Education Opinion

A Chicago Teacher Writes: The Joy of Finally Fighting Back

By Anthony Cody — September 13, 2012 5 min read
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Guest post by Katie Osgood.

There is jubilation on the streets of Chicago.

The excitement is tempered with humility. No one wants a strike. Chicago teachers are very aware that this strike is difficult on parents, on students, and on the teachers themselves.

But for the first time in decades, Chicago’s teachers are standing up. They are saying “no more” to the countless waves of harmful, poorly-planned, and unproven education reforms. There is freedom in drawing a line in the sand. For too long now, teachers have known that they were participating in something cruel. Giving test after standardized test, watching neighborhood schools be starved of resources and accepting that they had to “do more with less”, watching as students began hating school as their lives revolved around test-prep curriculum, “zero tolerance” school discipline, and fewer and fewer of the engaging arts, music, world language, and physical education classes which makes their schools days rich and meaningful. All the while, teachers see the growing effects of unabated poverty on their students’ lives, while politicians and education reformers refuse to talk about the realities of our nation’s poor.

And the politicians only make things worse. They further gut the public schools while giving away money to the favored charter schools and turnaround companies. In Chicago, they don’t even hide their contempt for neighborhood schools. Our appointed Board of Education callously closes schools and fires teachers, despite the massive outcry from communities, and promises to close even more in the future. The disruption of “choice” has created chaos in many communities, increasing youth violence and even left at least one student dead. Teachers know that the “reforms” being offered by the billionaires and business elites are destructive to school morale, to stability in children’s lives, and to great teaching and learning. But many teachers simply did not know what they could do.

This week, however, teachers in Chicago are dancing in the streets. Teachers are singing, hugging strangers, chanting, blowing whistles, proudly wearing their union gear. They have taken over downtown Chicago in a sea of flowing, exuberant, lively red. They are excitedly teaching the lessons of democracy in action to children weary from oppression. They hold up signs that say “I am teaching NOW” and “If I can’t teach history, I will MAKE history”. Children march alongside their beloved teachers and tell the truth saying “there are 42 students in my 4th grade class.” Cars passing by honk and people yell support. This city is alive with the electricity of a growing people’s movement.

Teachers no longer have to sit back and take it. In solidarity, they can force change against the massive, powerful, uncaring elites who seem to run the world. They can demand better classes in fully-resourced schools for all children, regardless of ability or home language. They can call out how inaccurate and faulty those darn test scores are. Teachers can scream about the savage inequalities of school funding. They can spotlight the very real effects of poverty and violence on their children’s lives. And for once, the world is listening.

This is a city with an unelected school board, with a Mayor with no background in education yet who has unilateral power to make school decisions, with outsider billionaire-backed groups like Stand for Children and Democrats for Education Reform having more say in policy than the parents, students, and teachers directly impacted by the upheavals. These people thought they could impose their teacher evaluations based on faulty test scores. With pay and job security tied to these tests, teachers know this evaluation system would fundamentally change their relationships with their students and the teaching and learning in their classrooms. The powerful thought they could ignore teacher experience and education in compensation and push through merit pay. Educators know how invaluable experience is in teaching and how important collaborative, not competitive, school cultures are. The Board thought they could get around tenure, just like it has been done in so many other places around the country, through changing recall rights, and thereby driving more great experienced educators from the classroom. But they were wrong. Strikes, however painful in the short-term, are one of the few levers working people have left to ensure true democratic process. Chicago teachers pulled that lever.

But here’s what ultimately separates the Chicago teachers, along with the parents, students, community members, and worldwide supporters from those elites who would sell us “choice” and privatization: To us, this is personal.

When the teachers of Chicago rise up, they are not defending politics or ideology, they are speaking for actual human beings. They are crying out for the child who could not get appropriate special education services due to lack of staff. They are speaking for the many kids being punished, held back, treated like failures by the cruel standardized tests. They are saying “no” to the truly outrageous class sizes which prevent too many of their most fragile students from getting that individualized attention they deserve. They are begging the district to hire more of the support staff like social workers, nurses, and counselors their students desperately need. They are exposing a system that views students who struggle as liabilities and schools as places of cutthroat competition.

Chicago’s teachers are saying “no more”. I thank them, and the parents and students, for their sacrifice. The joy of people power is infectious. I hope it spreads.

What do you think of the jubilation described here? Are you catching the infection?

Katie Osgood is a special education teacher in Chicago currently working at a psychiatric hospital. She also taught special education in the Chicago Public Schools. She holds a Masters in Elementary and Special Education from DePaul University. Before teaching in America, she taught ESL/EFL for six years in Japan. You can read her blog, Ms. Katie’s Ramblings, or follow her on Twitter.

Photos are by firedoglakedotcom, used with Creative Commons permission.

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