The meeting went off the rails when I got a text and an email from one of the early elementary teachers. The managers were lying to our faces. Everyone must have gotten the same messages, because my coworkers’ voices started to rise, their tone grew angry, and they stopped respecting management’s “meeting norms.”
Our in-person school year had ended a week before, but management insisted on a virtual “follow-up” meeting. So, everyone dutifully logged on at 9:00 am. The regional director and his crony were waiting patiently. In an act worthy of Broadway, the DMV regional director, with a too-bad-so-sad tone, announced that our principal and assistant principal had “left to pursue other opportunities.” There was no one to replace them yet.
I work at a neighborhood charter school in Washington DC. Most students come from low-income or middle-income Black and Latinx families. Just a few months before I started working there, the board that owns the school switched charter management companies to a renowned national charter “turnaround” company based on the notorious Mind Trust’s model. Often credited as creating the blueprint for privatizing urban education, it helped spawn the company that now oversees my school. Mismanagement, exploitation, and hypocrisy were in the company’s DNA. Originally founded in Indianapolis (like the Mind Trust), the company grew until it spread all the way to Washington DC, where a charter market already thrives.
Staff, students, and families were already reeling from a traumatic year. So the announcement about the administration team blindsided us. While many of us did not like the principal and assistant principal—or, like myself, believe we could do without them altogether— we all agreed that they cared for the school community.
Meanwhile, the company had nearly run the school into the ground through mismanagement and financial profiteering schemes. They fired teachers while we were desperately understaffed, revoked already-earned bonuses for changing jobs, and did shady things to raise test scores. These were only the most glaring of a whole host of issues threatening to overwhelm and destroy the school.
So, we were all a little more than suspicious. The atmosphere was tense. A few staff members pressed the regional director for firm answers about our former leadership team—and received dodgy replies. One of the workers then asked, “Were they let go, or did they choose to leave?” over and over again. Eventually, the regional director paused for a few seconds, then—finally—said, “They chose to leave.”
That’s when I, and nearly everyone else, got the text message from the early elementary teacher. It was just an image thumbnail. Inside was the principal’s termination letter, sent by the director hosting the meeting.
It was too much. Under unbearable pressure, we exploded.
One of the teachers opened with a salvo about the terrible, contradictory communication and chaos. She ended with, “The 4:30 dismissal time has got to go.”
Our “offer letters” (we don’t have contracts) specified our roles and hours. We all got paid for eight hours a day while the company enforced nine-hour days—and most teachers worked longer to barely keep up with the crushing workload. All year, the workers had expressed disgust with these policies. Several times, workers took direct action against them. Most of the time, teachers just refused to do the bullshit busy work admin gave out, and the company couldn’t do much about it. Thanks, Great Resignation.
Another worker, an English Language Learner specialist, demanded to know if support staff who’d been thrown into different roles, sometimes multiple times a day, would be paid for their extra work. The director kept sidestepping our questions. He said to get paid, they needed to pull the records from the overflowing staff group chat, where people begged for classroom coverage all year. Several workers then pointed out that this group chat, owned by the former principal, was deleted. He had no answer for us, and we knew it. Even though we were on Zoom, I could feel the rage bubbling up.
The school’s social worker then cut the higher-up off, “You all have come into a community dealing with immense trauma without thinking about what the community needs at all. Where is the support from this company? We only see y’all once a month!”
This had been something that agitated everyone on the shop floor all year: the company flew a couple of rich white people into DC for two days each month, then straight back home. She laid into them for five more minutes.
As she talked, and as several teachers came off mute to support her and launch into their own tirades, I realized this was an opportunity to unite the staff and build power. I’d built up a committee in the first few months of the school year that took some direct actions. But without a proper formalized structure beyond a group chat, the committee only represented my immediate coworkers, and ultimately dissipated as understaffing at our school got worse and worse. It had felt like many workers at the school were content to take it on the chin and keep moving. That was incorrect. A deep rage extended across every grade band and role.
The task I’d struggled with was building a formal committee that met outside work hours. With the help of two external organizers from the IWW’s DC, Maryland, and Virginia Education Workers Organizing Committee and the Southern Coordinating Committee throughout the year, I accumulated the knowledge and skills I needed to do that. Here was an opportunity to apply that knowledge.
I noticed that several people had replied to the email the early elementary teacher sent, expressing anger and betrayal.
I hopped into the thread and sent a message venting my own feelings and asking if anyone wanted to form a group chat to discuss how to make a change in the workplace. Along with that, I whipped up a google form asking for contact info and platform preference—about ten people filled it out.
Workers were still on the meeting yelling at the regional director, by the way. The meeting was supposed to end by 10:00 am. It was now 10:30. Our office assistant took the mic.
“The old logo is still on the building, the same color scheme from before, too. How is this company going to support rebranding?”
The director shifted a little bit, seemingly uncomfortable with giving us information about how the company works, “the operations team helps, but really it’s up to the school board.”
The worker shot back, “We need an action item here. You said operations, does that mean the school leadership, the board, or the company makes that decision? I’m leaving so someone else needs to connect those dots.”
She received vocal and written support from staff, and kept pressing her demand until management caved and agreed to weekly meetings with worker input.
Soon, staff members turned to berate management for abandoning us. No counselor, no substitutes, and a stream of overworked, underpaid staff members running for the door had taken their toll. Our social worker spoke out again, “We desperately need a counselor. Why do we not have a counselor?”
“It all depends on enrollment, I’m sorry to say. That’s where the funding comes from, and with the school in a deficit, we can’t afford to backfill positions.”
One of the teachers—a 20-plus-year teaching veteran not to be played around with—took her turn to criticize not just the company, but the invisible board who hired them.
“I see where they’re all coming from. We felt like the stepchild of the company, like we were never a part of it as a school community. And it feels like that with the board, too. I feel like they never see the work teachers are doing in the building. We need to let the community back into the building to see what’s going on. We need a commitment to a counselor.”
“It all depends on enrollment…”
Meanwhile, I was setting up our committee’s group chat and collaborating with coworkers to set up the infrastructure to keep ourselves together over the summer. I gathered non-work contacts.
The same teacher responded to the director’s vague answers: “We don’t know where any of this information comes from! Why is there no money? Are we non-profit or for-profit? I know y’all probably came into DC thinking this was a hot money-making market for you with all the charter schools. But you don’t seem to realize that these other charter companies at least offer more resources. Two Rivers, DC Prep, and Friendship do that, why not y’all?”
I called the company out for doing nothing to cover the school’s deficit. Enrollment numbers had dropped over the pandemic, meaning less funding from the DC government while expenses rose. The higher-up and I got into an exchange where he tried to evade my questions, and I kept bringing up the same points. He fell back to the same “it’s up to the board, government, and enrollment,” line, so I went back on mute to allow others to speak.
Two more staff members aired grievances about being thrown into different positions with no warning. At that point, it was 11:00, and the regional director claimed he had another meeting he had to join. I wonder what he said about us afterward.
There are a couple of lessons to draw from this experience. One is that having a formal committee that represents the workplace is essential. Two, spontaneous direct actions by workers can win gains and catalyze a solid organizing committee.
During the 2021-2022 school year, my coworkers and I were able to win certain concessions from management through loosely coordinated direct actions. For example, our ex-principal imposed an attendance policy that collectively punished the staff for the late arrivals of only a few (and those workers were only late consistently because of terrible conditions). Throughout the next day, groups of workers would go down to the office to protest—spurred on by everyone else cheering them on. We won.
Even so, most of the tangible organizing only happened in my department—the 3-5th grade instructional team. Within our own circle, we were strongly critical of the principal. Eventually, one of the 3rd-grade teachers even lead us in writing up a formal complaint against them. But after consolidating a committee representing K-2, 3-5, para-educators, and food service staff, I discovered there was a significant minority of staff who loved our principal and assistant principal. The two of them being fired was what agitated them enough to take action and join the committee in the first place. Without a formal workplace-wide committee, we couldn’t see that. I had to readjust my perspective.
Our spontaneous actions made a difference. This year, we have an official eight-hour workday, more robust curriculum support, and a seemingly much more competent leadership team. Less concretely, management has tread a lot more lightly around us. It’s obvious they want to do more to control and discipline their human capital stock, but can’t because they know we might bite back, and hard.
Not only that, but the committee I formed survived the summer, has a meeting schedule, and is actively gathering contacts in preparation for one-on-one conversations as I write this. Summer whittled us down from ten to five, but I had my first one-on-one just the other day, and management has started to act like their old selves again, so I’m predicting that will change soon.