Make Caring Cool Again

“They weren’t budging. It’s easy to say teachers should sacrifice, but when the buildings are unsafe and students are suffering due to class sizes, it becomes clear that teachers are negotiating not just for themselves but for the learning conditions of the students.”

-Sophie von Rohr
Portland Teacher Strike, 2023.

Sophie, a substitute teacher at a Portland Public School, is a mutual friend of mine. Growing up in a family where both my mother and grandmother, along with her mother, were teachers, I was deeply influenced to pursue a degree in elementary school teaching. This familial connection has instilled in me a profound appreciation for the teaching profession. To me, it’s more than just a job; it’s a calling. The prospect of a dinner invitation from my friend sparked excitement, as I looked forward to delving into numerous questions with Sophie. This interview captures my initial meeting with Sophie, covering topics ranging from the nuances of the Pacific Northwest school system, the challenges confronting teachers, the laws and systems educators are advocating for, nostalgic reflections on our childhood school experiences, the dynamic changes in sex education, and for me, trying out couscous for the first time.

Simeen Anjum: introduce yourself and tell me about the class you teach?

Sophie von Rohr: Well, as a substitute teacher, I cover various subjects. Currently, I find myself in a rather interesting role as the long-term substitute for sex education. It was a bit unexpected; they needed someone for an extended period, and knowing me from a previous long-term assignment, they reached out. So, I arrived, and they informed me it’s sex ed. Surprisingly it’s been quite enjoyable. The students are mature enough that I can engage in playful banter without them taking it too seriously. If they were in middle school, it might be a different story.

Simeen: How do the students like this class?

Sophie: They find it amusing. Honestly, I think I’m the most uncomfortable one in the room. However, I use that discomfort as a gauge – if it’s not weird for me, then it can’t be weird for them. Plus, the curriculum is excellent. Unlike some of the sex ed experiences where we were shamed out of even thinking about sex, the public school curriculum here covers a lot of ground. It delves into science, identity, gender identity, consent, and various topics that make it easy to teach and teach well. The students seem to recognize the importance of what they’re learning, treating it more like a valuable lesson compared to other subjects I’ve taught. In classes like biology some students may not see the immediate relevance, thinking, “Why do I need to learn this?” With sex education, the connection to real-life situations, relationships, and personal well-being makes it more engaging for them.

Simeen: That’s great. I wonder how you ended up being a teacher. Was this always your plan?

Sophie: Well, you know, it’s funny how life takes unexpected turns. I have tried my hand at various jobs. I have a degree in literature which, unfortunately, didn’t open up many career paths. Someone suggested, “Why don’t you become a teacher?” Initially, I thought it was just advice given to those who are unsure about their career path however, during the onset of COVID, a unique opportunity arose. The principal of the school I attended in second grade, who is a friend of my mom’s, reached out. They needed substitute teachers, and she offered to guide me through the licensing process. At that time, I was back and forth between New Mexico and Oregon, living in both places during COVID. In New Mexico, the requirements for substitute teaching were significantly different. You essentially needed a GED or high school diploma, In Oregon you usually need a full teaching license. That’s how I got into it.

I had this idealistic notion that because schools were closed due to Covid and the various societal shifts  happening during the pandemic, that there would be a push to invest public money in catching kids up when schools reopened. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case. The reality has been disheartening. It seemed like a logical step at the time and looking back it’s one of those situations that almost brings me to tears. What seemed like an opportune moment was, in fact, one of the toughest chapters in education.

Sophie in their classroom, 2021

Simeen: Can you tell me more about what it is like being a teacher in America? And here in Oregon?

Sophie: I don’t believe the compensation aligns with the demands, especially considering the requirement for a graduate degree. When you factor in the costs of obtaining that degree and compare it to the entry-level teaching salary it raises concerns. Admittedly, my perspective is more localized and not nationwide. Transitioning from roles like farmer, barista, and seamstress; the prospect of a teacher’s salary seemed appealing. However, reality quickly set in. Despite earning more, the expenses associated with the profession, such as insurance, taxes, and union dues, significantly reduce the take-home pay. Beyond the financial aspect, the sheer number of work hours is a major concern. In my experience, working 80 hours a week was overwhelming and led to exhaustion and burnout. While my situation might be an extreme case, it highlights the unrealistic expectations placed on teachers.

Moreover, the challenges extend beyond financial and time commitments. The expectations on teachers have become disconnected from reality with many not fully grasping the complexities of the profession. Post-COVID desocialization and the erasure of norms around school behavior have added new layers of difficulty. Issues addressed during the strike included not just pay but also the rising cost of living. The unpredictably long duration of the strike, lasting a month, has had an unbelievable impact, resulting in a significant loss of school time.

Simeen: I remember the strike. My coworker’s kids’ school was shut down because of the teachers’ protests and she would instead give them homework in the house. Instead of a traditional school timetable, she created a home school timetable for the kids that also included different chores around the house and taking the dog out. It was very creative. Can you tell me more about the strike? What was it about?

Sophie: The protest aimed to push the district into addressing various issues, such as maintaining our school buildings; ensuring they are well-maintained and safe. There’s a need for funding in different areas. For instance, we advocated for class size caps; urging the district to establish limits on the number of students in a single class. That was the ultimate thing that the district just couldn’t agree upon. That seemed like the hardest issue. 

Simeen: What is the maximum class size?

Sophie: I have no idea. It’s a critical question—how many kids are they willing to cram into a classroom? The union would propose a range of potential solutions, and the district would counter with a theoretical plan that appeared outrageously expensive and impractical, creating the illusion of an impossible situation. It seemed absurd to present a solution that wasn’t feasible. I wasn’t in the room during these negotiations, but it felt like they were playing games. Part of the eye-opening aspect was witnessing their willingness to let our schools and students fail. Their lack of urgency shocked me.

They weren’t budging. It’s easy to say teachers should sacrifice. But when the buildings are unsafe and students are suffering due to class sizes it becomes clear that teachers are negotiating not just for themselves but for the learning conditions of the students.

Simeen: I am curious. What do you mean by learning conditions?

Sophie: Well it’s mainly about the old buildings that require maintenance. There are numerous issues. I recall early in the strike one of the requests which didn’t get resolved was the union asking the district to ensure school buildings are between 60 and 90 degrees. Which in itself is a huge range. If a building exceeded 90 degrees or dropped below 60 degrees, classes would have to be canceled.

 The district refused to agree citing concerns about potentially having to close school buildings. The reality is if school buildings are over 90 degrees, classes should be canceled. Issues like this highlight that these buildings are not conducive to learning or working. In the middle school where I worked ceiling tiles would frequently fall down and there were issues with rats. It’s stuff that you can live with, but it’s not great. And this is just one of the many bigger issues.

Simeen: That is really an important issue. You were talking about how the students have become desocialized. Do you think about the difference between now and when you were in school? What was the relationship between you and your teachers and how are things different now in school?

Portland Teacher Strike, 2023

Sophie: It’s interesting to compare my own school experience with what my students are going through. I attended private schools and my experience in school doesn’t compare at all with what the kids I teach are dealing with. But one thing I always say is that kids nowadays will go to school and then skip class and hang out in the hall. Then when you catch them in the hall and they’re just like “I don’t care”. Like you know what I mean? When I was a kid, when kids skipped school, they would go somewhere else. We wouldn’t just stand there in front of the adults and say “Hey I’m not going to class”.

Simeen: Right, even back in my school days, if we bunked classes we would be scared of getting caught by adults.

Sophie:There’s also a noticeable amount of trauma among students today. I don’t see as much of it in Portland Public Schools due to the various avenues and opportunities available. There’s all these cultural clubs and after school programs, different opportunities for kids to be with other kids and get involved and stuff. I feel that we kind of have a big window on the world out here. Teaching in rural New Mexico exposed me to students dealing with challenges beyond what I had been trained for as a teacher. Many were dealing with issues like substance abuse, the loss of their parents or other family members and a lack of exposure to the world outside their small town. During COVID, this was really magnified as these students were already in isolated situations. I had several kids that attempted to commit suicide that year, it was just a lot. It was a lot of things. 

Artworks by Sophie’s Students (7th & 8th grade), 2021

Simeen: For me, as someone still learning American values, there’s this idea of being professional, maintaining personal boundaries at work, not getting too involved. But I guess for you as a teacher, especially in situations like these, sometimes you need to break those boundaries. I am sure that it does get personal for you at times, right?

Sophie: I’m still navigating that. As a teacher, you do find yourself in situations where things get really personal. I’ve improved with practice and being in a more supportive environment. It’s not like being the sole person dealing with everything; there are support systems in place. In Portland Public Schools, despite its issues, there is a structure that provides relative safety for kids. In the rural school I worked at, the situation was more desperate due to a lack of resources. Like there would be just this one teacher who happens to be the only person there with no training as a psychologist or a crisis counselor or anything.

In this community, kids were also receiving a lot of pretty oppressive messaging about race and gender at home which can sometimes manifest in the classroom. But I don’t see kids  perpetuating the same kind of hate speech and racism in Portland. It doesn’t seem like it’s “cool” to be racist in Portland. In the other school that I worked atI heard kids explicitly say that they thought racism was cool.

Simeen: That totally makes sense. Children certainly get influenced by whatever is happening in society. I recall a similar situation in India, where the current political climate is getting increasingly majoritarian and authoritarian. In the news, there are divisive narratives based on religion, normalizing hate speech and violence targeted at minorities. In his classroom he had put up a copy of the preamble of the Indian constitution which states that India is a ‘Sovereign Socialist Secular Democratic Republic’, and to his surprise he found that one day the word secular had been crossed out on the poster. 

Sophie: It’s quite complex that the children in that class not only engage in hate speech but also understand the meaning of the word “secular” enough to purposefully cross it out.

Simeen: True. Because they are surrounded by discussions and debates on TV challenging the word secular in the Indian constitution and presenting secularism as something that is ‘harmful’ for the country.

Sophie: That’s also why I mentioned whether racism is perceived as ‘cool’ or not because in different communities what you hear and what you believe is acceptable to say aligns with what your friends and parents express. In some places kids might openly admit to being racist and  consider it acceptable. However, in Portland, you wouldn’t hear kids saying that. It’s because of the influences kids receive from their parents, teachers, and friends are very different here

Simeen: I agree. 

So, speaking about cool and uncool, if you had the superpower, what is one uncool thing that you would like to make cool for your students, and one cool thing that you really wish was uncool?

Sophie:  I really wish TikTok was less cool. The trends are so addictive. I wish they would make it so much less cool. Sometimes I’ll tease my students into putting their phones away.I try to win them over by saying, “Oh I’m addicted to my phone too”. Grappling with phone addiction at school is an ongoing conversation. But if I had the superpower to make the phones less cool I definitely would.

And I wish it would be cool to be more honest and vulnerable. But I guess teenagers are just always going to probably be how they are. It’s like you can’t show your true self. Especially when I am talking about sex-ed in class, I say let’s have a conversation about this, you know? Like, what do you think? They’re just like, “I don’t care”.

Simeen: Make it cool to care?

Sophie: That’s kind of what I think. Yeah, maybe care about this for a second, see what happens, you know? That would be really cool. Make caring cool again!

Simeen’s first couscous, made and shared with Sophie after this interview. Portland, OR. 2024

Simeen is a social practice artist originally from New Delhi, India. She recently made Portland city her new home where she is pursuing her Master of Fine Arts (MFA) as a candidate in the Art+Social Practice program at Portland State University. 

Sophie is a substitute teacher working for the Portland Public School district, currently doing a stint as a sex education teacher. They are interested in consent and care-based teaching and believe that the classroom is a relational experiment and a place where social transformation may actually still be possible. They are also a union socialist who is committed to creating healthy, joyful working conditions themself and all education workers!

The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a publication dedicated to supporting, documenting and contextualising social forms of art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal takes an eclectic look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions and the public. The Journal supports and discusses projects that offer critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.

Created within the Portland State University Art & Social Practice Masters In Fine Arts. Program, SoFA Journal is now fully online.

Conversations on Everything is an expanding collection of interviews produced as part of SoFA Journal. Through the potent format of casual interviews as artistic research, insight is harvested from artists, curators, people of other fields and everyday humans. These conversations study social forms of art as a field that lives between and within both art and life.

SoFA Journal
c/o PSU Art & Social Practice
PO Box 751
Portland, OR 97207