As the husband of a public-school teacher, I am all too aware of the plight that educators face in North Carolina: crowded classrooms, poor per-pupil spending, and in many cases, part-time jobs just to pay the bills. This is why I joined the nearly 20,000 teachers, students, and other supporters as they flocked to the North Carolina Capitol building to protest the state’s broken education system on Wednesday.
Despite the rain and plethora of depressing signs reminding us of the hurdles facing public schools, there was a glimmer of hope in the mass of red shirts engulfing downtown Raleigh. I enthusiastically joined the crowd marching down Fayetteville Street chanting “Education is a right, that is why we have to fight!”
Within five minutes, however, my good spirits began to wane. This change began when my friend said to me, “There are so many people here that my Snapchat will not even work.” Looking around, I quickly noticed that the majority of protestors were participating in the march behind the screens of their phones. Demonstrators with witty signs reading “NC Education: First in Teacher Flight!” and “This Wouldn’t Happen at Hogwarts” stopped to pose for those livestreaming the event.
At times, it felt much like a crowded tourist destination with people pushing from each side to get a picture. I asked myself, what does their digital distance from the events right in front of them do to their hopes of effecting legislative change?
This question became especially poignant when protestors broke into small groups based on their school districts. Standing with my wife’s district on the lawn behind the legislative building, I listened as one of the organizers from the N.C. Association of Educators asked for volunteers to plan future meetings to ensure that the energy demonstrated at the rally would carry into voting season. Of the 20 educators standing in the circle, only one young woman agreed to help. I could not help but wonder where the enthusiasm I saw on Fayetteville Street had gone.
To be sure, I was sympathetic to the already-stretched-thin teachers standing there. After all, how could my wife and her colleagues add another duty on top of lesson planning, teaching, grading, attending workshops, searching for volunteers to proctor assessment exams, and so on? Could I really be surprised that no one volunteered?
These questions risk the interpretation that I am criticizing the teachers for not stepping up, which is the opposite of what I intend. My reflections on the rally are less an indictment of these educators than they are an observation on the shortcomings of social media as a means of protest.
The same problems have riddled activists who took part in the Women’s March and the March for Our Lives; that is, large numbers of protestors satisfied their activism quota through social media posts, and failed to follow through with the nitty gritty requirements of resistance that are less easily broadcasted.
This is not to say that social media is somehow bad or antithetical to protest. After all, without platforms like Facebook and Twitter, the Teacher’s Rally would have been much smaller.
That said, I fear that these platforms are short-circuiting the prospect of meaningfully changing legislation by creating the false assurance of immediate gratification. It is no doubt rewarding to post a photo and receive likes and shares within minutes, but it appears to me that this virtual gratification is enough to satisfy many protestors’ appetites for activism. While they no doubt remain committed to the cause, the simple act of marching and broadcasting it on the internet becomes enough, leaving their contribution finished. But what happens when those Snapchats expire?
The answer is that the unsexy phase of resistance begins – writing letters, organizing meetings, canvasing to raise awareness, and most important, voting.
Many of the teachers are already aware of this reality, as thousands chanted, “Remember, remember! We vote in November!” The question now is whether or not the emotional energy exhibited on Wednesday can last another six months.
I am confident that if anyone is prepared to do this unflattering and tedious work, it is our public-school teachers. I’ve watched as my wife and her colleagues work over 12 hours a day without compensation for their master’s degrees, often without teaching assistants, and more often without due respect for their tireless efforts in the classroom, only to come home, work a few more hours grading and planning, and get back up with a smile on their faces the next day. These are the moments that no livestream or Snapchat can capture.
But these are also the moments that will earn the long-overdue requests for public education. So, as you all reminded me throughout high school, it’s time to put away your phones and get back to work.
Jacob McLain is a graduate student at Duke University.