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Hotseat: Don Gavitte

A fed-up Portland teacher campaigns to take Salem to school.

Don Gavitte's classroom walls are covered in college pennants: Stanford, Marquette, Hunter, Barnard, Oregon. All sent by grateful former students. They are banners of Gavitte's success.

Gavitte, 45, has been teaching history, philosophy and government for over 20 years, 13 of them at Grant High School. He's a rock-star teacher, according to students, parents and peers.

After exhorting students to make a difference, Gavitte is taking his own teachings to heart. He's running in the Democratic primary for the Oregon House seat being vacated by Rep. Jules Bailey (D-Portland), who is running for Multnomah County Board of Commissioners.

Gavitte protested cuts to school spending in 2012 by forming Underfunded Parents, Students, Educators Together (UPSET), to show budget cuts' damage to schools.

WW talked with Gavitte about what it's like inside Portland Public Schools with a teachers' strike looming, why a lack of trust is killing public education, and how the profession he loves has made him a subversive.

WW: Why are you running for office?

Don Gavitte: There should be a working teacher in Salem helping to make testing and curriculum decisions. And there's a continual fight for funding. We've got to make higher ed more affordable. It's devastating when [students] get accepted to these incredible places and can't afford to go.

How did you decide to form UPSET?

Our principal said we were going to cut 10 more teachers because of funding cuts. We were already thinking about how can we fulfill state mandates on this budget. Many parents asked me straight up, "Is this a union group?" There are plenty of union people in it, but we did it ourselves. UPSET was 80 percent kids.

Were you politically active before forming UPSET?

I'm the guy who wrote hopefully provocative letters to the editor. But for the most part, I've been the guy at the cocktail party who's super into local and national politics.

How do your students view government?

With cynicism. As far as they are concerned, adults can't get it together. Teenagers have the most in-tune and accurate BS meters out there. That's why I could be a strong candidate; I've been in front of them most of my adult life.

What do you teach your students about compromise and politics?

The best conversations about politics come out in philosophy class. Plato believed only an elite few could govern because the rest are self-absorbed idiots. We are proving this to Plato.

The philosophy class I teach is a semester-long quest for truth. Why we don't require kids to take philosophy, I don't know. Probably because you can't measure it.

How has your teaching evolved?

I'm older and crankier, so I can be more subversive. I fill out the form and say I'm doing one thing but do something else in the classroom. Years ago, the district got all fired up about having "anchor assignments." I told my students to draw an anchor on top of their papers. I wanted someone to challenge me, to get that I was being sarcastic. The only response I got was that I hadn't filled out my cover letter correctly.

What is it like teaching with the threat of a strike looming?

There are School Board members who are biting their tongues in half over the contract fight. Some want this because they think it will lead to budget nirvana.

I simply don't understand why PPS does things that are directly enraging to teachers, like hiring a $15,000-a-month consultant to handle negotiations. Teachers do not want a strike. We love these schools, and nobody wants to walk.

Do you think the union is doing a fair job representing your interests?

It enrages me when I hear people say, "Who do these teachers think they are?" At the end of the day, we are pretty timid. We just want to grade papers, get through the day, for our students to do well, and not to get yelled at.

People begrudge us for being the last ones standing with any benefits, but everyone should have those. People spit out the word "union" like "child molester," but some could use a little union in their lives. My mother was in a food workers' union and worked in a supermarket for 10 years and got a pension. Nobody gets that anymore.

The union, the Portland Association of Teachers, says the struggle isn't over money but working conditions.

Last time [when teachers almost had a strike in 2000], teachers agreed to work two weeks for free. We'd just moved into our house and had massive mortgage payments. I lost half a paycheck for a month. I'd love to end this dance of doom.

What's the impact of impasse?

Kids are asking me about money because they think we'll strike because we want more money. That upsets me even more.

Have you ever considered giving up teaching?

It took me five years to make as much money teaching as I was bartending, but it's like any stressful job—ER nurse, ambulance driver. You say, "I can't do it anymore," leave it and then come back. You've done it for so long for a reason.

If you are a dedicated good teacher, you think about quitting all the time. There are easier ways to make a living, but they aren't what you want to do. You do it for the kid who writes the letter that says, "You changed my life." You don't get that tending bar.

Is there much of a relationship between the School Board and teachers?

I never remember seeing School Board members in schools I've worked at. They make pronouncements, and you think, "Whatever." Every once in a while they  have our lives in their hands. Then we pay attention.

I sometimes envy small districts, because nobody can escape each other. Everybody's in it together.