Life on the picket line: One teacher’s story

LOS ANGELES – It’s another frigid day on the picket line for English teacher Lynn Walton, who’s tightly wrapped in a ski cap, scarf, gloves and a thick jacket to ward off the brutal weather that’s belted Southern California in recent days.

Bitter weather notwithstanding, she remains resolute.

Walton and thousands of other Los Angeles Unified School District teachers walked off the job Jan. 14 after contract talks broke down over issues of class size, teacher pay, staffing levels and school safety, among other issues. Since then, teachers have been picketing in front of district headquarters downtown and in front of their respective schools every day until a settlement is reached.

Walton, an LAUSD employee for 30 years – including 17 years at George Washington Preparatory High School in South Los Angeles – says too much is at stake for teachers to give up the fight.

She says class size remains the key issue for most teachers, who’ve been working without a contract for more than a year. She said she once had a class size of 67 students, far exceeding the average high school class size of 39. Colleagues at Washington have had class sizes of up to 50 students, she says, making it tougher to give each student the attention they need to learn and grow academically.

“It’s mounting every year, and we’re told that enrollment is down so we can’t hire enough teachers, and so your classes have to be this big,” Walton said. “I have, right now, 43 seniors. It’s too many kids. You can’t get to them and they’re seniors. They need to be able to have some individual attention in order to make them career-ready, college-ready…”

Walton, who teaches journalism and AP English, said teachers know what works and what doesn’t work in L.A., the nation’s second-largest school district. The bigger the class, she says, the greater the challenge for teachers trying to reach every student. 

“A lot of those kids fail,” she said. “They come to intervention during the winter session and summer school and we have a small class, and suddenly we can meet the needs of every student. We can diagnose and tell them this why you failed.”

“We can teach. We know that small classrooms… allow us to know our students and allow us to teach our students,” she added. “They want us individualize instruction and differentiate and all of that… How do you do that when you have 48, 49 kids there?”  

Walton, who was a LAUSD teacher’s assistant when teachers last struck in 1989, said the top issues then remain just as relevant today: Class size and pay.

“I really teach the equivalent of three jobs in order to have a decent, professional salary,” she said. “I teach on my conference period, which I opt to do so that I can make ends meet. I teach every intervention program that comes – Saturday School, winter sessions…”

“I don’t take a break. I can’t afford to. Part of the reason I started to do that was because I needed to know I always had money to fund what goes on in my classroom.”  

Walton said if she had a choice, she’d rather be in the classroom prepping her seniors to graduate this spring and prepare for college. Instead, she bundles up each morning in hat, scarf, gloves and coat to join her colleagues on the picket line. While she can ill-afford to miss a paycheck – her father is on hospice care – she supports the strike because there are serious issues to tackle. 

“We live paycheck to paycheck,” she said. “I don’t know anyone who is not, just living paycheck to paycheck. When you get paid once a month, you pay all of your bills on the fifth because you don’t want any problems with your bill collectors, and you hope and pray that nothing goes down that month because there isn’t anything left. “Teachers have notoriously bad credit because when there’s an emergency, when there’s something extra, we put it on our credit cards,” she said. “So, we’re living like that.”