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Striking Love: A Valentine's Day Ode to Teachers and Their Lessons of Grit, Voice, and Resilience

On this Valentines Day, I’d like to give a shout out to my amazing, striking (pun intended) wife and the other Newton Massachusetts school teachers for the courage, grit, and integrity they exhibited against the immense inertia of the applicable state laws and the city’s obtuse governance structure.  After 11 days of striking in all forms of weather, where the union faced fines, kids were out of school, lawsuits were filed, tempers flared throughout the town… an agreement was reached.  The contract met most of the teacher’s modest demands (e.g., 2.9%/yr. COLA).  It was the longest teacher strike in recent Massachusetts history.  I was privileged to witness the public announcement a couple of weeks back outside of the building where negotiations were held.  Teachers and townspeople sang, laughed, chanted, cheered, and cried in the chilly, drizzly air.

Even though Newton is a small city in Massachusetts, the local experience offers important universal lessons. Municipalities are microcosms where deep societal imperatives such as equity and education manifest themselves in the daily lives of ordinary citizens.  They are where government reports, court rulings, university studies and commentator analyses morph from ephemeral to practical.  The Newton School Teachers strike is a commentary on municipal governance in the face of these larger societal challenges.

Newton is a relatively affluent city, whose population is highly educated and whose school district has consistently ranked amongst the top in the Commonwealth.  The backgrounds of the Newton School Committee members read like an all-star lineup – hedge fund managers, lawyers, captains of industry, etc.   They are smart, accomplished, competent, well-intentioned people.  Their impressive resumes should have endeared any resident’s trust and vote.  Yet somehow, they didn’t see it coming – despite almost 18 months without a contract.  Once the strike vote was taken, they were poorly positioned to respond promptly.  Hence the strike dragged out and divisiveness throughout the community amplified exponentially. 

This is not to cast aspersions on any of one committee member. They likely didn’t have the fundamental principles of “Community Resilience” in mind when they assumed the position.  That is because they probably weren’t familiar with it.  Most people are not. Otherwise, they would have known to apply its principles long before it got to the strike stage, which are, through intensive community engagement to 1) take measures to avoid disruption,  2) have provisions to absorb the disruption - if it does occur, 3) have in place a plan to recover quickly and 4) build in ways to the recovery process of rebounding to a better, more resilient position than before the disruption.  Armed with this knowledge - only forethought and discipline are required. Skills that the school committee members undoubtedly have mastered.

During the cold, misty night when the strike’s end was announced, teachers sang songs thanking the townspeople, parents, and children.  They chanted about wanting to get back in the classroom and to life as usual. The collective elation was tempered at the individual level, for as they dispersed, you could hear any number of conversations about all the healing and trust-rebuilding that will be required throughout the city in the years ahead.  This kind of period to rebuild may be a diminishing luxury – even for a well to do city like Newton.  The seemingly unrelated strike should be viewed as a cautionary tale about effective municipal governance and the importance of community voice, preparedness, and inclusion.  As the climate crisis intensifies, disruptions of all forms are becoming more commonplace.  Municipalities must learn from events like these to develop a much more agile and anti-fragile stance.    

I wish my wife and all those who are fighting the good fight to make our communities safer, cleaner, more educated, equitable, inclusive, and resilient - a happy Valentine's Day


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