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.