A Conversation With a Teacher Who Decided to Go on Strike

Noam Gundle, who teaches high-school biology in Seattle, talks about how he’s seen the public-education system change in the last 15 years.

Noam Gundle  (Rebecca Clarke )

Last September, the public-school teachers in Seattle, Washington, voted to go on strike on the first day of school. The most high-profile reason for striking was the teachers’ pay: Between 1999 and 2012, salaries for public-school teachers in Washington declined by 4.5 percent. Since the strike, they have successfully bargained on issues including pay, support and funding for special education, and removing standardized-testing scores from teacher evaluations.

Noam Gundle has taught biology and oceanography at Ballard High School in Seattle for more than 15 years, and was a participant in the strike. His interests in activism—from climate change to education reform—along with his desire to mentor led him to a career in education. For The Atlantic’s series of interviews with American workers, I spoke with Gundle about his job, some major shifts in the world of education, and the impact he hopes to make on his students. The following transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Adrienne Green: How does your interest in the environment and your proximity to the ocean affect how you teach your students?

Noam Gundle: I do a lot of project-based learning. I've done a lot the last few years on the Elwha River recovery—which is a really amazing story about two dams being put in almost a hundred years ago that stopped all salmon migration, and created a bunch of natural lakes and sediment movement. They took out the dams through a long process: It took a lot of research, work, and collaboration from a lot of different people. It’s an example of what we can do in our society to make things better.

For many years, we would make biodiesel in class to demonstrate biodiesel chemistry and alternative fuels. There are a lot of organizations in Seattle, like Climate Solutions and Seattle Tilth, that are super amazing and do projects with kids or I could take to their spots for field trips.

Green: How has teaching biology and oceanography changed for you since you started teaching?

Gundle: In a couple of different ways. We know a lot more about genetic technology and climate change now than we used to. Climate change wasn't something that I was keyed into when I was a student in high school, or even in college. We talked about environmental issues all the time, but it wasn't something that was front and center. It really is an important issue to be learning about now.

The educational world has changed a lot, too. The influence of various foundations and organizations that aren’t necessarily, in my opinion, in the interest of students or schools has greatly increased. Community response to them has increased as well, to try to preserve individual learning and creative learning as opposed to lots and lots of standardized tests.

Green: Tell me more about that community reaction.

Gundle: In New York, they have a huge opt-out movement and a lot of parents are choosing to not have their kids take standardized tests because they understand the negative effect it has on their learning and, quite honestly, their mental health. In Seattle, we have a number of organizations that have put on numerous forums to try to promote funding for education and oppose some of the testing regimes. We successfully organized to get standardized testing out of our teaching evaluations in Seattle.

Green: Have you seen, based on that activism, any difference in the engagement of your students?

Gundle: The awareness of teachers has changed, but students don't really have institutional memory because they're new all the time. They don't really know what it was like five or 10 years ago. I don't teach language arts or math—which are the main subjects students get the standardized testing, and testing isn't as intense here as it is in a lot of places in the country. We have some allies in our state legislature, and we’ve successfully fought to make those things less intense. Basically, my career started when all the standardized testing started.

Gundle: I think the main problem you have in education is the people making the policy aren't people that understand education and know what happens day-to-day in the classroom. We've tried to invite legislators to come to our classrooms. The legislators in Seattle are pretty great, but on the state level, not necessarily. At the national level, definitely not.

Green: Does the interference of legislators or other companies put any limitations on the way that you teach or do your job?

Gundle: I'm pretty blessed that I have a relatively nice school district, and a supportive faculty and principal. I can basically do the kind of project-based learning that I want to do, and still meet the standards. I think most people can't do that. I show up, and I do whatever I want, and that's the kind of intellectual freedom that I think every teacher should have—but not every teacher does have. A lot of my friends that teach biology, they're teaching the same thing as every other biology teacher. I love the collaboration, but the fact is, not every class is necessarily moving at that speed. Different teachers have different strengths and knowledge bases.

For example, my former student teacher was an environmental scientist, and he knows a lot about that and can speak from experience. I think that is the most important thing for teachers to be able to do: to use their skills and their knowledge base to help students be inspired to do the things they want to do.

Green: You mentioned your interest in activism, and the success of your lobbying efforts. I know you were a part of the Seattle teacher’s strike in 2015. Tell me about how the strike came to be.

Gundle: The whole strike was based on a number of issues, but one of main ones was about the input of standardized testing in our evaluations. We also bargained for guaranteed recess time for every school: A lot of schools where having issues where some schools got 15 minutes of recess, some schools got 45 minutes to an hour, and it tended to break down by racial lines. We were also fighting for changes to special education, because special ed had gotten underfunded. Pay was only one of many issues.

Green: Do you feel that activism is common with your teaching peers in Seattle?

Gundle: It's common in a bunch of my peers, but it's not common among teachers in general. A lot of teachers are not very engaged; a lot of people were engaged during the strike of course. That was cool. Not everyone is nearly involved as I am. I also don't have any children of my own to take my time like other people probably do.

Green: What did your involvement look like?

Gundle: Various meetings. We all organized our schools slightly differently, but we had various people that we tried to get to help us. Seattle is the biggest district in the state, so it was a big deal to have us on strike. There were a lot of things that needed to happen: strategy, getting communication out to members, food, sanitation, connection with neighbors, building partnerships with parents. That was one of the biggest things to happen during the strike—parents were on our team, they came to our strike lines, made signs, and brought us food. They were supporting us 100 percent. That's why I believe we were successful.

Green: How far in advance did these organizing efforts take place?

Gundle: Organizing is an ongoing process; it never stops, but organizing started up to two years before the strike. You never plan to strike—you never want to strike, but you are always ready to if you have to. In this case, they did not give us an offer we could accept and we decided to go on strike. The vote we took was almost unanimous.

Green: You mentioned having a lot of freedom at work. Walk me through what an average day looks like from the time you get to school.

Gundle: A lot of times, we begin the day with a daily warm-up question, which reviews or asks a new question. Then we do biology news, where the students bring in articles and talk about what's happening in the world of science. Then, I usually have at least one or two activities throughout the period, and come back at the end and review everything. That's pretty much it. We have 50-minute periods.

Green: How would you say your job kind of extends outside of those 50-minute periods? Do you do lesson planning at home, or conferences?

Gundle: I don't try to do very much at home. I try to get most of it done at school. I'm always doing new things, which takes extra time. Last year, we did a whole unit in biology on climate change and ocean acidification, but a lot of the lessons I've done before, so I don't have to spend a lot of time lesson planning for that. I'll spend time during the prep period or after school setting up and taking down labs, ordering materials, making sure I understand everything, helping individual students, talking to parents, doing backup work for students, etc.

Gundle: I probably put in between one to three extra hours per day. I only do that because I want to be a good teacher; I want to help my students. I care about them more than I care about pleasing my evaluator. I just want to do a good job because it's the right thing to do. Good teachers can't really leave right at 2:50 p.m. every day, because we often have students there that need your help. It's not reality to say that we don't work that much, because we often work 10-to-12-hour days, but we’re not paid extra for that bit of time.

Green: You brought up teachers' pay, which is a big topic in education policy and politics right now. Have you ever experienced any difficulties with your pay or witnessed difficulties with your peers?

Gundle: Obviously, I think teachers should make a living wage. The reality is that a lot of people I know, especially peer educators, can't afford to live in Seattle and work at a school in the community that they live in. A lot of people have to commute from outside of town because places like Seattle are extremely expensive. Education has been underfunded, at least in Washington, for a long time.

Green: A common theme in education is that it’s the great equalizer. In other words, schools and teachers assume the pressure to bridge the gap for inequalities in their communities. Do you feel that you’ve contributed to that?

Gundle: Yeah, but you can only do so much. Certainly, the parents have a bigger effect on the development and degree of inequality than anything else. Teachers are not miracle workers. We do the best we can and make a lot of difference, but we can't do everything. Our American culture is so entrenched in violence, and can't single-handedly overcome all of that, but I think I have been effective in helping students to level the playing field. They at least get a good education in my class—one hour a day for nine months of the year. That's not their whole life, but hopefully I can help them find opportunities to expand their learning and to be able to find something that they want to do with their life that's positive and enjoyable.

Green: Can you tell me one surprising thing about your job?

Gundle: Sometimes, I have those moments where the kids are just so grateful that they had the experience they did in my class, and I'm so psyched to have made that positive act in their life. I'm a mentor, which is one of the most important things for young people to have in addition to their parents.

Green: Do you have a student or story that encapsulates what it’s like to be a mentor?

Gundle: I did this biodiesel project from 2004 to about 2009, and a couple students got really, really into it. They started a club on their own called the Biodiesel Beavers (like the school’s Ballard Beavers). One of these kids actually lived on a barge and had a lot of industrial-engineering experience, and we figured a lot of these things out together. We started going to demonstrations at various events around town, and did that for years. I organized a trip with some of these students to go to an organic coffee farm in Costa Rica and built a biodiesel processor. These 15-year-old kids were talking to 30-something-year-old farmers. It's pretty amazing to have those kinds of experiences.

Green: How has doing this job over the course of a decade and a half changed what you think it's like to work in America?

Gundle: Especially because I'm a leader in my union, I have a greater connection to the struggles of others. My work in education has also been connected to the struggles for equality, funding, and addressing issues like healthcare and environmental racism. My identity has evolved, but I started out with basically the same mindset I have now: Education can be a tool for your own empowerment. Hopefully, I can help students do the same, one way or another, at least for some of them.

This interview is a part of a series about the lives and experiences of members of the American workforce, which includes conversations with a research librarian, an SAT proctor, and an improv teacher.