A Chicago Teacher On Strike

The Chicago Public School (CPS) strike has dominated our city’s attention this week and, if I read the news correctly, has become a story of national and even international interest.  Like many news stories this one seems to have a dominant narrative.  Because our church community includes many teachers I’ve become aware that this narrative doesn’t ring true with many of the central players.  Daniel Michmerhuizen is a member of our church and a passionate educator.  He agreed to answer a few questions about the strike.  His perspective is an important one as we try to make sense of a very complicated situation.

How long have you been a CPS teacher?  Help us imagine what your experience as a teacher in Chicago is like.

CTU Strike
Daniel and his son marching with other teachers.

I’m entering my 6th year and third school within CPS. Before that, I taught for 7 years in Michigan. I have been blessed with tremendous students who want to learn and grow and be successful. I have been “cursed” with classrooms that have no climate control; mice; chipped paint; outdated and insufficient number of textbooks; outdated, insufficient or non-existent technology. How can I equip today’s kids for tomorrow’s jobs in these conditions.  And yet, my kids display a yearning and longing to shine and succeed and learn.

This strike didn’t materialize out of nowhere.  What are some of the issues – things the press hasn’t covered regularly – that have led to this point?

The biggest concerns are those previously mentioned teaching conditions. Not all schools have sufficient support staff. Kids don’t have recess or gym. Kids literally passed out from summer school from being in rooms with no air. There are classrooms where they have to wait 6 weeks for books.  Additionally, there are issues with the longer school day (not that teachers are opposed the time, but what is it going to be used for? How is it to be structured?), the evaluation process, teacher recall, and compensation. However, those are not the “high priority” items for most teachers.

In a recent OP-ED column, Nicholas Kristof wrote, This is an issue of equality, opportunity and national conscience. It’s not just about education, but about poverty and justice — and while the Chicago teachers’ union claims to be striking on behalf of students, I don’t see it. Why do think the narrative has developed this way: that the union is mostly interested in self-preservation while the mayor and his allies are mostly interested in the students’ well being?

I could not agree and disagree more with Mr. Kristof .  I agree with the entire first part…everything until the hyphen.  And for that reason, the teachers strike about the other issues I mentioned. Unfortunately we can not legally strike that way because of the way recent legislation was written. Thus, that narrative that I have described does not get out there, it is buried in the news cycle, occasionally shared and spotlighted through personal teacher interviews (some of it was in a USA today article earlier this week).  In order to be a legal strike, the official union (and thus news release) position simply has to be  about salaries – which even Kristof admits – when that it not really the central issue.  I find it very interesting that he says he would respect us more if it were just about the salaries.  I don’t think the general public feels the same.

CTU Strike
Teachers march down Michigan Avenue.

I’m curious: Are there points where you agree with the Emanuel administration’s education policy?

From everything that I have read and am familiar with, no.  He closes local schools seemingly at will.  There have been schools whose numbers are better than other schools in the area (including charter schools) and he will close them. He invites the citizenry to participate in fixing the schools, but then doesn’t listen to their recommendations that he supposedly empowered them to make. The Bronzeville CAC and its proposal after hours of work is a tragic example of this. He wants to shut down CPS schools and then turn the buildings over to charters. He has high ranking officials of multiple charter networks appointed to the Board of Education.  How is this not a conflict of interest?

Now don’t get me wrong; I am not against charter schools and some are doing great things with their students. However, they take CPS money away from local schools but are not held to the same standards. How is that right?  I have no problem going “head to head” with a charter school as long as they have to play by the same rules that I do, but they don’t!  And quite often that is how they achieve the “dramatic and miraculous turnaround.”  It is not the same kids under the same rules as before.

To me, his actions indicate that he wants to privatize education and, worse yet, turn them over to the corporate “reformers” who are not doing any better (and sometimes a worse) job than the traditional public schools. Longitudinal studies have proven this. Clearly you touched a hot button with me, and I could go much longer…

This gap – growing rapidly if I read things correctly – between the administration and union is troubling.  Do you see any possibility for the gap to be bridged?

This is a complex issue that is hard to describe and discuss via email. I think it is “reckoning day”. I think you have a lot of sub-par principals and sub-par educators who slipped through the system for many years. Whether it was patronage, or lack of competent staff I think we had principals and teachers who obtained jobs that they may not have been completely qualified for, or least that they were not really that good at.  And now, we have entered an age of accountability.  Why is the graduation rate so low?  Why are kids graduating who can’t read? Why can’t kids get into or succeed in college? And then the fingers start pointing in both directions. There are principals who are in place that weren’t even good teachers, let alone who have actual leadership abilities for schools.  There are teachers who can’t even manage a classroom, let alone provide competent instruction.  Whose fault?  At the end of the day, it doesn’t really even matter, We (parents, teachers, administration) need to address it and look for solutions. The blame game has caused the divide and unless we move forward toward solutions, the gap will not be bridged.

That make sense.  So, if were up to you to identify the next steps within this complex situation that would bring about meaningful change, what would you suggest?

I believe some of the following:

– If the mayor/city thinks that charter schools can do just as good of a job than make them play by the same rules for enrollment, sped population, student growth, retention, etc.
– Don’t invite the public to participate if you are just going to dismiss them, their time, their efforts, and their suggestions. That’s just disrespectful.

– If the mayor wants to empower principals to hire whom they want, then hold them accountable!  They have four years to get rid of a teacher for any reason, no questions asked nor justification necessary.

Thanks for sharing this perspective Daniel.  I’m hopeful it gives folks a larger view of what’s happening in this strike.  One last question: Many of this blog’s readers are people of faith.  How would ask then to pray?

This is probably the easiest question. Pray for the strike to be over ASAP. Pray for the city to heal. Pray for things to “go back to normal” in the sense of kids getting back to the rhythm of learning. Pray that we would continue to discuss and wrestle with the possible solutions to the current deficiencies resulting from the inequities of the current system.  We need to focus even more intensely on them. We need top make sure all students have access to high quality public education with caring and competent teachers. Pray for the students as they struggle with more each day of just living than most of us could even imagine.   

Author: David Swanson

Pastor of New Community Covenant Church in Bronzeville. Collecting signs of life.

5 thoughts on “A Chicago Teacher On Strike”

  1. Thank you for taking the time to ask and answer these questions. As someone very interested but observing from far away and only hearing the news-this tells the important other side of the story. Thank you for the prayer points–I will be praying!

  2. What a great post! Thank you very much for that. We believe that it is very important to hear different perspectives on these issues. You have the teacher perspective and us the student one. It feels good to see a new POV!

  3. Thank you for this excellent post. I hope many people will read what you wrote so they can see the strike from your point of view. It is extremely sad to see teachers and students going through these struggles. Everyone will return to school on Monday. The future of each individual is based on the quality and level of his or her education and teachers should be supported and respected for the hard job they all do.

  4. With so many players (students, parents, teachers, administration, union, district, county, state, federal) and such a ginormous system, just for Chicago, no wonder there is corruption, inefficiency, ineptness, and more all boiling up, and no solution in sight with lots of finger pointing to protect turf.

    1. I say bigness is a bigger hindrance for solution than help. Get rid of this element. Get rid of the money consuming, power grabbing, elitist oriented upper hierarchy and strip down to local districts only. The people must demand this from their “public servants”.
    2. Once the bigness is gone, the unions are unnecessary. They suck up a lot of cash and corrupt simple function into complex turf control. More money is available for the classroom.

    These are not easy options but they are real systemic overhauls that can make a big difference for the kids.

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