I generally don’t divulge many details about what is happening in my school, and I have tried to keep a modicum of anonymity (although I know that the curious reader could probably put the pieces together). That’s for my protection as well as my students, none of whom deserve to be dragged into blog posts by name (or even gender, where I can avoid it). I know as a first-year teacher that I am in somewhat of a precarious spot, despite the fact that my position itself is not anywhere close to being on the chopping block and that I have pleased administrators enough that I think I’ll be around next year. (It also helps that I’m the third high school English teacher in as many years; the position needs some consistency.)

But I have to write about something that is happening at my school right now. It’s simply too much for me to keep in.

I’ve mentioned before that I work in an extremely small district, one that is a holdout on consolidation and which retains a very small town feel. (It technically covers two towns, one with a population of over 1000 and the other about 200-300.) I have liked the size of the district, the relative autonomy, and the close-knit group of educators that I work with in my building.

With the massive Illinois budget cuts to education – $1.3 billion statewide with Gov. Pat Quinn’s current budget proposal and no revenue increases – we have been hit hard. Paraprofessionals in particular are being RIFed* left and right, and we’re being expected to make do without them. In some cases, that is easier than others.

Our most recent school board meeting revealed these RIFs, which had to be made now by law. All of our aides are gone, in addition to two janitors and our full-time technology worker (among others).

Some of this we will have to live with, but everyone – students and teachers alike – have been floored by a couple of the cuts in particular. One of the janitors is incredibly hard-working and is (at least perceived as being) responsible for keeping our school as clean as it is. And our technology person is absolutely vital, given that we have invested a lot of time and resources (although not particularly money) in technology; additionally, our new RTI requirements next year are going to be met by web-based programs in reading, writing, and math. When things break – and that’s a when, not an if – we will not have a capable person who can take care of the problems quickly and efficiently. We will arguably lose money by cutting this employee.

We as teachers can do relatively little: we have to continue working here, after all (hopefully). But the students decided that they wanted to take a risk. And so they did – by organizing a sit-in.

Right now, all of the 9-12 students are in the hallway, sitting quietly (almost eerily so) in front of their lockers. The principal came out and addressed the students twice but is not urging them back to class; she is, after all, as upset as the rest of us, and the burden falls on her as much as – if not more than – it does on us. She urged the students to write to the school board about their reasons for the protest, and later she advised them to ramp it up and send the message to state legislators about the need for increased funding to education. They have, in turn, stepped up and met the call. (Needless to say, my editing skills have been in high demand.)

The students have been demonstrating for two class periods and plan to continue the sit-in at least through lunch time, longer if necessary.

Both our local paper and a larger paper from a neighboring town have come to take pictures and interview students. Soon, the news station from the largest major city is coming to interview a pivotal student live (who is, I might add, sort of freaking out), and a major newspaper from the same city is interested as well. I don’t think anyone expected this to be this big, but it is spreading quickly. The word is out.

All I can say is that I am so proud right now. I am proud of my colleagues, who have shown their support for the students’ cause and have tried to help in any way possible. I am proud of my principal, who chose to make this protest into a learning opportunity instead of shutting it down to show her authority over them. Most importantly, I am proud of these students, who have rallied around their school district and actually shown, when it seems so far from obvious to most of us, that they do actually care about their schools.

We talk about high-stakes testing a lot in education, but here is what I would consider an example of high-stakes learning: in a moment of utter crisis, students are taking the initiative to voice their opinions about how important this is to them. And they are, miraculously, being heard because they used their strength of their numbers and of their convictions.

That’s all I’ll say in recognition of my own vulnerability (and to stifle my own tongue fingers, which could go much further than what I’ve already said). Regardless of the outcome, though, one thing is certain: this is a day I will remember for the rest of my educational career.

*RIF, for those out of the loop, stands for reduction in force – essentially, a firing, but with the possibility of being called back if there is money to keep paying you.