Why I Strike (when I want to teach)

It’s Day 8 of the 2019 Chicago teacher’s strike and I’m a little stressed. It’s been almost two weeks since I’ve been in my classroom, almost two weeks since I’ve delivered a lesson, almost two weeks since I’ve seen my students. It’s October, for crying out loud – I’m supposed to be at school teaching, or learning, or both. So after today’s picket I went for a run along the lakefront to blow off some steam and clear my head.

I spent the entire four miles thinking about my middle school cross country athletes.

Our team is small – just me, another coach, and nine students. Still, the kids are dedicated runners, and they’re really starting to grow as a team. We had a student compete in our network’s regional meet, and every time we run they get stronger as individuals and as a unit. Every athlete supports their teammates. If a student falls behind, others run back to pump them up, improve their pace, get them to finish strong. They’re good kids, and I couldn’t be prouder to be their coach.

We made it two weeks before the strike stopped our season. I hate that students who made so much progress are sitting on the sidelines, not practicing, not building on their new skills. I want to be teaching. I want to be coaching.

But we had to strike – and we must continue the strike until our fair demands are met.

This is my first year in Chicago Public Schools, my first in the Chicago Teacher’s Union. Though I miss my kids and cannot wait to be back in school, right now a Chicago teacher’s place is in the streets.

You see, I know what things can be like at schools without a union focused on social justice issues. I spent 11 years teaching at non-union private and charter schools on the west side. Although each school did things well, each also violated student rights in surprising ways. I’ve seen students expelled for getting tattoos that couldn’t be hidden, getting in minor fights, and admitting to gang affiliation. I’ve also seen students with special needs go without services because their school did not comply with state law. I’ve seen students who’ve experienced intense trauma struggle in classes as large as 37, and had administrators tell me “good” teachers deal with classes that size without complaint. I’ve seen high teacher turnover, and seen students go without key support staff because their school let a position sit empty.

Unfortunately, conditions in some Chicago Public Schools aren’t any different. Still, the district has one advantage privates and charters lack: a strong public employee union. When positions are cut and resources withheld, teachers can fight back. When the district fails to follow state law, teachers can fight back. When the city government funnels millions of dollars into private development at the cost of our public goods, teachers can fight back.

Right now we’re waiting for the mayor and CPS to agree to a contract that ensures students at all schools have reasonable class sizes and access to social workers, counselors, librarians, and nurses. We’re waiting for the mayor to agree to a contract that ensures elementary school teachers have the time necessary to prep for their deserving students. We’re waiting for the mayor to put in writing the equity she paid lip service to on the campaign trail.

Until we get that contract, we will stay out on strike. We won’t be in the classroom, and we won’t be coaching our student-athletes. We have to do it. If the union does not fight to make an equitable, high-quality education accessible to every student in the city, no one will.

We owe it to our children to strike. We owe it to our city’s future.

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