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’55 Strong: Inside the West Virginia Teachers’ Strike’ event discusses the strike’s challenges

By Staff | Oct 19, 2018

'55 Strong' essay writers, from left, Mark Salfia, Daniel Summers, Karla Hilliard and Erin Marks listen as fellow contributor and Berkeley County Teacher of the Year Jessica Salfia discusses the book at the book signing at the Byrd Center on Friday evening. Photo by Tabitha Johnston.

SHEPHERDSTOWN — Although many West Virginians were personally effected by the 2018 West Virginia teachers’ strike, the lessons learned from the strike are still being realized by West Virginia’s teachers and students.

For many strike participants, experiencing the unity with other teachers and community members during the strike was life-changing. And, to commemorate the historic moment, a number of teachers collaborated together to publish a book full of essays written about their experiences, which is now available online and at Four Seasons Books.

“Some of my students created a documentary on the strikes. I think it was amazing to show them, we could change things when we stood together,” said University High School teacher Daniel Summers, of Morgantown.

Summers was one of five strike members and essay contributors from around the state who gathered together on Friday evening at the Robert C. Byrd Center to read their essays. They also spent time discussing how they managed the teacher work stoppage, negotiated with the state legislature and, ultimately, gained a wage and teacher and staff benefits increase.

“This is not a movement about teacher pay, but teacher voice,” said Karla Hilliard, of Spring Mills High School. “When we walked out of our high schools, it was really scary — we didn’t know when we would be coming back. We truly didnt know what was going to happen.”

Hilliard said she was concerned about how her students would react to her going on strike, but said she helped them understand teachers’ side of the story by analyzing the meaning of “quality of life.” Hilliard also met with her advance placement literature class once during the strike, spending an hour discussing “Hamlet” with them at Panera.

For Tucker County High School teacher Erin Marks, being in a small high school made the strike even more difficult than in other parts of the state, as many community members still resented the 1990 teachers’ strike.

“It was incredible to see us all come together. We were a staff of 33, and people could still remember the last strike. I thought we would get torn apart, so to see these people really take a stand, knowing that they could not financially support their families without working, was inspiring,” Marks said.

According to Spring Mills Middle School Assistant Principal Mark Salfia, who was Shepherdstown Middle School’s assistant principal during the strike, Shepherdstown acted with compassion and understanding during the strike, leaving a lasting impression on him and his fellow school faculty members.

“I was very proud to be part of this community during those two weeks. The way this community rallied around us meant so much to me,” Mark said, mentioning he maintained a level of understanding with the other school administrators during the strike, by daily emailing the faculty a “thank you” for their support. “The historical importance of this experience stands out to me — I think it’s important we got out this book when we did, before people started spinning the story in a different direction.”

Although the strike is now over, the panel members agreed their work is not done, including lobbying for the increase in teachers’ wages and benefits, and working with politicians to secure their support of West Virginia’s teachers.

“I do think the more people who have heard about this story with the election coming, the better,” said Spring Mills High School teacher Jessica Salfia, who is also Berkeley County Teacher of the Year. “It became clear early on, that part of the fight was letting people know the struggle of the West Virginia teacher, so any day during the strike I would write, and spoke to any reporter who would call.”

Belt Publishing was impressed with Jessica’s writing on her blog about the strike, and contacted her, asking if they could publish a book expanding on her blog post. Salfia agreed to the proposal, and the rest is now history, written in “55 Strong: Inside the West Virginia Teachers’ Strike.”