Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Coming Home

In a few minutes, like 3.8 million other educators nationwide, I will enter my classroom to teach a handful of the 55 million students in our country's education system. Our motives and focus will be the same--to deliver the best future for the students we teach.

For the last week and a half, that mission hasn't changed, but for 25,000 Chicago educators, we chose a more unconventional route to fight for that mission--we went on strike. We decide that the Chicago Public Schools Board of Education had treated our students and ourselves so poorly, that the most prudent way to earn the best future for the students we teach was to leave our classrooms.

Looking at the final outcomes, and how far the Board moved, I'm proud to say we accomplished what we sacrificed and set out to do. Make no mistake--our students, their families and we sacrificed a great deal for this. After all, the only people still getting money to put food on the table through this were the CPS higher-ups and the Mayor; even as they stonewalled our student centered asks.

I also feel some disappointment. My classroom still won't have air conditioning. Our class sizes situation is incrementally improved, but it will still be a major issue. We may have a slightly less test centered culture, but we are still facing a tsunami of corporate profits and test-based child abuse.

But that disappointment doesn't lead to discouragement. We stood proudly, we fought, and we won for our students.  It is not a final victory or a resolution. We must continue to fight tomorrow and every day after that. We will just be doing so from our classrooms instead of from a picket line.

I hope we've shown that to our millions of colleagues who followed the strike closely and sent their support. I hope we've taught the country that billionaires not only don't have all the answers to the challenges of public education, but lack the basic knowledge and stake in the game to do much more than pad their pockets at our children's expense.

We must teach well in our classrooms, but as the leaders of the educational arena, we have a far greater calling. We must work with our communities, hear their needs, desires and grievances and develop a better education system by and of the communities we serve. We must lock out corporate voice and control--to be sure, if businesses want to help with best of motives and ample resources, they are welcome--but they must not set the agenda.

We are the leaders we have been waiting for. Let's create a vision for a better school system, and let's fight like hell to make it reality.

Thank you and much love to all of you. I can't wait to see where our paths cross.

Monday, September 17, 2012

A student addresses Rahm's dismissal of air conditioning as a real issue

The following student comment on Facebook has 16,304 likes:

Hi, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, I am a student at Lincoln Park High School, and my father is an employee of the Cook County Jail. You stated yesterday in your news conference that air conditioning in schools is not an important factor in negotiations, but at my fathers job when a temperature reaches a certain degree for the detainees they must get relief or it is inhumane. Are you saying that detainees should have better conditions then CPS students and faculty? I know this cannot be a deciding factor in the contract so lets bring out the real issues at hand and take control of a situation and lead by example and by the mayor you were elected to be!

P.S. You should really be in on all meetings pertaining to the negotiations!

If the billionaires and millionaires running our city can't listen to the teachers, please let them listen to the students. 

Contingency centers: A view from the inside

In many ways, our strike in Chicago is about differing view of public education. The Mayor has always pushed two tiered education between open enrollment neighborhood schools, and selective charter and test-to-get-in schools.

One product of the strike has been that the board has had an opportunity to demonstrate their vision of education as they set up “contingency centers” for students while schools were out of session.
Media coverage of the inside of the contingency centers has been quite sparse. I spoke yesterday with one of the people forced by central office to cross the picket line to staff a contingency center who outlined the conditions inside:
There are 15-25 students daily at the school. Some of the students present are children of board employees working at the site. The others are a mixture of elementary and high school students, some from the school and some from surrounding schools. There are dozens of board employees, so many sit in the cafeteria. There really isn’t substantive work to be done. People want to do work, but this is a waste of time and resources. There are way more people than needed. When we found out about the contingency centers, some of us were at least excited to be working with kids, but many were dreading it because they aren’t used to working with students.
We were told to address any student questions about the strike by saying, “The teachers have a right to strike and both sides are working for a solution” and to leave it at that. We saw it as a teachable moment, but we were told that we couldn’t say anything else.
So I would hope for several things moving forward: A more strategic, thoughtful deployment of staff. Also, I want a resolution where teachers get what they need. Most importantly, I hope that it raises questions both within CPS and nationally about the privatization of education and the inequities of the conditions that students are learning under. These questions have always been important to me. I hope through the strike we can address them.

These disparities are highlighted further when look at the contingency centers from the outside as our students’ learning conditions had transitioned from a mayoral afterthought to a mayoral political bargaining chip.

Trying to break the strike, Emanuel and his education team stocked these locations with many of the very resources we were demanding on the picket line.

In our schools, students collapse of heat stroke as they struggle to focus in 96 degree classrooms. Jean Claude-Brizard announced that all contingency centers would have AC.
In our schools, students deal with a lack of supplies and broken clocks in every room and when we complain, nothing happens.  Brizard addressed this in his contingency plans (albeit by asking replacement supervisors to bring their own).

In our schools, students are not guaranteed any class size limits, and if class sizes begin to approach reasonable numbers, the board will quickly cut teachers even as late as 4 weeks into the year, plunging students’ schedules into chaos. At the contingency centers, Brizard promised at worst a 25 to 1 ratio, and many have more adults assigned than students.

In many of our schools, cafeterias sometimes run out of food and students are not allowed to bring in outside food. At the contingency centers, Brizard made a point to promise enough food for all students who attended.

Finally, to get to our schools, many students have to pay their own transportation. Low income students often qualify for reduced fares, but even that process can be complex. Often students will miss a day or two a week as their bus fare has run out or someone in the family has used it for something else. The Mayor granted students free CTA rides all week during the strike.

If we received the supports that the contingency centers receive every day, we never would have had to strike.  Our city leadership is clear—students’ welfare is important when people are watching, but not when they are quietly trying to get their education.

Strike week 2: Democracy takes time, but it's the opposite of what's hurting our kids

Last week, I outlined some of the many reasons why we as Chicago teachers were fed up and ready to go on strike. More than just the strike, I wanted to highlight how students are injured by the daily conditions that our district inflicts upon them.

When students experience horrible conditions in school, it inflicts more than an initial hurt, it undermines their faith in the educational system. Why should students continue to come to school each day and give their best when the institution itself regularly attacks their basic human dignity?

 Beyond raising consciousness of these issues, I had hoped it would also send a message to our district and city leadership that instead of accusing teachers of hurting students by striking, they could simply address the issues most vitally threatening our students’ educations, and we could see a quick resolution to the strike.
Instead, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has laughed off the classroom conditions saying, “It’s 71 degrees outside, we don’t go on strike for air conditioning.” Of course, the Mayor doesn’t have to go on strike for AC, his office has it, and it wasn’t 71 degrees when summer school was getting canceled this year. More than that, it wasn’t his kids who were getting picked up by ambulance after succumbing to heat exhaustion, as happened in a neighboring classroom to mine on Tuesday, September 4.  If it had been one of his kids, I sure wouldn’t have mocked the situation; I would have fought to get it addressed. I’m a teacher, not a mayor, so I see what they view as “other people’s children” as my own.

Yesterday, the Mayor added insult to injury by announcing his intentions to file an injunction on the strike yesterday on two criteria: that the strike is illegal, and that the strike endangers children. So Emanuel has not only failed to address our initial concerns for our students, but has made the claim that we are hurting our students into a court case.

Make no mistake—the Mayor’s own poor policies are what are endangering Chicago students not just during the strike but every single day in our city. I empathize deeply with students and parents who are dealing with the challenge of missing school temporarily until the days are made up. However, the quality of the 180 days they will be in school and their safety commuting to and from school and in their neighborhoods is even more important. I’ve lost 5 students straight from my classrooms to city violence. They were killed commuting to and from school, standing on their porches, or walking home from a friends’ house.  The mayor wouldn’t stand for this for his own children.

I worry some that through this strike, it will take some time to rebuild trust. Our students don’t trust the school system, and the fact that we chose to strike, many of them understand, but some will be upset. I only hope that when they see why we stood up and what we were fighting for, they will understand.
I think it may be harder today as many expected us to return to school this morning. The issue is that it doesn’t ever get this bad in a democratic system. Chicago’s top-down educational system run by people who don’t send their kids to the schools they govern is what helps create these inhumane conditions. While it will take longer for the educators of the city to review the proposed contract we’ve fought for, we cannot simply accept what is being handed to us by our strong, capable leadership.

Democracy takes time. It is messy. But it is just and it creates freedom for those who inhabit it. As epic blogger Fred Klonsky writes here, we don’t live in a democracy and it may confuse and confound those running Chicago when they run into one, but we can at least create one in our union. I am eager to get back to school, but I unceasingly yearn for a democratic, empowering education system for our students, and I’m thankful that we are modeling those principles within our union. 

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Tuesday, September 11, 2012


Sunday night, anxious about the oncoming strike, I spent ten minutes of my time with my small voice to write a short piece about why I was striking. I sent it out via twitter and facebook, and let it go for the night.

The response was overwhelming. First teachers, then parents and students, and finally the mainstream media reached out.

Today, I am filled with hope. I didn't conceive it, but I am proud to be part of this international movement to save public education. Let's maintain these connections, organize in our own communities and take back our education system.

To this end, I'd suggest a couple of actions:
1) Bring together parents, students and educators with equal voice.
2) Develop our own vision of what education should be.
3) Demand community control of policy and implementation of our shared vision.

As a starting point, I'd suggest that we agree on some basic ideas:
1) Public education means every single young person gets the supports they need to take ownership of and advance their education.
2) Parents and students have a right to determine what they want from their schools.
3) Teachers have a right to determine how to best fulfill parent and student vision with our professional expertise.

For too long, we've waited for the rich and powerful to improve our schools. They have no interest or motivation to do so. We are the ones we've been waiting for. Let's build the schools our students deserve.

Wearing red day 2 on the picket line.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Why I'm striking, JCB

CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard is on record saying both that CTU leadership is deciding whether or not to strike, and that “everyone knows that a strike would only hurt our kids.”

I just wanted to educate my boss a little on the history of Chicago, as he is relatively new to the area. Chicago is founded on the hard daily struggle of working people. It is the birth of the labor movement—not a movement just for wages and benefits, but a movement that stopped child labor so that each of the kids in CPS schools could attend school instead of working. It was a movement that stopped the practice of working conditions so unsafe that consumers were eating the actual workers who fell into the mix while they were making hot dogs. It was a movement that fought so that workers could have some tiny measure of time with our families rather than spending all waking hours working for the enrichment of their bosses.

But even more importantly, I wanted to educate Mr. Brizard about what it means to “help or hurt our kids”.
When you make me cram 30-50 kids in my classroom with no air conditioning so that temperatures hit 96 degrees, that hurts our kids.

When you lock down our schools with metal detectors and arrest brothers for play fighting in the halls, that hurts our kids.

When you take 18-25 days out of the school year for high stakes testing that is not even scientifically applicable for many of our students, that hurts our kids.

When you spend millions on your pet programs, but there’s no money for school level repairs, so the roof leaks on my students at their desks when it rains, that hurts our kids.

When you unilaterally institute a longer school day, insult us by calling it a “full school day” and then provide no implementation support, throwing our schools into chaos, that hurts our kids.

When you support Mayor Emanuel’s TIF program in diverting hundreds of millions of dollars of school funds into to the pockets of wealthy developers like billionaire member of your school board, Penny Pritzker so she can build more hotels, that not only hurts kids, but somebody should be going to jail.

When you close and turnaround schools disrupting thousands of kids’ lives and educations and often plunging them into violence and have no data to support your practice, that hurts our kids.

When you leave thousands of kids in classrooms with no teacher for weeks and months on end due to central office bureaucracy trumping basic needs of students, that not only hurts our kids, it basically ruins the whole idea of why we have a district at all.

When you, rather than bargain on any of this stuff set up fake school centers staffed by positively motived Central Office staff, many of whom are terribly pissed to be pressed into veritable scabitude when they know you are wrong, and you equip them with a manual that tells them things like, “communicate with words”, that not only hurts our kids, but it suggests you have no idea how to run a system with their welfare in mind.

When you do enough of this, it makes me wonder if you really see our students as “our kids” or “other people’s children”.
And at that moment, I am willing to sacrifice an awful lot to protect the students I serve every day. I am not hurting our kids by striking, I’m striking to restore some semblance of reasonable care for students to this system. I’m doing to tell you, “No, YOU are the one hurting our children, and you need to STOP because what you are doing is wrong, and you are robbing students of their educational opportunities.

I ask anyone who does remotely care about the kids we teach and learn from and triumph and cheer and cry and grow with., to stand with us and fight for a better future for our kids.

See you on the picket line, my friend.