Matt Driscoll

Attention Tacoma Public Schools: When teacher Anne Hawkins quits, you’re doing something wrong

If there was a moment when Tacoma Public Schools lost the hearts and minds of the city it’s supposed to serve, it may have come Monday, when a teary eyed Anne Hawkins stood in front of a camera-wielding USA Today reporter and announced her resignation.

The powerful image — which quickly spread online — spoke volumes, and not just about a heralded Jason Lee Middle School teacher who the district itself touted earlier this year as “relentless,” “never compromising” and one of the “unforgettables.”

It spoke to the anger and fissure this strike has wrought on this community — especially among its most valuable asset, its teachers.

It spoke to how much pain and mistrust has been inflicted and just how divided the two sides in Tacoma’s ongoing teachers strike remain.

Most importantly, for a flailing district, it felt — very acutely— like a soundbite that won’t soon be forgotten.

If there’s a way to walk this all back, quite frankly it’s hard to see it from where things currently stand. Press conferences like the one the district held Wednesday, seemingly designed to sway public opinion and make teachers look greedy, certainly won’t work. Nor will canceling Thursday’s regularly scheduled school board meeting. Moves like that just come off like inept cowardice.

The damage has clearly been done.

“It was intense. It was searing,” Hawkins told me, again with tears in her eyes, of the moment her mother — who she enlisted for the task so she wouldn’t have to cross the picket line herself —officially handed in her resignation letter.

We spoke just outside Jason Lee, where Hawkins was supposed to start her 20th year of teaching this year.

Asked why her resignation has resonated the way it has, Hawkins — a language arts teacher by trade who’s as comfortable quoting feminist activist Bell Hooks as she is rapper Cardi B — likened it to a “canary in the coal mine” situation.

“I’ve watched so many teachers come and go, so many principals come and go. I just never wanted to leave. I love it at Jason Lee. That’s my home,” Hawkins said. “And when home is so bad that you leave and go elsewhere, I guess that is surprising. There’s some shock value there.”

For Hawkins, that is exactly how bad things have gotten and why she delivered her message the way that she did. She told me she’d been weighing the decision for some time and finally was swayed by how hard teachers in Tacoma have had to fight for money she believes is rightfully theirs, and how out of touch and overpaid administrators at the district’s downtown office seem to be.

“This district can only do to me what I allow them to do to me,” Hawkins said. “I feel like I’m leaving for the kids. I’m leaving so the kids know, ‘Don’t let anybody do you any kind of way.’ Why would you sit and tolerate a certain level of abuse?”

Will other top teachers in Tacoma follow Hawkins’ lead? That fear has been one of the key arguments teachers have relied on in demanding salary increases consistent with what other districts have received. The longer this increasingly contentious drama drags out, the more real the prospect becomes.

Lincoln High School’s Nate Bowling, the state’s teacher of the year in 2016, told me he’s already receiving offers from other districts.

Hawkins’ resignation hit him hard, he said, and had him crying in his car.

Bowling first met Hawkins when he was a student teacher at Jason Lee and holds the students who come out of her classroom in the highest regard.

“I’ve taught ninth graders every year I’ve been at Lincoln. I can spot a Hawkins kid a mile away. Perfect notebooks, thoughtful questioning, firm handshake, begging for a seat in the front on the room. She’s the keystone to so many of the great things happening at Jason Lee,” Bowling said.

He describes Hawkins as the GOAT — greatest of all time.

“It’s like when LeBron left the Cavs — the first time,” Bowling said. “No one can fill those shoes.”

Asked what message Hawkins’ abrupt resignation sends to teachers, kids, the district and this community, Bowling was blunt.

“Tacoma schools have been on the ascent for a decade, with positive headlines, rising grad rates and awards,” he said. “That window seems to be closing.”

Make no mistake, though. What’s really at risk here isn’t achievements and awards and positive press. It’s Tacoma’s kids.

Giving them the education they deserve takes dedicated, top-notch teachers like Hawkins.

“I think to be an effective teacher, it cannot be a job. It absolutely has to be a calling. It needs to be the way that you’re going to change the world and change the inequities and push past the resistance that our society has to listening to young black and brown kids and particularly low-income black and brown kids,” Hawkins said.

“I was always going to be a lifer.”

If you’re losing someone like her, Tacoma Public Schools, you’re doing something wrong.