My Awakening: Labor Organizing in Georgia’s Classrooms

Jami Mays
9 min readNov 6, 2022

In the summer of 2020, when everything in Georgia was reopening at Governor Kemp’s urging, the school where I was working was ready to return after weeks of sheltering in place. I was a Montessori teacher with about 30 kids in my class, ranging in age from two and half to six years old.

We had somehow found a new normal with our scheduled reading time together on Zoom, lovingly creating crafts and working on little projects together… but apart. My own son was just a few days away from turning five years old, and he had been in my class for the last two years. I had a hard enough time envisioning myself putting on all of the necessary PPE and trying to help a three year old recenter after having a meltdown, much less thinking about putting my own kid back into that environment.

We had a staff meeting on zoom to discuss reopening plans and when asked how we would maintain the integrity of the Montessori instruction and philosophy in a Covid-safe way, the owner of our small, private school told us that we would just need to put the Montessori stuff on the “back burner” for a while.

I couldn’t wrap my brain around that. Teaching in that classroom brought me so much joy — the constant shifting of gears, problem solving, mentoring my assistant teachers, and shaping the learning experiences of 30 very unique small humans — I couldn’t imagine how I could somehow sift the “Montessori” out of my approach.

So I told them I wasn’t ready. I knew that were just a few more months away from a vaccine. I knew that the rush to reopen Georgia was an economic decision, not a public health decision. And yet — parents needed childcare. We were told in that staff meeting that if we weren’t ready yet, that it was okay… that the owners just wanted to check in and that we were a family and they weren’t going to force anybody to do anything they weren’t comfortable with…

And the next day, the director of the school began texting me, asking me what I had decided… As if anything had changed after one night’s rest… I told her I wasn’t ready — she asked me when I would be ready. I felt dumbfounded! I don’t know! “What conditions would need to happen in order for you to feel ready to return?”

And I realized it… There weren’t any.

The pandemic for me was the first time in my entire adult life that I was able to slow down… and wait… To have time between tasks — so much time, in fact, that I realized there were whole parts of me that I had never fully acknowledged.

Beautiful moments during the days of fort building with my kids and victory gardening with my husband were bookended with dark mornings and dark evenings of doom scrolling and refresh-refresh-refreshing the latest Covid numbers. I have experienced some trauma in my lifetime, but nothing had prepared me for the chaotically slow torture of the spring and early summer of 2020.

During that year, I was diagnosed with clinical depression. The pandemic didn’t cause my depression — it just finally allowed me space between breaths that were long enough to reckon with my mental illness. Months later, I would receive my diagnosis for ADHD, and as my brain and my body adjusted to what “normal” was supposed to feel like for years, I realized just how fucking ridiculous it was how I turned myself inside and out for a job.

I worked 55–60 hours every week, often the first person arriving during the day and the last person leaving in the evenings. The salary that I received was embarrassingly low, but I justified it because the benefit of free tuition for my child was so valuable to me. But when I calculated my actual hourly rate, I was making minimum wage. I did not get health benefits. No retirement.

So, do I want to go back to that? During a pandemic? When I finally had started to understand myself and my needs? And drag my kid along?

Absolutely not.

The director of our school texted me, “So, if you’re not ready to come back… and you’re not sure what it would take to bring you back… are you quitting?”

So I quit.

I quit without knowing what I would do. I quit because I knew going back into that kind of work week with the added stress of the pandemic was more than I could handle.

And when I quit, nearly every other teacher quit, too. The school rehired and opened as planned and I’m not sure they ever really missed a beat.

This was a turning point for me. It was the moment I realized that, even in the best of circumstances, I am simply a worker exchanging my time and energy for money. I realized that the work I was doing, however meaningful, was only worth what I was willing to accept — and I started to demand more for myself.

I found my way through those uncertain days of 2020, acclimated myself to this new phase of my life and began to set my eyes on public schools. That fall, I was working as a “pod school” facilitator for a group of first graders in the neighborhood. We dubbed it “Garage School.” My kiddo started kindergarten from Zoom, but only lasted a few weeks before we withdrew because it was just not going to work for him.

In October of that year, I co-organized a car protest outside of the school board office. This was a very scary and unnerving thing for me, but the emails and phone calls and late night texts that I was getting from my friends who were employed by the school district continued to motivate me to move outside of my comfort zone.

I recall one of the first nights we began planning the protest, on a zoom, and a local activist and organizer asked, “How far are you willing to take this? Like, are you willing and ready to be arrested?” and it was one of the first times I really thought to myself, “How far AM I willing to take this?” It was a particularly unsettling question to be asked, as a relatively comfortable white woman, by a Black person, just months after the National Guard was called in and protesters were tear gassed in my backyard. At the time, I wasn’t ready to really put myself in harm’s way.

During the 2020–2021 school year, we set up an anonymous tip line for public school employees to report violations to the stated Covid Safety Policies. Emails would come in every three or four days, “My principal won’t wear a mask in the building,” or, “Every Special Education teacher in my school is out with Covid because we all share a classroom space as a shared office and none of them wear their masks,” or, “There are so many children being packed on my bus route that they are standing in the aisles and I can’t even see through the back windows.” For each entry, the form to the tip line would ask them, “Do you want me to act on this information or do you want to just inform?” and, “Can I mention this in public comment at the school board meeting?” More often than not, the whistleblowing employees would ask me to not act on the information because it would be impossible to not trace it back to them. The fear of retaliation was all too real in a district with a Board Policy that says, “Any negative employment action taken in retaliation against any employee for communications described herein, shall be contrary to Board of Education Policy.”

Later I would come to learn that the hyper-focused research Black-Holes I would spend hours in, trying to understand how the district operated and who pulled the levers, has a name: Power Mapping. I have filed more Open Records Requests with this school district than probably anybody else in the history of Athens. I have a dedicated Google Drive folder where I have organized my research and analyzed the contents searching for patterns. I was on a first name basis with the previous Superintendent and often, instead replying to emails or making phone calls, many at the district would ask me for in-person meetings, an attempt to minimize the tangible records of our discussions.

I watched teachers who had spent more than a decade in this district quietly resign, even under the threat from the district’s HR Investigator that she would be “going after” their teaching certificates for an ethics violation of abandonment of contract. The threat of a permanent negative mark on their professional record was not as painful or damaging as the treatment and conditions of their school buildings.

This really hit me in the gut. I knew exactly what that felt like — to walk away from something that you love because it had the potential to do you more harm than good.

I supported two different efforts that groups of local teachers made to form unions, both of which teetered away because, when faced with the choice of taking the risk, many of the tenured, comfortable teachers were not willing to do the necessary work to build wall-to-wall solidarity with all of the employees at the district.

That hit me in the gut, too. Because I knew what it felt like to have the anger burning a hole in your belly quickly fizzle away when faced with the potential threat of actual arrest. Fear is a motherfucker.

Near the end of 2021, as more and more teachers and bus drivers and nutrition workers and nurses and support staff and even district folks came to me with reports of unsafe and unethical things happening in their school buildings, I knew I had to do something. My impulses made me want to START something — because, historically, that’s how privileged, white women “solve” problems. But in a city with less than 130,000 people, 40,000 of which are students at the University of Georgia, there are over 1000 registered nonprofits.

I knew I needed to find a Black leader who was already doing something and find a way to work behind them and support them. So I reached out to Broderick Flanigan, someone I knew and respected from my connection as a parent to Chess & Community. Broderick is an incredible artist, and had even once come to my classroom to do an art project with all my little people. He’s one of the few people who actually shows up and participates and I’m not sure how he finds the energy to actually flex his mind, but he is also one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. He has a quiet demeanor, and chooses his words carefully, speaking when he actually has something to say. I knew I could learn from him, so I called him and told him where I was at and what I wanted to do and was there something I could do to support him.

And he told me to get on a zoom meeting at 2pm on Tuesday and that’s really when it all started to click for me— not immediately — in those days in the beginning, I felt like I was trying to jump on a moving train. But on those weekly Workers Center calls, I listened and I learned and I got empowered.

My understanding of systems and organizations, mapping out power dynamics and doing complex problem solving, connecting with and learning to understand the complicated lives of people who were different than me — all of these skills I learned while doing labor organizing. And there’s a funny thing that happens when you begin to shift your mindset from that of the worker who was one exploited and treated as disposable to the mindset of the organized worker who knows the value of their individual power and, more importantly, the power of the collective— when you really dig deep devour information about a topic that you’re passionate about, consuming so much knowledge that something inside of you changes— whatever fear you had previously is dwarfed by this new version of you.

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