 36 students with complex needs, not every student will get their attention. “You tend to prioritize the ones whose behavior demands it,” he says.
Rodents: At Koyoma-Lane’s elementary school, the kids on the playground split into pro-rat and anti-rat factions last year. The pro-rat students held signs saying, “Peace for the Rats!” The anti-rat kids banded together to chase the rodents away. Other educators see rodent droppings in classrooms, hallways, and shared spaces. This isn’t what safe and healthy schools look like, teachers say.
Mold: Mold grows across ceiling tiles and blooms along school walls. It’s dangerous for educators and students, especially those with asthma and allergies.
Inadequate Heating: For all those days that top 90 degrees in the classroom, as many drop into the 50s. Students shiver at their desk Yu’s son wears a puffy winter coat inside his high school’s art room. He comes home with dried clay all along the sleeves.
More Mental Health Supports: “At the elementary level, we have kids who try to run from [school], who try to run home,” says Scholten. Who is available to sit down with that child and help them learn to regulate their behavior? Not him. Not when he has 35 other students.
Mental Health (cont’d): So many students have experienced trauma. “I have a second grader who went from Columbia to Venezuela to here, and you can tell by how he carries himself that he’s had a lot of lived experiences,” says Yu. These children need mental-health supports, but their schools don’t have people to provide them. These additional people need to be hired.
Planning Time (cont’d): Per the last contract, Huizar is supposed to get 320 minutes for planning each week. If she moved to neighboring Hillsboro, Ore., she’d get a minimum of 450. In Beaverton, it’s 600! “That’s nearly double!” she points out.
Planning Time (cont’d): Making matters worse, Huizar never gets the 320. Because of staffing shortages in her school, Huizar usually spends her planning time attending to students in crisis. “It’s exhausting,” she says. “It’s only November, and I have colleagues who are already absolutely exhausted.”
Planning Time (cont’d): Meanwhile, Portland school officials seem not to understand the value of planning time. It’s not ‘me time,’ for teachers. “We ask for these things for a reason. And it’s not for us, it’s not a break. It’s for us to meet the needs of our students,” says Huizar.
Planning Time (cont’d): “We are the largest district in the state, the most diverse district, and the only urban district in Oregon. We need that planning time to create effective practices and responsive teaching in our classrooms to meet the needs of all our kids,” says Huizar.
Planning Time (cont’d): Portland also has an usually high number of students with IEPs—about 1 in 5 students, Huizar points out. This means education teachers need planning time to scaffold their lessons.
Unsafe Temperatures (cont’d): After hours of 90-degree heat in her classroom, Koyoma-Lane has had students who vomit or get bloody noses.
Unsafe Temperatures (cont’d): Koyoma-Lane buys popsicles for her students. She invents games involving ice cubes. These things help a little. A commitment from the district to install air-conditioning would help a lot more.
Inadequate Heating (cont'd): Last week, the temperature in Huizar’s special education classroom was 58 degrees. It’s unhealthy, she says. It’s also unlawful.
Unsafe Temperatures (cont'd): Meanwhile, last summer, Huizar left a water bottle on her desk one afternoon. When she return to her classroom the following morning, it had melted.
Affordable Housing: Union members want the district to fund a resilience fund to help families in crisis, says Koyoma-Lane. For example, when a student’s family faces eviction, this money could help them stay in their homes.
Affordable Housing (cont’d): More than 4,000 Portland students lack stable housing. Many sleep in cars or on other people’s couches. “I’ve had a kid fall asleep with their face planted in a plate of food. They’re so exhausted,” says Huizar. Union members want the district to address the real needs of Portland families.
Affordable Housing (cont’d): The district is looking at developing a multi-million sports complex. Why not affordable housing, asks Scholten. “The union’s priorities are with kids and families,” he says.
Lack of Diverse Curricula: Last year, in fourth grade, Scholten’s son didn’t have a single text from an author of color. Teachers may supplement with additional texts—but they don’t have the planning time to find them, he notes.
Planning Time (cont’d): When Scholten gets home from work, he has a choice: Will he spend time with his own children? Or will he work on tomorrow’s lesson plans for his students? “It’s an awful choice to have to make,” he says.
Class size (cont’d): Scholten’s 6-year-old daughter is in a Portland classroom with 29 first graders. Her first language is not English. She needs help. When work ends with his own students, Scholten goes home to give his daughter with the one-on-one support that her own Portland Public Schools teacher can’t possibly provide.
Planning Time (cont’d): Among the 14 metro-area districts, Portland currently provides the 13th fewest minutes for planning.
Low pay (cont'd): Portland also was ranked the second most unaffordable city in the nation for teachers. (The most unaffordable? San Francisco.)
Low Pay (cont’d): Let’s say you’re a new teacher in Portland Public Schools. Would you rather share an apartment in the city with a bunch of roommates, or move to the suburbs where rents are cheaper and you can live on your own? For many, the answer is clear: They’ll move.
Low Pay (cont’d): When Portland teachers move away, Portland students and families pay the price. Teachers are less available to attend community events. Educators struggle to understand what’s going on in students’ neighborhoods.
Low Pay (cont’d): These suburban districts pay more, while also providing more planning time and other supports, like additional staff to meet students’ mental-health needs. “So why wouldn’t you just work there?” says Huizar. Indeed, many Portland teachers are realizing that their lives would be a lot less stressful if they quit the city altogether.
Low Pay (cont’d): To be clear, there are a lot of reasons why Portland teachers are quitting. Pay is a big reason—but it’s not the only reason.
Caseloads (cont’d): Last year, every person on Huizar’s special education team quit. “The teacher I replaced, she quit first,” says Huizar.
Caseloads (cont’d): Then, “because we were struggling and so overworked, the school psychologist left,” for a neighboring district where she has a much smaller caseload and a much bigger paycheck.
Caseloads (cont’d): She wasn’t the only one. “The [occupational therapist] quit because she couldn’t manage and support the students she had. Another district offered her a lower caseload, higher pay, more planning time—all the things we need to do our jobs,” Huizar says. Eventually Huizar’s school hired a replacement: it’s somebody who hasn’t practiced in 14 years.
Caseloads (cont’d): The speech-language pathologist (SLP) quit, too. This is a person who spoke five languages, had worked in a variety of school and clinical settings, and couldn’t possibly serve the 75 students assigned to her. She went into private practice. The school hasn’t been able to hire another full-time SLP.
Caseloads (cont’d): Who else? Huizar’s program administrators quit. So did the records clerk. Some of these jobs still aren’t filled today. “When we lose [special educators], and we lose them year after year, it’s the students who get harmed most,” says Huizar. “That’s why we need a contract that supports and protects [these educators].”
Caseloads (cont’d): In surrounding districts, not only are caseloads lower, but special education teachers are more likely to have paraeducators in their classrooms.
Class Sizes (cont’d): Thirty-one first graders don’t even fit in Koyoma-Lane’s classroom. She’s had to turn the classroom heater into a desk space. Students are sitting on milk crates and bookshelves.
Class Sizes (cont’d): “When I think about class sizes and when I think about planning time, I think about about our dual-language instructors who are teaching in two languages and how much time it takes to create those lessons,” says Yu. “It’s like they have double the curriculum workload—but they don’t get extra time. And their class sizes are crazy!”
Rodents (cont’d): Last week, Koyoma-Lane’s third graders found a dead mouse outside a classroom door. They wanted to pet it.
Low Pay (cont’d): Pay is not the thing driving Yu to the picket line, but the fact is that he has a master’s degree and he is making a lot less than most other Americans with master’s degrees. And when he looks at his colleages in special education and the number of hours they work to manage their caseloads, it’s like “they’re required by law to martyr themselves.” Pay them what they deserve. Pay them enough to live in Portland and keep working as teachers.
To Get the Schools Their Students Deserve: All of this—lower class sizes, more mental-health supports, more manageable caseloads, additional planning time, safe schools with reasonable temperatures, etc.—it’s so that Portland teachers can provide what students really need to thrive in school. “I truly believe our working conditions are our students’ learning conditions,” Koyoma-Lane says.