On The Front Lines In Chicago: A Teacher’s Take
I’m a Chicago Public School teacher and I am on strike this week. Not only do I support our union in their quest to obtain a fair contract, but I consider myself to be an advocate for my students, my school, and my community. By supporting the union, I am supporting our choice to strike in order to benefit the students of Chicago. However, the Chicago Teacher’s Union has come under a surprising amount of scrutiny over the past few days by various media outlets concerning the strike that has forced almost 30,000 teachers off the job and kept 350,000 students out of Chicago Public Schools. Although there has been widespread support within Chicago of the strike, the media continues to vilify teachers, steadily buying into Rahm Emanuel’s anti-union agenda and bolstering the stereotype of the lazy, greedy public school teacher.
So far, CPS has not offered our children any protection against large class sizes and un-airconditioned buildings. We are all sweating out of every inch of our bodies for a good 2+ months out of the year. Students suffer through summer school classes in 98 degree classrooms. This is not a conducive learning environment for our students. Additionally, large class sizes have been shown to be detrimental to student learning, yet we still have teachers in classrooms with 40 pupils. CPS is also cutting arts and foreign language, depriving our students of a rich curriculum.
Yet Chicago Public Schools have offered larger salary raises, acceptable benefits, and have maintained the system under which teachers can raise their pay according to education and experience level. If we were merely lazy and greedy, we could stumble back to our classrooms right about now to sit on our lazy teacher butts and watch our students memorize facts from a textbook and throw paper airplanes around the classroom. But because we’re invested in our children and the integrity of our profession, there are still two major sticking points; teacher evaluations and job security.
What the union wanted, and what the union supposedly will get as a result of the recent negotiations, is some kind of assurance that displaced teachers who are let go due to a school closing or other non-performance related factors are considered as a priority by hiring principals. If you had to pick one teacher to hire, would you choose a 20-year vet who you’ll need to pay $70,000 a year, or a first-year Teach For America graduate who you’ll only need to pay $47,000 a year? Which one do you think a CPS principal would choose, considering budgetary concerns? Which one will probably quit in two years anyway? For years, teachers have been threatened by the idea that a more advanced degree and more years of experience can actually be detrimental to finding a new job. Programs like Teach For America offer opportunities for dedicated young people to break into teaching, but they often displace more experienced teachers in the process. Do we want to disincentivize teachers from gaining more knowledge and experience in their field because there’s always a pool of cheaper labor available? Teachers aren’t fighting for “job security” so they can try for a few years, get tenure, and then check out. Most teachers would agree that the tenure system needs to be overhauled, but we also want fair recourse if we find ourselves unemployed and unable to return to the profession.
During my first year teaching, my evaluation form was a double-sided list of vague statements and three columns of checkboxes: “Strength, Weakness, and N/A.” This was how my teacher rating was calculated, although I’m not sure exactly how everything translated mathematically. CPS is proposing an improved evaluation system that uses the Danielson Framework as a rubric for holistic, detailed, and comprehensive teacher ratings based on classroom observations. No one is opposed to this. Almost every single teacher who has seen the new rubric is pleased with it’s complexity and it’s accuracy in identifying the qualities and practices of a good teacher.
The other piece in our evaluation is based on student performance on standardized test scores. It is estimated that 6,000 teachers could lose their jobs based on low test performance by their students. Teachers at schools like mine would be the most gravely affected by these evaluation-based lay-offs, and here’s why:
If you teach at a CPS school, especially a school with a high concentration of poverty, you’ll know that many of our students struggle with standardized testing. There are many reasons for this. I work at a high school that is almost entirely low-income. I teach Special Education classes, and some of my seniors in high school cannot read beyond a Pre-K level. Don’t get me wrong; that’s not to say they can’t function beyond a Pre-K level; my students are incredibly bright and more than capable of completing high-school level work through the use of various accommodations and modifications. But they cannot always read. Some of them struggle to process both visual and auditory information. And not only is this an issue with the identified Special Education population at my school, but amongst the struggling general education population as well. So many times have I seen my students put their heads down in resignation during the 4th hour of an extremely long day of testing. So many times have I seen my students look for the information that they seek in a passage before they are ultimately overwhelmed and defeated by jumbled words, unfamiliar vocabulary, the stress of time ticking away, and a feeling of helplessness and resignation. Even if my kids were reading at grade level, what do these tests really measure?
We all know that regardless of academic functioning level, standardized tests often fail to capture a student’s ability to think critically or creatively. Test taking is it’s own skill, and why is it worthwhile to spend our time on that? What will this data show us, and more importantly, how will this data be used to dictate the future of our schools and therefore our students? The casual observer hears that we don’t want to be held accountable for our students’ progress, but most ignore the fact that the implications of these contractual issues go far beyond the immediate effect they have on teachers. We might lose our jobs because of low test scores, but children will lose their schools.Their communities. Every attack made on us has a broader implication for our students.
Which brings me to the largest issue of all, and the one that I personally believe I am fighting for; the preservation of public schools. Rahm Emanuel plans to close down 100 “low performing” CPS schools and open 250 charter schools.For those who are unfamiliar with the concept of charter schools, they are essentially public schools that can also receive private funding. Many laud them as the answer to our educational woes. They are not held to the rules and regulations of CPS schools in exchange for a “charter” that outlines their own individualized rules, regulations, and expected gains. Some charter schools have been very successful in raising student achievement, but studies have shown that on average, charter schools perform no better or worse than their public counterparts. Additionally, charter schools can kick out students for a variety of reasons, which means that students with behavioral disorders and other special needs are often under-served by charters and sent back to the public school system. And when corporate interests and corporate funds become heavily invested and involved in the education of children, disaster ensues. Many charters close with little warning due to financial mismanagement, displacing students and teachers alike.
The problem with this mass shift towards the corporatization of education is this: teachers at charter schools are afraid to unionize within their own networks. There is always someone willing to take that job, even if it only pays $30,000 a year and requires working a longer school day and a longer school year. There is no legal recourse for violations committed against students and staff members. Special Education students are often deprived of the services that they are legally entitled to as a result of poor management. Teachers who have few opportunities to make a living wage, and are working more hours than the average teacher, will have no incentive to stay within the profession. The teacher turnover rate will increase, which weakens school communities. Our students will be attending schools where experienced teachers are leaving to be replaced with young idealistic 20-somethings who believe that teaching at a charter school for a few years will change the world. They will likely say “this isn’t sustainable” after being abused by their administration, leave to attend law school, and be replaced by a similarly inexperienced teacher. This is not to knock young teachers; everyone has to start somewhere, and teachers trained in the newest pedagogical methods can be extremely effective. But as a second-year teacher in my early twenties who did a program similar to Teach For America, I can say with certainty that my best teaching years are yet to come, and that I have learned invaluable things from my more experienced colleagues. I’m inspired by them every day. I’d want them to teach my children.
At the end of the day, I don’t really care about how much money I make doing this, or how much more I’ll need to pay for health care. I care that Rahm is withholding resources and funding from public schools in attempt to change the landscape of public education in Chicago. Yet his “reforms” are misguided, ineffective, and will jeopardize the future of the teaching profession and therefore the quality of student education in Chicago. The rhetoric being used on both sides is nasty, but I do hear one word being thrown around quite a bit: “respect.” And ultimately, I believe that is what this strike is about. Rahm has made it clear that he does not trust or respect the educators of his city; he came into office and immediately tried to weaken our union, proposed changes to our schools that were illegal, and cultivated a climate of disrespect and hostility.
Picketing and marching downtown has not been a picnic. We’d rather be in the classroom with our students. We’ve gotten a lot of support from policemen, firefighters, and other city workers as they drive by our picket lines and honk. We’ve gotten a lot of support from parents, honking as they are driving their children to alternative child-care arrangements, honking as they drop their kids off at charter schools, which are currently in session. I woke up this morning to cheers and honks outside my window in support of the teachers picketing outside my neighborhood elementary school. We are not cheering being out of work and away from our students, but we are encouraged that the City of Chicago generally supports us and believes that we are doing the right thing for their children.
Reader submission by L.K.
Opinions expressed in our editorials belong solely to the author and do not represent the views of Feminspire or its staff as a whole. The opinions expressed above are those of the author and do not reflect those of the CTU.
Header image courtesy of Chicago Tribune