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Eleni Schirmer: A Feeling of Isolation Can Create a New Sense of Belonging

Updated: Jul 17, 2021

Eleni Schirmer is a scholar, writer and activist. She holds a PhD in Educational Policy and Curriculum & Instruction from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Even before we get into the questions, Eleni starts to tell me about her two hour morning session with her sister Zoe, an elementary school teacher. She described Zoe's natural leadership in helping guide her for an upcoming course she will be teaching at Middlebury College titled, "Educational Change and Teachers' Strike's. "She listened to me talk about how I need to write the course, so then offered some really great insights, pulled out a book for me to read, then even went as far as giving me a sample lesson plan that was really helpful."

Biggest takeaway about going through a PhD program?

There have been so many phases, but it has been a journey and what I think has helped me stay grounded through highs and lows is that I am doing this because I want to learn and teach myself. It is easy to get hung up in this competitive environment over such small stakes. After all, people don't study this to become rich and famous in the end.

So why did you do it?

There were things that I wanted to learn, books I wanted to read, and facts I wanted to write about. I wanted to go through that journey because I knew it would be a big long challenge which will change me and I don't know how, but I don't have control, and to me that is worth doing.

Do you know how its changed you yet?

Ha! More gray hairs and dissolution with my peers. But seriously, I am more patient and I’ve gained more endurance to be confused and uncertain. I’m more comfortable being in that I have a larger repertoire of tools that I can use when I’m lost, and how I can find my balance. I am grateful to have learned that.

Has your academic life affected your personal life?

The program and context was super intense after Scott Walker busted the teachers union, so a sense of urgency was felt where everyone had to fight back in education. It was really an intellectually and stimulating time where I formed really deep friendships, intellectual, political and personal. I suspect most people formed the same in undergrad while discovering their identity, but at some point it made me feel like I love the group and this is the activity we got to do together so it made me want to stay in in longer. I feel very rich from my academic career, such as these friendships I made, but its also frustrating to see my peers buying homes and second vacations. Its hard because you know that is where the real personal cost of a PhD comes because it is long and expensive.

You have written quite a few things. Will you continue doing so?

Yes. The process of writing is what helps you figure out what you are going to say in your lesson. I fell in love with writing through this whole process, so I know I will keep doing it to keep grounded and in motion.

Can you describe your feelings when writing "What's Next After Right to Work" and how it came to be? Any stories in the works you are thinking of writing?

When my dear friend Michael and I wrote "What's Next after Right to Work" together, we were both full of despair and also a bit of sober hope. We were full of despair because we knew that right to work would mean that working people in Wisconsin would lose a lot of power to associate and have unions. This was basically the fate that public sector workers in Wisconsin had after Gov. Scott Walker passed WI Act 10. But we also were full of hope because we believed that building long-term power for working people would depend less on whether laws supported them, but if we were able to build strong and well-organized groups that had bold visions, instead of trying to beg and plead our enemies to be nice to us. This was the kind of analysis Michael and I tried to build when we were co-presidents of our graduate union together and when we were writing this piece, we felt like it would be valuable to share our survival strategies with others. That's where a bit of the hope came from.

My next story will be in a similar vein, for Dissent magazine. It will be based on my dissertation research and tell the story about how the Milwaukee teachers' union has managed to not only survive attacks on public schools and public workers' unions, but also they have been able to make their union stronger and more committed to defending and improving public education in Milwaukee. I'm guessing it will be out in February.

Can you talk a little bit about the class you are about to teach at Middlebury College next month?

The class I'm teaching is called "Educational Change and Teachers' Strikes." The course will examine what strikes are, why teachers use them, and what they mean for teachers, schools and communities. We'll look at some of the history of why teachers unionized as well as two of the most significant historical teachers strikes. In the final week of the course, students will organize and conduct their own strike! And students will bargain with me over the final grading rubric (what assignments they want to have count most for their grades). I'll probably put the final syllabus on my website when I finish it.

You split your time between Wisconsin and Montreal. Can you speak at all to how Canada has treated you as a non-citizen and what life could be like if you were a permanent resident?

I have a much deeper respect and sense of understanding for the millions around the world who are forced to leave their homes and start anew. Humans are incredible.

Mostly, Canada has been very welcoming. For example, when I got hit by a car last year, I received excellent and affordable emergency medical care, even as a non-resident. If and when I apply for permanent residency, I will be able to take free French classes and will have access to their public health insurance. However as a non-resident living in Canada I do sometimes find myself invisible in a way I'm unaccustomed to -- I cannot vote, I cannot request that the post office to drops off packages for me (weird), it was a headache to open a bank account there. Even though I will have a PhD in a few months, I can't as much as get a job at a coffee shop in Montreal.

The most profound aspect of my experience of living in MTL as a non-resident, however, has opened my eyes to the reality of immigration and the daily life of immigrants. To be sure, I consider myself to have a relatively light immigration story -- I chose to live in Montreal, I can chose to also live in the states, I have access to resources, I am white, I am not being politically persecuted or economically forced out of my country. And yet even with all of those relative privileges, I often feel isolated, disorientated, and a sense of not really belonging. But in a strange sort of way, this sense of not belonging has given me a new sense of belonging. Many people who live on my street are not from Montreal or Canada or even North America, but have moved here from Pakistan, Iran, Syria, Greece. and I look at these people with awe and amazement. They have learned new languages, built new communities, developed new communities and a sense of belonging.

Visit Eleni's website to see all of her work.

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