Standing Up to Power: A Chicago Teacher Speaks Out
When I moved to Chicago from Onalaska, Wisconsin, to begin my teaching career, I chose to move into the Westside neighborhood where I taught. I figured it just made sense to be part of the same community as my students. Soon I realized that being part of a community isn’t just a one-sided choice. I was humbled and blessed to see that the families of my students chose to welcome me into their community. With that acceptance came a new responsibility to learn about and represent our mutual needs.
As a math teacher and member of the Chicago Teachers Union for the past eight years, I’ve learned a lot from my neighbors about what they want from their schools. Consistently, parents wanted schools that provided quality learning opportunities, stable places for their children to grow, and challenging and supportive environments that prompted academic, social, and moral development. The community wanted and needed schools that encourage the ripening of all the potential stored inside each of their children.
Unfortunately, I saw a system of schools that focused on students and their teachers only as statistics. Priorities have focused more and more on raising test scores at the expense of the growth of our children. The system has ignored so many of the needs of our students and when we attempt to meet some of these needs, we are chastised for not focusing on academics. My colleagues and I feel isolated by this system. Imagine how our students and their families feel!
Standing Up to Authorities and Powers
Every day, I try to remember the source of my hope. In Colossians 1, Paul writes of Jesus Christ: “By him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities — all things were created through him and for him.” Later Paul writes that Jesus reconciles all things to himself “whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.”
As a follower of Jesus, I know that he is the ultimate hope we have for the reconciliation of all things in heaven and on earth. Jesus Christ cares about systems like the Chicago Public Schools and wants to reconcile them back to himself — to bring them back into their proper role as systems that empower and improve our communities.
I now live with the responsibility to be an agent of reconciliation in my role as a public school teacher. In Chicago, I believe the public schools are a part of a system of power, run by the mayor and the school board, that is unjust. It hurts our kids and their families. When the rulers decide to give the taxes collected from our communities to corporations so they can remodel their bathrooms, something is wrong.
This system needs reconciliation back to the priorities of families and students. And now as a member of it, my duty is to stand up and fight on behalf of the voices of my community. My community wants their kids to be given the same resources and opportunities as those from wealthier zip codes.
Learning from My Students’ Lives
As I stood on the picket line joined by parents and students, I realized more and more that our fight for a fair contract really is about fighting for better schools for our students.
A few years ago, I had the unique opportunity to co-teach an enrichment class exploring hip-hop and social-emotional health as part of our school’s service learning initiative. Though I had many of the same students in my math class, I saw the students and they saw me in new ways.
My students shared many struggles, including harassment from police, anxieties about body image, fear of crossing into other neighborhoods for fear of encounters with gangs, and trying to develop their own identity as teenagers. I’ll never forget the day we studied research about the power of forgiving those who’ve hurt us. As everyone wrote letters of forgiveness to someone who had hurt them, some that couldn’t even be delivered, I sat with one student and we cried together as she struggled to forgive her absent father for just one layer of the harm he had done to her and her family. That letter became a poem that she now performs throughout Chicago with power and confidence. Seeing her bravery and pain, never again could I measure my success as a teacher simply by a student’s performance on a test. Schools must be so much more than that! For me, I see this struggle as part of Christ’s reconciliation of this system back to himself.
As teachers we want fair compensation for our work, but we also want working conditions that create good learning conditions for our students. I want class sizes that allow me to be effective and give each student the attention they deserve. I want wraparound services, like counselors and social workers, to serve the holistic needs of my students. I want equitable resources for all Chicago students so that all have the same opportunities to learn and become successful citizens. I want schools where parents and families have a say in what happens in their school — not just some politician Downtown, or in Springfield, or Washington.
Our students were created in the image of God and they deserve a lot better than what they’ve gotten from this broken system.
The Struggle Continues
Though the Union voted to end the strike today, our fight for better schools continues. As I write this, I look ahead to struggles at my own school. Even after we officially settle the details of the contract and head back to the classroom, we face the threat of a school takeover that began before the strike. Less than a week before our students came for their first day of class, the system removed our principal without warning and without offering a reason. Our new interim principal was introduced to us that same day, even while they changed the locks on all the office doors.
On the first day of classes, students and teachers showed up to school to find three Advanced Placement (AP) classes had been canceled and that their schedules would be different from what they were originally told. Since then, office staff and our English department have been fired; teachers and students have been reassigned into remedial classes without curriculum; several classes have been taught by substitutes because of the holes created in the schedule; and we continue to fight the effects of this destabilization every day.
On the third day of classes, almost the entire student body participated in a sit-in demanding reinstatement of their AP classes. At a full community forum and several Local School Council meetings, parents have demanded answers for these actions, but have heard almost nothing. Now, a group of parents have written a petition and are collecting signatures demanding the reinstatement of our principal and a return to August 6th, the day before all the destabilization occurred.
But despite these obstacles, I know there is hope. As a result of pressure from students, parents, and the Union, our English teachers have been reinstated and the return of the AP classes has been promised. These victories embolden us to still push for the complete restoration of our school.
The battle for better schools, shaped by the voices of our community, continues. And I am honored to take part in this struggle alongside parents, students, and my fellow teachers.