Standing Up to Power: A Chicago Teacher Speaks Out

Standing Up to Power: A Chicago Teacher Speaks Out

SCENES FROM THE CHICAGO STRIKE: For seven days, Chicago teachers went on strike for a fair contract as well as better learning conditions in the city’s most under-resourced schools. (Photo by Jen-Morales Crye)

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.”

TAKING IT TO THE STREET: Over the past week, Chicago teachers marched in support of the city’s first teachers’ strike in 25 years. (Photo by Matt Crye)

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.

MORE THAN A MONEY MATTER: From the beginning, the Chicago Teachers Union has maintained that their work stoppage goes beyond matters of wages to include issues of job security, teacher evaluation, and school conditions. (Photo by Jen Morales-Crye)

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.

The Tragedy of Weak Teachers

The Tragedy of Weak Teachers

It has been refreshing to watch the NBC News special series Education Nation inspire a national discussion on teaching American children. Especially impressive has been hearing from the diversity of excellent educators — whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and so on — from across the country. But even as a wonderful national conversation unfolds, on some level everyone understand that any significant transformation for our children must happen at the state and local levels.

Recently, The Virginian-Pilot, the major newspaper in my area, ran a story about student-teacher racial imbalance in South Hampton Roads schools. The Sept. 17 headline, “Teacher-student racial imbalance widest in Va. Beach” honed in on that school district’s difficulty recruiting black teachers who could help increase black student achievement.

The article cited a 2004 study by Thomas Dee, a public policy professor at the University of Virginia, who found that white and black students in Tennessee tested better when they had teachers of their own race. Yes, diversity is very important but it’s not the main problem. The headline should’ve read, “Too many weak white teachers failing students.”

Whether white, black or other, excellent educators know how to teach ALL students regardless of their color. Overemphasizing diversity sends a message to weak white teachers that it’s okay to mis-educate students who don’t look like them. It lets these teachers — who are dishonoring the profession — off the hook.

Since the majority of teachers are white, this problem has, in part, been ruining generations of black and Hispanic students across the country. It almost claimed one of my children who attended high school in nearby Suffolk. During a parent-teacher’s conference, my wife and I endured a meeting with our daughter’s theater teacher that proved to be a turning point in our child’s education. She had approached the teacher for help to prepare to audition for the area’s Governor’s School for the Arts, which offers intense training to gifted students. Students attend their regular high school in the morning, then arts classes in the afternoon.

The weak teacher (who is white) gave my daughter (who is black) the cold shoulder. During the conference we asked the teacher about this. Displaying an air of annoyance, she told us that our daughter (who had been acting since age seven) had shown little to no talent. She said our daughter had no chance of getting in because the teacher’s “more talented” student (who was white) had auditioned previously and didn’t make it. In fact, no theater student from that high school had.

Recalling our own high school experiences with discouraging teachers and guidance counselors, my wife and I simply eyed each other instead of blowing gaskets. We knew who and what we were dealing with. We looked at our daughter, whose blank expression masked her fury and embarrassment. Our daughter knew it was time she stopped undermining herself and stepped up her game. 

A few weeks later she successfully auditioned for the Governor’s School. Two years later she graduated (this past June) and is now away in college studying theater and psychology.

Strong teachers, whether they are white, black or other, inspire students. With hormones raging, middle and high-schoolers tend to respond negatively to teachers whom they sense don’t care. This happens too often with black and Hispanic students under white teachers who are weak or worse. Instead of saying, “I’ll prove you wrong,” like my daughter did, many of them act out (not doing homework, not studying, cutting classes, etc.), thinking that they are somehow getting back at the teacher. After it’s too late, these mis-educated students realize they’ve only hurt themselves.

Black, Hispanic, and low-income students of all races are being suffocated each year. It’s near hopeless if their parents are deadbeats or otherwise unable to actively engage. Unless the student has an internal drive to achieve and or has family support pushing him or her, one teacher, one authority figure, with one discouraging word, can strangle their will to succeed. Likewise, one teacher, one authority figure with an encouraging word can inspire a student toward greatness.

The article noted that Virginia Beach has had trouble finding black teachers — despite major HBCUs Hampton University and Norfolk State University being in its backyard. To provide some context, Virginia Beach has 440,000 residents with a 20 percent black population, but the city has never had a black mayor and just recently appointed its only African American on the city council. Sadly, the community can’t seem to shake a racist image linked to a clash between police and black college students at Greekfest in 1989. The incident drew unwanted national attention.

But Virginia Beach is not alone. Other districts are having trouble finding black teachers as well, as many black graduates are pursuing higher-paying careers. The promise of fatter paychecks is likely not the only reason for their disinterest. I suspect the bad experiences many of them had with teachers in middle and high school is also at the root. People often choose careers because someone inspired them. Why go into a field in which you had to overcome discouragement? Perhaps as black students have better experiences with strong teachers in middle and high school, more of them will aspire to teach after college.

Diversity can help, but it’s not the cure. There are also many black and Hispanic weak teachers who have low expectations of students who look like them. In the article, Professor Dee offered the solution: “We need teachers who are flat-out good and who we can train to be good for all students,” he said.

Amen.

Wisdom of a 5th-Grade Solomon

Wisdom of a 5th-Grade Solomon for urban faithIt was only logical for my student to conclude that society didn’t expect much from him and his classmates. As a result, they didn’t expect much from themselves.

“Ms. Baker, why are you teaching here?” one student, whom I’ll call Solomon, inquired during one of our after-school tutoring sessions. “You went to college,” he continued unabashedly. “Um…couldn’t you find a job anywhere else?”

I remember these words from one of my don’t-beat-around-the bush, inquisitive fifth grade students like it was yesterday. And to be honest, my presence at Caldwell Elementary School wasn’t the chosen career path for most of my peers.

I graduated from a highly ranked university with a degree in English. I considered law school or a Ph.D. program in English before ultimately choosing to join the national teaching corps, Teach For America. I’d committed to teach for two years in a low-performing public school in an economically depressed neighborhood that was notorious for crime, high school drop-outs, and the birthplace of gangster rap — Compton, California.

I struggled with the words to respond to Solomon’s very pointed question. “Well,” I mused, “I heard a rumor that the smartest kids in the world were at this school, so I wanted to be here with the geniuses,” I stated, hoping to further reinforce the high academic expectations I had for my students — despite how far behind many of them were.

Solomon looked at me for a moment and then he burst out laughing. He was not convinced of my words in the slightest. “Aw c’mon Ms. Baker, nobody thinks we’re smart! If they did, they wouldn’t give us this broken-down school and these ratty old books. You don’t even have enough paper and pencils for us!”

As a first-year teacher, I was shocked that a 10-year-old was fully aware of the implicit disparity in our country’s two-tiered public education system. He wondered why someone like me — an African American who had graduated from college and “made it” — would ever choose to teach in his low-income public school. He implied that I had a myriad of more lucrative, and more worthy, options. Solomon scoffed at the idea that other people thought he and his classmates were intelligent. And he completely understood that his school lacked the basic resources and facilities.

Most disturbingly, Solomon connected society’s low expectations for him as the reason why his school didn’t have the necessary supplies. After all, he seemed to suggest, why would our nation bother wasting resources on students who weren’t smart enough to succeed in the first place?

Having spent the last 15 years working on the movement to eliminate educational inequity, I now realize that my insightful fifth-grader’s assumptions weren’t surprising. What other conclusion could he come to in a country where 9-year-olds in poor communities are already three grade levels behind their peers in wealthier communities? What else should he think about a nation where only half of the 14 million students from low-income communities ever graduate from high school and only one in ten ever graduate from college?

It was quite logical for Solomon to conclude that society didn’t expect much from him and his classmates in Compton. As a result, he didn’t expect much from himself either. As his teacher, it was my job to shift those expectations so Solomon and all my other students could reach their full potential.

We worked incredibly hard that year and it was thrilling to see Solomon, and the majority of my fifth-graders, excel at high levels that others might have thought impossible. Because of the tremendous growth I saw in my students, I am forever convinced that the problem of academic disparity is completely solvable.

The academic achievement gap, in a well-resourced country like ours, is a tragic moral injustice that should move people of faith to action. As Christians, let’s take stock of how we’re working to eliminate this problem. Are we encouraging our most talented college graduates and young professionals to teach in schools like Solomon’s? Are we mobilizing our church communities to volunteer, tutor, and provide much-needed supplies to under-resourced schools? Are we mobilizing on behalf of students like Solomon to demand that lawmakers create policies that will improve the quality of their education?

The Bible is pretty clear about our responsibility. God says that all children were created in his image, so we should believe every child has unlimited potential. God says that children are incredibly precious to him. And God tells us to eliminate injustice.

It’s time for Christians to take a stand on behalf of the “least of these” in our nation’s low-income public schools. Solomon and his classmates are waiting for us.