with love and squalor

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Sep 17 2012

On the Strike

It’s bad enough how much trouble the general public seems to have in grasping all the things that can be functioning poorly in a school district.  The anti-union–actually, anti-teacher–rhetoric that virtually all major media outlets are outputting with regard to the current strike in Chicago is utterly despicable.  But what is actually unfathomable to me is the other TEACHERS who think that coming down against those striking in Chicago at the moment makes them somehow morally superior, as though they care more about children, or are willing to sacrifice more for our nation’s children.

First things first.  The school year in Chicago will almost certainly extend to cover the logistical cost of teachers striking for one or two weeks at the beginning of the year.  So that argument can go completely out the window, in my opinion.

But secondly, and more importantly, an issue that I, too, have experienced, when thinking about my school’s (NCLB-mandated) obsession with good attendance: Who cares if the students are there, when they’re not learning, either way.**  What the teachers in Chicago are trying to tell the general public through the act of striking is that the conditions in their schools are so bad, so reprehensible, and so dangerous, that the teachers cannot do their jobs unless something changes.  This is not a matter of “suck it up, deal with it, do your job, get over it.”  This is a matter of something drastic needing to change.  Striking is a last resort.  And I commend the Chicago Teachers Union and the teachers behind it who are trying to do something about it.

Baltimore faces a lot of similar problems to Chicago, from what I’ve been able to glean from my own research into the strike.  We don’t have art teachers, nurses, or wraparound services.  We have unqualified or completely absent “social workers” (and speech pathologists, and special educators, etc.) with 1,000 student caseloads per person.  We have incredibly dangerous, dysfunctional, defunct working conditions.  We have a city that is utterly enamored with the charter school movement, at the expense of its general enrollment schools (such as the one I work at).  We have crappy, city-backed curricula.  We have enormous class sizes and no paras.  We have all kinds of problems.  (We also have a superintendent whose driver makes more money than the governor, for example.)

One divergence Baltimore can claim from Chicago is that we’re not in a wage-war, per se, but the union has had to fight with the district headquarters about raise and AU denials already this year.  And as for the issues in Chicago centered around teacher pay, and all the people naysaying the strike over it being a symptom of greed or gluttony on behalf of teachers:  So what?  Even if the strike were just about money, I would STILL support it, because there’s no one in this entire country who honestly believes that public school teachers make TOO much money, right?  It’s easy to latch onto that issue and claim it as the only reason the teachers are “taking off work,” but any casual research into the topic and Rahm Emanuel’s history can clearly see that teacher wages are just a thin layer of the toxic school environments he has ensured through his governmental tenure.  Yes, I agree that a strike–and all out closing of schools–would be a bit overkill if the issue were JUST over teacher compensation, but I vehemently disagree that teachers should not be permitted to protest our crappy salaries, especially in working conditions such as the ones Rahm Emanuel has provided for his employees.  I could draw one thousand parallels, but suffice it to say, teachers have just as much of a right as anyone to protest the amount of money they make.  At the moment, for what the job entails, it’s not enough.

What truly disturbs me about this strike is the way the general public, including much of the teacher population of the United States, has reacted to it.  How dare these greedy teachers stand up and demand better working conditions, better salaries, and, I don’t know, air conditioning?  If you have worked inside a school, you can surely attest to the fact that things like access to nurses/social workers/special educators, safe hallways, air conditioning, and so on and so forth, have absolutely everything to do with the wellbeing of the children in the school.  To criticize teachers for being selfish or greedy and not prioritizing the children is laughable.  Like I said, if you force children to go to school in a place that doesn’t meet their physical, intellectual, or emotional needs, then they are, honestly, just as well off at home, or on the street.  And yes, even as someone who teaches pre-K on the westside of Baltimore, I truly believe this.**

I stand in solidarity with the teachers of Chicago who have banded together to say: Enough is enough.  I wish, wholeheartedly, that other school districts could stand with them in a true show of solidarity.  To the public who is concerned with the lack of childcare, schooling, and support that the children of Chicago are currently being subjected to, I suggest you take this is a very clear, very loud message: America may hate its teachers (that much, based on political propaganda, from both sides, especially recently, is virtually guaranteed, at this point), but America also needs its teachers.  If you are horrified at a glimpse into a week without public school teachers in your city, respond to it by fighting against your government, not your teachers.  Your government created this mess in the first place.  Your teachers are brave enough to stand up against it, in an effort to fight for the conditions that your children deserve.  If you write off this strike, and all of the political baggage that has led up to it, as being a mere symptom of greed on behalf of the teachers, then you must think your students don’t deserve the better conditions that the teachers are fighting for.  And that is truly sad.

And to the teachers of America, who are insulting this strike and degrading the teachers standing behind it: It must be nice to be you.  You clearly work in environments where you have nurses, art teachers, safety protocol, ensured salaries/raises, and fair, equitable systems of teacher evaluation.  Your job clearly isn’t constantly being threatened by arbitrary, unfair evaluations, race-based teacher layoffs, and the burgeoning charter movement that threatens the very foundation of public services for Americans.  That must be nice.  But you may as well be on a different planet from inner city school teachers who don’t have access to these things and security from the barrage of political tools and rhetoric that is always nipping at public school teachers’ heels.


**- Perhaps I should clarify this point.  Yes, I think it is better for school-aged children to be in school rather than doing… whatever it is school-aged children do… all day, truant and without supervision.  But I feel that people too often fall into the trap of assuming that school inherently MUST be a safer space for children in the inner city than their homes, or even their streets, are.  I am here to say that this is not necessarily true.  Students are subjected to bullying, poor supervision, little-to-no academic content, racism, sexism, homophobia, propaganda, violence, drugs, and a whole host of other horrible things in many inner city schools.  Pretending that these schools are so-called “safe spaces” for anyone (or at least a better alternative than whatever else) can make governmental officials as well as teachers and parents fall into the trap of NOT fighting for better working/learning conditions because schools are at least “the lesser of two evils,” right?  Wrong.  When a school doesn’t even provide heating (such as mine) are you going to tell my pre-K students are physically more safe there than they would be at a head start program or community daycare service that provides heating and a safe physical environment for them?  Ideally, yes, the children would be in school, obviously, hello, I AM A TEACHER, I BELIEVE IN SCHOOL, but if your city is not providing your children/students with the physical, emotional, and intellectual environment that is crucial to their physical/emotional safety and capacity to learn, then yes… there is a problem.  A very, very big problem.

8 Responses

  1. eminnm

    I think my issue with the strike is that every article I read about it lists different problems as the big ones that need to change. I mean, on the one hand, there are SO MANY things that need to change (halfway across the country, we don’t have nurses, SLPs, Sped teachers, etc. either), but on the other, I feel like if you’re going to put 350,000 kids’ educations on hold for 2 weeks you should be really, really clear about why. “Everything sucks” may be true, but it’s hard to respond to. It would make it a lot easier for me to support the strike, and probably for negotiations to be productive, if the dealbreaker issues were clearer so we could go about figuring out how to fix them.

    • Hey, don’t blame the strikers for the fact that the media coverage has been ridiculous. I think if you look at the actual statements the union’s been putting out, they’ve been pretty clear about their demands.

      • Megan H

        Eminnm you sound like you are grasping at straws to discredit the strike. If you are against the strike that’s your right. But if you agree that air conditioning and nurses and sped teachers are a necessity for successful schools, why wouldn’t you stand with the union and the strike?

        If the people of Chicago (meaning the teachers as well as the parents, students and community members that stand with them) are able to make significant changes in CPS doesn’t that offer hope that you will see change soon too?

  2. Thank you for putting your thoughts out there. Too often I feel fairly isolated as a pro-union TFA corps member.

    In some ways I understand why our colleagues huff and puff over a strike. I believe it can be hard to understand why someone would walk off the job when their district supposedly has the highest salaries in the country. I believe it is easy to say to oneself: “I don’t make nearly that much, why should I care about those teachers?” But, in a program where the bulk of us work in charter and “choice” schools, I don’t think TFA corps members value the union for what it is: a collective voice for teachers. If we had representation in our charter and “choice” schools, we could make an even greater change for our students. Instead, we work in schools founded by billionaires who, intentionally or not, have divided teachers into two camps. I think we need to wake up before it is too late!

    • Megan H

      hear hear! Count me in as another TFA alum who is PRO-UNION.

  3. Notateacherbutahugefan

    @SBT: Striking against unsafe and/or unfair working conditions is one of the (extremely) hard-won rights American workers have, and which is rapidly being eroded by the union-busters and, to use a good old-fashioned term, “scabs” who fail to understand how important this right is. I find it very difficult to believe that conditions in the public school system in Chicago are even remotely okay, based on just a cursory look at the stats. And, sorry, I don’t know what world you live in, but teachers are historically, and notoriously, underpaid in this country. The “mid-70s” you cite as “some” teachers making (which I sort of doubt, but will stipulate to, not having stats in front of me) is not exactly raking it in. Have you checked out even public college tuition recently? Presumably most teachers would like to send their kids to college. Not going to get there making even 70K, or more realistically, 40. I simply do not understand the hostility and lack of basic respect and support of many communities toward the teachers who perform one of the hardest, poorest paying, under-appreciated jobs in this nation. Believe me, you don’t go into teaching expecting to make money. Nor do you go into it expecting the support of your community, if you have any awareness at all of society’s self-destructive scorn for the profession. Finally, I don’t believe you’ve ever set foot in an inner city school, judging by your disbelief that the students just might be better off somewhere else, anywhere else. It’s a jungle out there, my friend. Get at least an idea of reality before you dismiss it.

  4. SBT

    “…because there’s no one in this entire country who honestly believes that public school teachers make TOO much money, right?”

    Actually, there are a lot of people who think that teachers make way too much money. The average salary figure for Chicago teachers, which is in the mid 70′s, has sparked tons of criticism.

    “Like I said, if you force children to go to school in a place that doesn’t meet their physical, intellectual, or emotional needs, then they are, honestly, just as well off at home, or on the street.” I completely disagree, so I’ll just leave that one alone.

    “And to the teachers of America, who are insulting this strike and degrading the teachers standing behind it: It must be nice to be you.” Many urban educators are against the strike.

    • aea107

      The first comment was clearly meant to be sarcastic. If people didn’t think teachers made too much money, then the backlash to the strike wouldn’t be happening in the first place. But that doesn’t make the idea that teachers make too much money any less ridiculous, in my opinion.

      As for the second two posts, I can only speak from my own experience and my own particular context. Also, while I appreciate that you took the time to read and respond to my blog post, I didn’t ask for your opinion, nor do I particularly care about it, so if you’re not going to back it up in a way that may actually be interesting and/or remotely enlightening to me, (as opposed to just posting it on here in some passive, entitled way as if I should care about it) don’t bother posting on my blog about it.

      And also, particularly with regard to the second comment, I feel entitled to make the comments that I did with regard to the teachers who are against the strike especially because the school that work at has such extremely similar conditions to those described by the Chicago teachers who are striking which is why I sympathize SO much with those teachers, and why I am offended by those who cannot imagine what it’s like to work in a school like the one I do, under the administration and school board that I work under. There are many, many “urban educators” who teach at a) charter schools b) “urban” schools that have access to resources that not all “urban” schools have c) high performing schools that are beneficiaries of resources, goods, and services that not all urban schools are d) who make way more money than I do, in a much more supportive environment than I do, or e) have political ideologies that shape the way they view unions, strikes, and collective bargaining.

      I appreciate dissent and commentary on my opinions, but not if you’re just posting for the sake of being contrary. If you would like to discuss why YOU, as presumably “urban educator” are in favor of the strike, be my guest. Otherwise, your opinions are irrelevant to me.

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