Post by Aaron Cynic (edited by Natalie Solidarity)
Chicago teachers have been on strike for a week, and two other suburban areas have since followed suit. Predictably, the argument coming from critics of the CTU centers around teachers making too much money, putting children at risk while “whining” about pay, and teachers being some sort of self entitled class uninterested in hard work (re: lazy).
Given that the majority of Americans attended school at some point and more than likely, had at least a few good teachers who helped their education and changed their lives in some positive way, it’s already hard to imagine the cognitive dissonance it takes to make sweeping generalizations about a group of 30,000 people. But, critics of the CTU seem readily able to forget what the classroom looked like in their day with themselves on the other side of the podium, more than likely not always sitting still and paying attention. In which case, I would suggest those critics who have a fuzzy memory to ask a teacher – maybe one of their old ones – if their job was an incredibly easy cakewalk and if they felt they made too much money for doing it.
In talking to the teachers I have on the picket line, ones I’ve known and grown up with my whole life (some CTU and some not) and following very easily available analysis and demands, the short answer is, teaching isn’t a cakewalk, and most salaries aren’t enough. More importantly however, CTU teachers aren’t only talking about compensation. They’re talking about resources for students. Remember how stifling a hot unairconditioned classroom is on a 90 degree day? How easy do you think it is to keep a classroom of 40 engaged? How exactly should students be taught when books are unavailable? Fixing issues like these are just a few demands the CTU put forth to Mayor Emanuel and his administration. Moreover, in addition to scarce resources and a crumbling infrastructure, those teachers on the line have to educate students facing hunger, poverty, and violence in their daily lives.
Thousands of passionate and caring teachers have filled the streets for a week with parents and children standing with them in solidarity, marching not only on Chicago Public Schools headquarters, but in neighborhoods across the city. Pass any public school and chances are, you’ll find well crafted and clever signs with slogans like “Don’t starve our neighborhood schools” and “strike of force, not choice.” On the first day of the strike, teachers and supporters taped hundreds of notes to the street poles in front of City Hall saying why they’re fighting for Chicago’s schools. But rather than listen to the teachers, staff, students and parents, so many hang on the words of the mayor, top administrators, analysts or other “experts” who probably haven’t spent time in front of a classroom in years, if ever. At a rally in Grant Park this week, one speaker called the relationship between media and the mayor “public education by press release.” And so, much of the public still appears willing to take their word over that of experienced individuals from the field.
In part, this could have something to do with the disconnect we’ve learned to feel towards people we may not know, or situations we never faced. Since we live in a highly top down class structure, we identify readily with an authority figure, who we believe gets paid (many times in six figures), to tell us what’s happening. But those figures have their own vested interests, and it’s plainly obvious that Rahm Emanuel and his corporate backers stand to benefit from privatization and charter schools. Still, rather than ask the worker on the line why she or he fights, we’re conditioned to respond with ire towards the striking teachers because they’re probably overpaid, lazy, corrupt, don’t work hard enough, or failing our children in some way. Somehow though, big business moguls who donate thousands at political fundraisers and jet set across the world to find another location for cheap labor after shutting a unionized workplace are lauded for their fiscal responsibility and shrewd business sense.
Unfortunately, this partly comes down to what we choose to value in our society, and the type of role we aspire to play in it. In a landscape awash with adulation of do-nothing-but-get-paid-millions celebrity culture, fear induced mega defense spending, and career politicians who laud the bootstrap yanking efforts of their grandparents while working well paid corporate jobs at the family company, we’re conditioned to worship 1 percent status. Meanwhile, we readily accept narratives that pit a class of workers making between $40,000 and $75,000 a year against those making less, while the lobbyists writing the laws for our politicians to sell us make more than most of us will see in a lifetime. The reality for the majority of people however, is that we’ll never attain the 1 percent lifestyle Horatio Alger and his children told us we could have if we simply just pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and work hard.
Sadly, this is the narrative the Mayor’s office has pushed this week, and what gets lost is the care and concern Chicago teachers have for their students. At a rally yesterday, speaker after speaker, most clad in red shirts, spoke about the reality of life in the classroom. They pointed out how $5.2 million in TIF funds, which could have gone to alleviate some of the funding problems CPS has, went to the construction of a Hyatt Hotel. They told stories of children in need of counseling and guidance, in need of food and books, in need of so many things to help them succeed. But instead of providing them with those resources and coming to the table to negotiate, the city and critics of the CTU seem bent on focusing on faulting teachers for situations beyond their control.
There’s no question Chicago is in need of education reform. There’s no question that nationally, we’re in need of education reform. But lengthening the school day without a plan for what to do with those hours is not reform. Nor is evaluating the success of a teacher based solely on test scores when students and teachers aren’t given the proper resources. One teacher I spoke with this week perhaps put it best when she said:
“…I hope in some way we can keep the conversation going about how to improve education. This top down effort is not good for anyone. The people who know most about what’s going on in the schools and what’s making it difficult are the teachers and the parents. And if City Hall does not listen to them, we’re never really going to improve education.”