These Words They Are a-Changin'

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Sep 10 2012

STRIKE

A scrambled and somewhat incomplete recap of observations and thoughts coming from a first-year CM/CPS teacher on the first (last?) day of the CTU strike in Chicago.

  • My school is very pro-Union. During my first union meeting this summer, before a strike date had even been set, teachers were talking angrily in the meetings and seemed ready to strike already. After the meeting, I heard some other opinions with more mixed feelings, but I never heard any feelings completely against the strike.
  • Once, during a union meeting in late August, this happened: Our union representative was telling us about CPS’s early contingency plan, which consisted of keeping schools open, having the kids come in, and sending in scabs to essentially babysit the students while we picketed outside. Describing the babysitters, he said, “CPS is going to send in scabs and TFA and subs to run the classrooms…” Two or three teachers in the room knew I was in TFA, so my immediate reaction was paralysis and shame, but everyone voiced their frustrations without sending me any obvious dirty looks, so I relaxed. Then, I realized that TFA Chicago probably doesn’t have any extra CMs to just throw around in the possible case of a strike, leading me to realize the overreaction of CTU’s fear of these babysitters. I didn’t say anything, and no one mentioned TFA again.
  • One of the classes next door to mine had 37 kids on the roster at one time. Many teachers constantly talk about when this “leveling” is going to happen by the administration, where class numbers are evened out. For example, I had 35 students on a roster for one class, and 18 on the roster for a different one. It’s this kind of unevenness is frustrating in the classroom. CTU is fighting over class-size limits.
  • Our school year started mid-August, in the middle of the hottest month in Chicago. My classroom does not have air conditioning. My students walk into the room and refuse to do work for the first two minutes because they’re steaming from walking up the stairs, and then they tell me that “It’s TOO HOT!” to which I reply, “Tell me about it, I’ve been in here all day!” Let’s imagine 30 of these students in your classroom, sweat dripping, tensions high, fans on blast, and cramped quarters. Pretty picture?
  • TFA Chicago has told us we should do whatever we feel is necessary in the event of a strike. We can picket, we can stay at home, we can volunteer at another school (haven’t heard much about this, though), we can do whatever.
  • There has been open dislike of Rahm Emanuel at our school. One of my coworkers has called him “a big bully.”
  • Apparently, an official at charter network UNO told the press earlier today that CTU’s language toward charter schools “does nothing but flame tensions.” Chicago is a huge charter-school town. I don’t know the statistics, but TFA places a large number of CMs in charter schools. (Sidenote: When I was getting staffed at CPS’s downtown office, I heard a former charter school teacher talking about UNO, saying that the reason TFA places at charters so much is because TFA money partially funds the schools. (Not sure if that’s true… but I wouldn’t doubt it.) Those CPS teachers were not exactly thrilled about this.)
  • An issue where CTU and TFA differs widely is the evaluation system. CTU does not want a teacher evaluation system based on test scores or student performance. This, however, is an important part of TFA’s foundation, because TFA believes that any powerful leader in the classroom can make significant gains, no matter the conditions outside the school. I agree that poor teachers are horrible and give us all a bad name, and that each educator needs to push their students and themselves to reach for the stars. But not every worker in CPS has pledged with the same passion and commitment to close the achievement gap in two years, and they weren’t required to do so; some of them want to be teachers for reasons other than test scores. Not all of them have the support of CMs. They don’t have a CMA helping them out and pushing them further, or a community of CMs across the city to continue to motivate them through the tough times.
  • ETA: Oh yes! Today, as our picketing was ending in our neighborhood, our union leader told us that we needed to call up our coworkers who weren’t there and tell them, “We’ll gladly fight for your job, but you should be doing the same for us.” We were all encouraged to go downtown this afternoon and be part of the big demonstration at CPS headquarters. Wheeeeeeee.

So, how do we balance being CPS teachers and CMs? The tension between being a part of Teach For America, the program that believes in doing whatever it takes for our students, and being part of a union-culture fighting for better benefits, perceived as selfishly wanting more for themselves than for the kids, is a lot to handle right now, and I honestly can’t pick one side. Do I have to? I don’t know. We’ll see what happens.

6 Responses

  1. Emma

    We must not forget that teachers not only should have a life outside the classroom but DO have a life outside the classroom that includes the responsibility of family and children of their own. As as former 22-year-old TFA CM, I never fully appreciated how difficult raising children is and how much time and energy it really takes (and how stressful it can be in the face of other financial trials and limited support systems). So please make sure to factor into your perspective this challenge that career teachers must balance with their time and energy and that is no less important than their day jobs. Parents and teachers are not always separate people – there are thousands of Chicago teachers who are both and must look out for their families as well as their students. (And their children are someone else’s students.) And so, when teachers are striking they may also thinking about what’s best for their home with kids as well as their students.

  2. skepticnotcynic

    “And these are the positions, in my opinion, that we want the BEST teachers working in…but how long will the best put up with being treated like dirt over bubble tests?”

    A clear example of unintended consequences

    Parus,

    I have never seen what you are saying more vividly. These policies are literally driving out the best teachers in the most disadvantaged schools. Those who have the ability and skills to leave their current school will eventually leave for better working conditions. There is no way any teacher besides one who is a masochist or has a savior complex will be able to sustain the type of demands that are being placed on them by the reformer crowd. This leaves our students with mostly mediocre teachers and young and inexperienced recent college grads. You wonder why public education is going down the toilet in our most challenging schools.

  3. Michael Fiorillo

    Wagonwheel,

    Yes, you have to pick a side.

    You can support your public school colleagues who are fighting to defend public education and the right of your students to a rich and varied education, or your can allow the schools to be given over to private interests, some of them represented on TFA’s Board. That is fundamentally what this strike is about: the future and soul of public education.

    That rich and exploratory education, which I imagine is something most TFAers themselves have benefitted from, has unjustly been denied CPS students, and never more so than under the mayoral control/high stakes testing/ privatization regime that TFA is so entwined with, in Chicago and nationally.

    As for TFAers and other teachers working in Chicago charter schools during this strike, they should contemplate this question: since even non-union wages will track the contract wages the CTU settles for, any raises won by the CTU will eventually be passed along to you in some form.

    Therefore, how does it feel to know that you’ll be financially benefitting, risk-free, from a struggle waged by other teachers, working in public schools that charters are undermining. How will it feel to be a free rider on that?

    And you wonder why public school teachers have such mistrust?

    When you uncritically, and in a patronizing insult to your public school colleagues, channel TFA ideology and say that “… not every worker in CPS has pledged with the same passion and commitment to close the achievement gap in two years …” you give us a 200 proof distillation of the condescending arrogance that TFA is known for.

    Your post describes the atrocious conditions you are teaching under. Are those conditions the fault of “bad teachers” who don’t have the “passion” and “commitment” to close the rhetorical and ideological artifact known as “the achievement gap?” Are the infinite, and largely unmet, needs your students the fault of “bad teachers?”

    Yes, you must answer the question that arises at particular moments in history: which side are you on?

  4. meghank

    Parus, very good point that test-score based evaluations punish teachers who choose to work with transient populations. I haven’t seen that argument made before.

    If half of your class is turned over and replaced by new students by the end of a year, your test-score based evaluation is left largely up to chance.

  5. “CTU does not want a teacher evaluation system based on test scores or student performance. This, however, is an important part of TFA’s foundation, because TFA believes that any powerful leader in the classroom can make significant gains, no matter the conditions outside the school. ”

    One thing to consider about why even people who care deeply about student achievement (although I would warn about equating “student achievement” with “student performance on standardized tests” ) is that depending on how the gains are calculated, teachers who choose to specialize in ELL, secondary reading, various types of remediation, and some types of SpEd are basically punished for doing a good job. The students they do the best with often exit their programs, and no longer count in their stats. It also punishes teachers who choose to work with transient populations and the like. And these are the positions, in my opinion, that we want the BEST teachers working in…but how long will the best put up with being treated like dirt over bubble tests?

  6. Megan H

    Great post! I loved every second of your writing and your perspective. Can you give us another update tomorrow? Does anyone have an idea of how long this will last?

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Anonymously chronicling the variety basket that is this year.

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