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'This Is Our Life': LA Teachers' Union Set To Strike For Better Conditions, More Resources


Tomorrow more than 30,000 Los Angeles teachers may be absent from the classroom, the result of failed negotiations between the city's teachers union and school district. The likely teacher strike would impact about half a million students. NPR's Elissa Nadworny has been talking to teachers in LA.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Instead of prepping their lessons for Monday, teachers in LA's public schools are getting ready to go on strike.

JENNIFER LIEBE-ZELAZNY: Because it is supposed to, unfortunately, now rain, we all need some slickers.

NADWORNY: That's fourth-grade teacher Jennifer Liebe-Zelazny trying on the red poncho she bought for the picket line. Her classroom at Alta Loma Elementary School feels like a museum. Posters and memorabilia line the walls. But she says this colorful classroom has seen large, unmanageable class sizes. The school doesn't have a full-time nurse, so Liebe-Zelazny shells out Band-Aids on the days there isn't one. Across the district, students share desks. Textbooks are scarce. Teachers say schools are chronically under-resourced. The teachers union hopes a strike will change that.

LIEBE-ZELAZNY: If I have to strike, I only want to do it once in my career. And I want it to make major, major changes.

NADWORNY: Teachers across the city are reflecting on their jobs, on the nasty contract negotiations that have been going on for nearly two years and on their union's demands for smaller classes and nurses in schools five days a week - among other things. The school district has yet to make an offer that satisfies the union. They say they don't have the money to pay for all that. One thing the district and the union are actually close on is teacher salaries. But drama teacher Scout Wodehouse says this strike is about more than just teacher paychecks.

SCOUT WODEHOUSE: It's not about the money. It's about the conditions the kids are learning in.

NADWORNY: She and her husband, Harry, are both teachers at Orthopaedic Hospital Medical Magnet High School in downtown LA.

S. WODEHOUSE: This is our life.

HARRY WODEHOUSE: This is our life.

S. WODEHOUSE: It's our heart.

H. WODEHOUSE: And we're crazy for doing it because it's so much work.

NADWORNY: For Scout, packing up her classroom, preparing not to return come Monday - it was emotional.

S. WODEHOUSE: I kind of sat in my classroom for a while after school. And I just, like, stared at everything. And then it was weird to, like, leave and not know when I was going to see that room again.

NADWORNY: Spanish teacher Jesenia Chavez feels the weight of leaving her students.

JESENIA CHAVEZ: This is not an easy decision for us.

NADWORNY: For her, the lack of resources in her school - it's personal.

CHAVEZ: I myself am Mexican. I grew up in Southeast LA. I see myself reflected in the students. They are me, and I'm them.

NADWORNY: The students she teaches are low income. Many are immigrants.

CHAVEZ: Public education, for me, was a space of transformation, a place of opportunity. And that's why I'm striking.

NADWORNY: At Dorsey Senior High School in South Los Angeles, English teacher Sharonne Hapuarachy says she'd like to see...

SHARONNE HAPUARACHY: Full-time nurses, full-time librarians, full-time college counselors at every high school - these are not luxuries that we're asking for. These are the basic needs of our students.

NADWORNY: She's been teaching in LA for more than two decades.

HAPUARACHY: What my students would miss in a week does not compare to what they will learn from seeing their teachers and their counselors sacrificing their paychecks for them.

NADWORNY: If teachers strike, schools will be open, staffed by administrators, volunteers and newly hired substitutes. The district says learning will still take place. For Hapuarachy, the lesson for students on Monday will be happening outside the school's walls.

HAPUARACHY: I hope they will learn that they have a voice and that they have power over what happens to them and their schools.

NADWORNY: Elissa Nadworny, NPR News, Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.