VOICES OF RESISTANCE: Why this N.C. teacher is taking to the streets

Ellen Holmes is one of the thousands of North Carolina teachers who will take off work on May 16 to participate in the March for Students and Rally for Respect. (Photo courtesy of Holmes.) 

On May 16, the opening day of North Carolina's 2018 short legislative session, thousands of teachers and their allies are expected to converge on the General Assembly in Raleigh for a March for Students and Rally for Respect. Coming on the heels of several teacher-led strikes across the country, the advocacy day will center the need for more funding and resources for students and also call for better pay and working conditions for teachers.

The rally has already gained so much traction that over a dozen school districts — including the state's three largest — have decided to cancel class on that day.

Among those who will be participating in the day of action is Ellen Holmes, a Spanish teacher at Riverside High School in Durham. Holmes was part of a successful campaign in 2016 to secure the release of a former student from the Stewart Detention Center, a private prison in Georgia operated by CoreCivic under contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 
We recently spoke with Holmes about her experience as an educator and advocate for our ongoing "Voices of Resistance" series, which aims to draw insight and inspiration from the South's deep history of struggle for social change and to learn from a new generation of Southern leaders working in today's volatile political climate. Her responses have been lightly edited for clarity. If you have ideas for other Southern changemakers to feature in the series, please contact Rebekah Barber at rebekah@southernstudies.org. 

Can you tell me about your background and why you became a teacher?

My original degree was actually in hospitality and business management and I had a minor in Spanish. And with that degree, I used my Spanish a lot and I got to travel, which was wonderful. But I didn't really feel fulfilled and that I was making a difference, so I decided to go back and get my teaching certificate in K-12 Spanish. I started working at Riverside High School in 2012. 

At the time, there was a club called Destino Success that a fellow teacher, Fernando Campos, had started. I worked with him to support the students and just really fell in love and saw the community's needs and how much support was needed — from not only teachers but all parts of their lives. 

Then when Fernando left — he became our dropout prevention and Latino community liaison — I took over the club and was very blessed to do so. I started working more closely with Latino students and their families. 

As a white woman I feel like I should use the privilege I have to make change. And that is why I support immigrants and immigrant rights. When one of our students was detained by immigration authorities, I immediately knew that we had to do everything in our power to ensure that he wasn't deported.

And I continue to do that — to support my students, to support their families, to support the Latino community, to fight against the racism they face, the discrimination they face, and the fears and threats that they face on a daily basis. 

What is the most urgent crisis affecting teachers and students?

I think it's the lack of resources. Our students face a lot of trauma in their lives, unfortunately. And I feel like if we were supplied with all the resources we need, they could get the support they need — for example, free mental health help. 

We usually don't have a nurse at our school because there's only one nurse for all the district's high schools. So if students are going through something, they really can't get any assistance. 

"We should do everything we can to make sure they want to come to school, they feel safe at school, and they receive everything they need at school — and not just school supplies. We need to treat the whole student."

We do offer free breakfast and free lunch, which is amazing, and we do have a free pantry for students. But a lot of resources come out of teacher pockets. And it would be great if the state would allocate resources to support teachers in that way because a lot of times school is the only place where students get fed and feel safe. 

Why have you decided to participate in the upcoming Day of Action on May 16? 

The reason why I am participating is to advocate for increased per pupil spending, so we can receive more resources.

More specifically, I am also advocating for bilingual resources. There is not a single bilingual counselor in all of Durham public schools. We also need translation support to ensure that all families feel a part of the community and school. 

I am also fighting for my right to better pay. I spend probably 20 percent of my income on my classroom supplies, trying to support my students on my own with everything that they're going through. That's really hard to do with the salary I make. 

But my main reason for participating on May 16 is to advocate for the resources for the students. They deserve it. And we should do everything we can to make sure they want to come to school, they feel safe at school, and they receive everything they need at school — and not just school supplies. We need to treat the whole student.

What do you wish legislators and others in power knew about being an educator? 

I think a lot of times when they're deciding the budget they forget about the students.

For example, when they give money to private schools or to charter schools instead of funneling it into public schools. Those schools don't have to provide a cafeteria, they don't have to provide buses. So, they're leaving out half of the population of Durham if not more, and they are cutting our funds.

They are not thinking about the students. They're taking away resources for them to be successful. And I feel like a lot of times they just focus on test score numbers, but how are students supposed to succeed when they keep cutting resources that would help them?