A Teacher Explains the Battles Those Going Back to Work in West Virginia Still Face

“If you want to write an article about emotional toll, though, in today’s day and age, you have to include gun violence.”

Teachers give a thumbs-up in front of Woodsdale Elementary.
Teachers give a thumbs-up in front of Woodsdale Elementary in Wheeling, West Virginia, on Tuesday, after teachers across the state received notice that a deal was reached to end the walkout that has closed the state’s public schools since Feb. 22.
Scott McCloskey/Wheeling News Register & The Intelligencer via AP

For nine school days, starting on Feb. 22, roughly 20,000 West Virginia teachers went on strike to demand better salaries—teachers in the state ranked 48th in the country in terms of pay—and greater funding for their state employee health insurance. On Tuesday, bowing to the pressure, state legislators passed a 5 percent pay raise for all state employees, ending the strike.

Slate spoke to one of the teachers, Jessica Salfia, a high school English teacher from Spring Mills High School in Martinsburg on her first day back in the classroom. She spoke about the strike, the problems teachers face today, and what she feels she owes her students and herself as an educator in Appalachia. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Molly Olmstead: How was it being back in the classroom?

Jessica Salfia: Today was wonderful and it was such a relief, honestly. We become teachers because we want to be teaching. And so many of us were doing the important work of trying to make our voices heard in Charleston with our legislators and to be present in our communities and in picket lines and to inform the public of what we perceive to be dangerous legislation for West Virginia and West Virginia education. But ultimately, everybody’s heart is in the classroom and with their students—I mean, it was just killing a lot of us to be away from our students and our classrooms, especially for that long.

I’ve seen some teachers quoted as saying that part of the reason they feel underpaid and undervalued is they do so much work outside the classroom. Would you agree?

Every teacher is doing more than just 7:30 to 3 p.m. I mean, there’s planning, there’s grading. I have purchased clothing for students. I have purchased snacks for my classroom. I have taken kids to trips to college fairs, and to visit schools, and met them at restaurants to help them prep for job interviews. My email inbox every year has emails from students who have long graduated who are just asking for some advice about job applications or college admissions essays. Or, “Hey, I’m writing this paper for my college literature class, would you mind looking over it?” So those are all things that are not factored into the yearly salary but that just come with the job.

I noticed from your website that one of those trips you’re taking students on is to an annual Appalachian studies conference.

The thing about this region is that there is a narrative and a mythology associated with Appalachia that has been pushed and peddled for years that is simply incorrect. And in 2016, the election and the publication of some recent books about the region have sort of cemented the idea that all people from this region are one thing. And that is this homogenous place with no diversity and a lack of culture and understanding of other peoples’ cultures.

Many young people in Appalachia, they’ve only heard their own single story—that they are one single thing, and that is the thing they need to become, and so—this is [Chimamanda] Adichie’s language, not mine—when you tell someone that they are one thing over and over, it’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy, and that is what they become.

A lot of kids go into this with a little bit of an eye-roll, and then they come out of it with this enormous sense of pride because they end up learning so many things about the region and about themselves. Of the students that I took to this conference last year, over half of them have said that they plan on staying, going to school and coming back to the region to give back in some way. Our biggest export in the region right now is young people. It’s not natural gas or coal. It’s young people who think they don’t have opportunities here. And so, this has been part of the frustration of lots of educators in West Virginia: We know if we are pumping money back into education and if we are focusing our efforts into building really strong educational institutions—specifically public educational institutions—that it’s going to create a trickle-down economy. Those kids are going to see the value that has been placed on their own education in West Virginia, and they’re going to want to stay and continue to give back to this place.

But it is true that the region is experiencing some tough times.

Of course, no, absolutely. There has been a lot of places that have just been economically gutted by the collapse of the coal industry. And there has been a void, then, that has been filled with a lot of other things. And primarily opioids. We’re dealing with an opioid epidemic here. But that is not unique to West Virginia. That is a national crisis. Now, we are dealing with it at a higher level than in some other places. But a lot of that has to do with a lack of hope.

Have you seen evidence of the crisis in your classroom?

Yes. In our own community, in 2015, a colleague of mine who was a very good friend—a beloved teacher and coach at our school—died of an overdose. And then, the very next year, one of my students. He was in advanced placement class. Star football player. Beautiful dimples. Great kid. Great smile. Everybody loved him. He was in my homeroom the night of graduation. He and I stood behind my desk, and he couldn’t get his football letterman pin to stick to his graduation stole, so he and I were hot-gluing them to his graduation stole, and I got the hot glue on my fingers, and I said a curse word, and I got embarrassed because I said a curse word. And then he hugged me, and he laughed, and I laughed. And it was this wonderful little moment because I was so proud of him. And then a week later he was dead of an overdose that he was given at a party. And I do not think that he had a habit. I think he was a young man who made a young man’s mistake. But I mean, it’s touched everybody. It has touched everybody in this region in some way.

His mother asked me to [speak at his funeral]. And I was happy to do that. He had been in my homeroom for three years. And that was a family in pain. And if I could do something to help alleviate some of that pain, then that’s what I’m going to do. That’s what all teachers do. That’s something that comes with the job.

That is just one of the many things we’re called upon when you enter into this job of being the stable force in the lives of so many kids, and loving them. You have to. This job is too hard to do if you don’t love them.

That sounds tough.

The work, in my opinion, is important work, and sometimes it is enormous work, but I believe in it. And when you believe in something in this way, I think that it allows you to navigate the enormity of it.

But it is certainly a job that you take home with you every night and every weekend. I can tell you that every day—every single day that we were standing on the picket line together during the work stoppage—my colleagues were just talking about their students. I’m worried about my students. Are they getting enough to eat? Are they going to be ready for the test?

You go home on the weekend, and you worry about them, and you worry about if they’re OK, if they understand their work, if they’re cold or hungry or if they’re getting loved or getting the things they need. It can be emotionally taxing.

It sounds like it.

If you want to write an article about emotional toll, though, in today’s day and age, you have to include gun violence. It is really important to mention that every teacher everywhere is going into the classroom having to think, is today the day I’m going to have to go in and deal with this situation.

Every day?

It’s daily. There is not a day that I don’t enter my classroom and at some point during the day look around and think what I’d use to defend myself.

In 2015, my mom was taken hostage in a classroom by a gunman. Philip Barbour High School, and my mom’s name is Twila Smith. He was a 14-year-old freshman.
It was the second week of school.

She and her class were held hostage for over an hour. She managed to talk him down.
And then she was able to get—she and the police negotiator were able to get him to start releasing students. Then he barricaded himself in the room. And his pastor was able to get him out.

It got a little bit of national attention. But not as much, because there were no deaths.

That’s terrible. Was she OK afterward?

She still suffers from PTSD from the event. But the next day she went back into her classroom to teach. We live three hours apart, and that night I said I’d come over. And she said, “No, I’m going to go to work tomorrow.” And she said, “My students are coming back to school tomorrow, so I am too.” This is the reality of the American educator.