Oakland science teacher has complicated feelings for canceling 2-day field trip during strike

This is an open letter written by Joseph Senn, an AP Environmental Science teacher at Oakland Tech. Teachers have been on strike since Thursday, the same day he had planned to take his students on an over night science field trip to Muir Woods. Negotiations are to resume on Sunday. 

After much deliberations and hearing arguments from many sides, the only conscionable conclusion was to cancel the field trip.

Field trips in the Oakland Unified School District are difficult to plan and execute.  This is due mainly due to cost of transport, lack of chaperones, and volume of paperwork required to make field trips happen.  Even amongst my colleagues many see field trips as disruptive and unnecessary.  I sometimes get frustrated with these people but over time have gotten to appreciate my colleagues who fiercely protect their instructional minutes and interactions with their students.  That being said, many teachers still put in their time and resources to enrich learning experiences for our students with field trips.  However, the equitable distribution of trips for students is questionable.

My field trips are educational and usually service-based. But this one to Slide Ranch and Muir Woods was especially difficult to plan since it was my first overnight trip.  The field trip took about five months in advance to plan.  It required a large amount of contact with students, parents, funders, Parent Teacher Student Association, school admin, district offices, schools nurses, chaperones, site coordinators, buses, and other logistical personnel to make this trip even possible.  I was slightly amazed and pleased when our wonderful PTSA who funded the entire $3,000 field trip so that 42 students from AP Environment Science and Arts I could go on this educational, eco-art, overnight field trip to Slide Ranch and Muir National Monument on Feb. 21 and 22.  I was surprised because our PTSA is overwhelmed with school material and resource requests from O-Tech community.  In fact although I have been awarded numerous field trips from them in the past this is the only one awarded in past couple years.

Teaching from a textbook or a classroom is difficult.  The concepts written are not fully realized or appreciated.  This is why I believe experiential learning is a must.  This field trip to Slide Ranch and Muir Woods was supposed to be an authentic and relative learning experience about sustainability, food security, ecological relationships, agricultural practices, climate change, community building, and appreciation of nature.  Some of my high school students had never gone camping before. A couple had never been allowed to leave their homes overnight before.  Needless to say, when we got confirmation of approval in December, we were all very eager to go.

I have heard rumors of the teacher strike for some time but no one really knew the exact timing of the strike.  I told the students in the weeks leading up to the trip that the trip was still on.  The uncertainty was very stressful and distracting in the classroom.  I declared that if the Oakland Education Association announced the strike 48 hours in advance of the Thursday field trip we would have to cancel the trip.  The strike was announced to commence on Feb. 21, the same day as our trip.

One major concept/theme of AP Environmental Science class is sustainability.  Our students are taught that true sustainability must include the Triple Bottom Line: People Planet Profit (in this precise order).  This social, environment, and economic decision making process of problem solving ensures that systems are sustainable and exploitation avoided.  If I was to head this mantra I had cancel the trip.  Even at the persistence of many people because of their various points of view to go the trip, I felt it would be unethical of us.  If we went we would place students, parents, community, subs in awkward picket line breaking positions. We would feel uncomfortable enjoying the beauty of Slide Ranch and Muir Woods while our colleagues, families, and community members struggled on our behalf on the picket line demanding education reform.  We canceled the trip forfeiting the reservation fees of Slide Ranch and buses.  To their credit, Michael's Transport said they would refund 50 percent of the cost to our PTSA who are already paid for it.  I seek the forgiveness of our PTSA and O-Tech community who could have used the money for other educational purposes.

After finding out about the strike dates, I asked the students to vote on whether the field trip should be delayed or canceled.  In a narrow margin, the majority voted to cancel it.  The main reason for the cancellation is timing; we are too close to AP testing and graduation.  Many students have to focus on graduating or prepping for these standardized tests.  In doing so they have to sacrifice educational, life-long memorable experiences.

I told my students about a old Chinese proverb about how the squeaky wheel gets oiled.  So my rhetoric to my students is: This is why teachers and community member have to strike to get their needs and student needs met.  I also relayed the information how the real victims in this strike will be the students.  They will be denied educational experiences.  In accordance to the Triple Bottom Line, I said I hated this strike because it denied me the favorite part of my job... interacting with students, I hate this strike because it denied me an opportunity to share the wonders of the California coast and Redwoods, and I hate this strike because it wasted PTSA funds and I also forgo pay.  However, this strike is necessarily because in order to avoid exploitation and maintain sustainability OUSD must respect teachers and pay them a living wage and as professionals.  In doing so student needs are met.



Joseph Senn