Note to the teacher:
You may want to pair this activity with our lesson Why Did LA Teachers Go on Strike, which invites students to learn about and discuss some of the issues surrounding the January 2019 strike by teachers in Los Angeles.
This roleplay introduces students experientially to the concept of a strike, including some of its risks and benefits. You as teacher play the role of district superintendent and students play the role of teachers. By having to make decisions about whether to strike, and by defending their reasoning, students will better understand the risks and benefits of the choice to strike, both for the teachers themselves and for the school district as a whole.
Because the roleplay immerses students in the perspective of strikers, be careful to ensure that students truly consider all perspectives. You should adjust the way you play the superintendent role based on your particular students and their starting assumptions. If students are too quick to go on strike, you can slow them down by mustering as many arguments as possible for the school district’s side and asking them to grapple with the financial struggles that school districts face. On the other hand, if the class is reluctant to even consider the possibility of striking as the game continues, you can prompt the students to think more about why teachers might strike, not just for themselves but for their students and communities.
The roleplay ends with a debrief that is, in some ways, the most crucial part of the lesson. In the debrief, you will encourage students to step back and reflect instead on how public education faces larger systemic issues. Be sure to leave plenty of time for the debrief; students are often eager to explain their choices and question others about theirs.
Before class, label four sides of the room with different signs saying “Keep Working,” “Quit and Find Another Job,” “Complain to the Superintendent,” and “Go on Strike.”
To introduce this roleplay exercise, ask students what they know about the teachers’ strikes in 2018 and 2019. Explain that today they will get to pretend they are teachers and make their own decisions about what they should do for themselves and for their students.
Say to the class, “Imagine you are all teachers and you each have a classroom of about 20 students. You like teaching even though it is challenging, and you are paid enough to have a house and support your family. But then one fall, you are told that this year you will have to teach 30 students instead of 20, and you will be paid the same amount – even though having more students means much additional work each week. The school district is running low on money and can’t hire more teachers to keep classes the same size. Think to yourself: How do you feel about this change? … How will it affect your life? … How will this change affect your students’ lives?
Ask the room of “teachers” to discuss in small groups how this change in classroom size will affect them and their students, and what they should do. Then point out the four options around the room to them, and have all “teachers” stand up and go to the sign that shows their choice.
Once everyone has made their choice, ask students to share how they feel about their choice, why they made the choice they did, and what they think will happen as a result.
Then, in the role of the “district superintendent,” respond to each group.
- Tell the “Keep Working” group, “Thank you for your hard work and sacrifices! We appreciate you so much. Because of you, students can continue to learn.” The goal is to provoke every other group in the class to think about the cost of their choices for students.
- Ask the “Complain to the Superintendent” group what their specific complaints are, and then respond in character, “Sorry, we just don’t have money in the budget to (hire more teachers/pay you more). The school district will go bankrupt if we do.”
- Tell the “Quit and Find another Job” group, “By quitting, you’re only hurting your students. We’ll just have to hire new teachers to replace you.
- Assuming that less than half the class has joined the “Go on Strike” group, tell them, “You’re fired. All of your colleagues are still working. Why can’t you just work harder like them? We’ll just hire different teachers!” Then send them to the “Quit and Find Another Job” group. The goal is to demonstrate that this choice is very risky for strikers personally, and has little power in small numbers. This response also subtly encourages strikers to think about their colleagues’ choices and how those choices might affect the strike’s power. (If more than half the class has already decided to go on strike, skip down to the Strike! section.)
Have everyone sit back down, and tell those who quit or were fired that they are starting over as if they had never quit. Tell all “teachers” that now, their classrooms have 40 students and their pay stays the same, even though the cost of rent and food has gone up this year. Ask “teachers” once again to discuss in small groups how this will affect them and their students, and what to do. You may wish to leave them more discussion time than before, to help them reconsider their choices. (During discussion time, you may wish to quietly prompt a few of your more energetic students to convince their classmates to all strike together.)
When ready, ask everyone to go to the sign that shows their choice. If less than half the class wants to go on strike, give similar responses to each group as you did before. Then just keep increasing class sizes or announcing budget cuts (classroom equipment breaks down, librarians and nurses go part-time, teachers have to buy more and more supplies, etc.) until over half the class goes on strike.
Once more than half the class goes on strike, your responses as the “district superintendent” will become much longer and less scripted. You should act more nervous and uncertain than before, to show students how the power dynamics have shifted. You now begin an extended debate/negotiation with the strikers. Choose from the bullet points below to present various emotional and political arguments against strikes, depending on how you wish to challenge students. Try to provoke strikers to respond further to you with reasons, arguments, and demands. Allow the noise level in the room to rise. If strikers can convince those in other groups to join them as debate continues, all the better.
- Beg striking “teachers” to reconsider their decision not to work. Point out that schools can’t function with so many teachers on strike. Ask them to think of the children, of everything their students need to learn today. Ask what will happen if the schools are empty all day.
- Ask strikers exactly what their demands are. In response, shuffle your papers and scratch your head. Ask what they expect you to do with a limited school district budget. Explain that you just can’t give them what they want. Explain that you don’t control how much money the state gives to schools. Tell them to vote for higher taxes and then maybe the schools will get enough money.
- You may wish to complain that the public school issues are not your fault, since charter schools are poaching students from your public system and reducing funding as a result. (See these articles for more background on this dynamic in the LA strikes: http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2019/01/teachers-strike-brings-l-a-charter-school-battle-to-a-head.html and https://theintercept.com/2019/01/15/la-teachers-strike-charter-schools/)
- Ask the teachers they can be so selfish. Accuse them of being lazy and not wanting to work hard. (Here you are trying to challenge students to articulate whether the strike is only for their benefit or whether their demands are for the sake of students as well.)
- Try to irritate and divide the strikers by profusely complimenting those who “Keep Working.”
- Threaten that strikers will not be paid as long as the strike continues. Ask how they plan to afford their rent or childcare.
- Offer a concession that does not address the strikers’ main concerns. (For example, in the LA strike, teachers demanded smaller class sizes and a 6.5% pay raise; the superintendent offered a 6% pay raise but almost no reduction in class size.)
When you are ready to end the game, you can agree to some of the strikers’ demands, applaud their persistence, and announce that the strikers get to keep their jobs. (If students haven’t been effective in presenting their arguments, you could alternately announce that the strikers have lost community support and you refuse to negotiate further, but it’s more fun to end with the students “winning.”)
Ask students to share their thoughts on what just happened. Prompt them with some of these questions:
- What did you notice? What happened?
- What surprised you about the way the game went or how it turned out?
- Why did things only change when enough teachers went on strike? (Explain that this strategy is why unions form. Usually, unions take a vote as a whole on whether they will strike or not. If a majority votes yes, everyone goes on strike, even those who voted no.)
- What strategies worked best for creating change? Why?
- Was it easy to decide to strike? What factors affected your decision to strike or not?
- Was it difficult to organize others for the strike?
- What were the risks or problems with striking? Did you ever feel like stopping the strike?
- Do you think it is selfish for teachers to want better pay? Smaller class sizes?
- Do you think it is wrong for teachers to strike if it means students can’t learn during the strike? Or what if parents have trouble affording childcare when schools are closed?Do you think that parents and students would support your strike based on your reasons for striking and your demands for change? Why or why not?
- Does the superintendent have the power to fix all the problems with the educational system? What other groups or people might play a role in these problems, or have the ability to solve them?