Monday, September 17, 2012

Chicago Teachers' Strike - Why We're Still on the Picket Line

In the last few days there has been a lot of negative press about teachers' unions, and the Chicago Teachers' Union (CTU) in particular. Most of the vitrolic comments revolve around the idea that teachers want more money when they already make a good salary or that they don't want to be evaluated "fairly". As a seventh-year teacher in the Chicago Public School system (CPS), I've seen first-hand the trickle-down effect of the Board of Education's take on those topics. If you'll bear with my rambling, I'd like to address those two issues in depth, as well as disuss a couple other points that impact me in my day-to-day interactions with students.

Staffing and Curriculum: Our mayor sends his children to the Lab School at University of Chicago. That's fine. They're his kids, and he wants to give them the best education possible. This includes Fine Arts.

"At the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, formal visual arts classes in grades one through twelve and drama classes in grades six through twelve present art as a language with unique expressive powers. Through the study of art, each Laboratory School student is encouraged to value and respond to his or her perceptions, observations, emotions, and intuition. The Fine Arts Department works to ensure that at each level of our program, students not only build skills, but also become more comfortable and confident in meeting the challenges of aesthetic self-expression. The Fine Arts Department maintains no established written curriculum. Instead, it charges each teacher, in his or her own way, with the task of transmitting valuable, coherent artistic concepts at each grade level." (

So, ok, the mayor's kids get fine arts. A lot of them. And the teachers in that department have the freedom to construct a curriculum that teaches their students in the best way(s) possible. However, the mayor and his Board of Education (Did I mention that the BoE is appointed by him, not elected by the tax payers?) wanted to provide no additional staff and no expansion of curriculum to provide arts, foriegn language, or physical education to all CPS students.

For me, this is a huge issue because my subject areas are English and drama. I firmly believe that Shakespeare, as Hamlet, was right in saying:

Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this
special observance, that you o'erstep not the modesty of nature:
for any thing so o'erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose
end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as 'twere the
mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own
image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.
- Hamlet Act 3, scene 2, 17–24

Class sizes: Generally, classes in CPS are supposed to be capped at 28 students. (That's actually not exactly true; there are different numbers for elementary and high school, and for arts and physical education classes.) In the most recent contract proposal, the Board of Ed. wanted to remove all references to class size, meaning that we could have 40+ students in a class and absolutely no way to change that. Large classes like that are not good for students. How can a teacher give timely feedback (another way of saying "writing comments on and grading papers") with so many students?

A less obvious side-effect of huge classes is that it limits seating arrangements to rows. Why does that matter? Because we don't learn by listening to lectures. We learn by reading, talking, working in groups, exploring concepts kinetically, and integrating those experiences over time. When a classroom is packed with 40+ students, lecture becomes the only viable option for delivering information. It's not the best method. Also, can you imagine trying to manage that many students in a chemisty lab? I can, but it's not pretty.

Evaluations: They are painful no matter what career you're in. They can be unsettling when you have a good relationship with your boss, and downright terrifying if you think your boss doens't like you. In CPS this problem is huge. Non-tenured teachers can be let go for no reason at all. For tenured teachers it's harder to be let go, but there is no recourse if a teacher believes his or her rating was incorrect or unfair. The evaluation system that has been in place has been a check-list. The principal would come in a classroom for as few as ten minutes, check off items on the list, and give a teacher a rating based on that. There was minimal conversation about why the teacher was doing what they were doing. There was no standard for what constituted the differences from level to level (unstaisfactory, satisfactory, excellent, or superior) and the difference between satisfactory and excellent seemed to be much larger than the difference between unstaisfactory and satisfactory work.

I absolutely believe that teachers need to be evaluated, but it needs to be done in a fair and objective way. I can't give students grades based on whether I like them. I should not be evaluated based on whether my principal likes me. In the Board of Ed's proposal, 45% of my rating would be based on my students' standardized test scores. This is supposed to be objective. While I agree that some testing is important as a metric for tracking student growth, the ACT is a limited measure of a set of skills that are tested in issolation. It doesn't measure critical thinking, problem solving, essay writing, oral communication, or a host of other abilities that students will need to be successful in the future. It doesn't test whether students can work as a team. It doesn't test whether students can adapt to challenges as they try to create something or understand a concept. My kids are more than a test score. They are people, not products. I want to see an evaluation system that measures what I teach my students that includes content and skills, but real-life skills, not just their skill at filling in bubbles.

Last of all - pay: Someone somewhere published the statistic that the average teacher salary in CPS is $76,000. That may or may not be true; I haven't see the source material for that claim. Whether it's true or not, however, I challenge you to think about pay and pay raises in another way. This is what the backs of our CTU t-shirts say:

"Modern cynics and skeptics see no harm in paying those to whom they entrust the minds of their children a smaller wage than is paid to those to whom they entrust the care of their plumbing." ~John F. Kennedy

While that may not be so true anymore, the Board of Ed's first contract proposal sought to eliminate pay raises for increases in experience, which we call "steps". They were also seeking to elminate higher rates of pay for teachers with additional degrees or significant amounts of professional development, called "lanes".

Teachers are educators. Their main job in life is to make sure that their students are well-prepared to go on to be successful in college and a career. Like many other professions, a teacher's level of skill increases over time. Through repeated experiences and practice, we become more adept at teaching, not just our subject matter, but all the little things that go into making a classroom work. Being able to "read" students, seeing problems before they happen, knowing when and how to intervene in a student's academic or personal life, all of these are skills that can't be taught in a teacher preparation progam. Does it not make sense that teachers ought to obtain high levels of education and experience? How, if not through a fair pay scale, does a school district encourage teachers to become highly educated? How, if not through a fair pay scale, does it retain its most experienced teachers?


I'm sure there is a great deal more to be said about all of these issues, but I would like to address comments and questions in the specific, so please, ask away!