With a measure of disbelief and an even bigger dose of curiosity, I read and heard the many petulant reactions to the freshly ratified contract between the Chicago school system and its teachers. (“New Contract Would Give Chicago Teachers Raises,” Sept. 12, 2007.)
The disbelief was over why anyone would resent an annual 4 percent raise for Chicago teachers, considering the prodigiously difficult challenge they face each day.
And the curiosity was over whether those making the same old complaints about teachers—their short days, summers off, entrenched job security, underperforming students—had ever spent a year, or even a week, in a city school.
I spent five days a week for 20 years in a Chicago high school. The experience was memorable and life-altering, in much the same way war must be. And also as with war, though I do not regret having served, I am not tempted to re-enlist, not if my salary were raised 40 percent, let alone nudged by a minuscule 4 percent.
Teaching in the Chicago public schools was memorable and life-altering, in much the same way war must be.
Mind you, it is not disgruntlement. There is no better place to be than in a classroom, where the earnestness, curiosity, and sheer goodness of young minds inspire a teacher. You ache for them to succeed.
But outside the classroom, in the halls, in the cafeteria, the parking lot, and on the streets in the “safe school zone,” lurked enemies and insurgents, predators, gangsters, thieves, and perpetrators of vandalism and violence. Students often had to cut class to avoid robbery, assault, or gang recruitment.
A few would arrive listless and hungry, having come from a single- or zero-parent home where breakfast wasn’t available, nor sometimes heat or hot water. Many were taciturn, a few verging on catatonic, victims of sexual or domestic abuse. Some sat in my room with bandaged gunshot wounds, while others did not survive.
Teaching was fulfilling. But I had to leave my classroom many times a day to break up fights in the hall, or to chase drug users or trespassers, one of whom threatened to “blow me away.”
The principal did his best to secure the school, but with only one policeman on a 4,000-student campus, he appended “security guard” to our job descriptions.
So, in between classes, I patrolled a hallway half a mile long. The uniform I wore each day to teach journalism and literature consisted of loose-fitting clothes and sneakers, so that I could chase down delinquents and physically deliver them to our lone officer. Often I failed, as during the living nightmare when I couldn’t get through the crowds fast enough and a 16-year-old was beaten, his skull cracked by a ball-peen hammer.
At each day’s end, I reported for bus loading, which we referred to as “thug patrol,” to protect our students at the bus stop while toughs made menacing gang signs across the street.
None of these things could I have done, were it not for the fact that my colleagues were doing the same: the swimming coach dislocating his knee in the icy parking lot in pursuit of a thief; an algebra instructor fending off blows from a student she caught cheating; a gym teacher wrestling bloody scissors away from one student who had stabbed another in a faculty office.
Yet, in the teeth of the turmoil, teachers performed miracles. One received an award for college-level scholarship in his history classroom. Another led an understaffed, underfunded high school football team to Chicago’s first Prep Bowl victory. A biology teacher, affectionately called “Rev” by his students, counseled teenagers as well as teachers about life’s other facets. And dozens of others never left the building until well after dark, tutoring their students, prepping around the clock.
The uniform I wore each day consisted of loose-fitting clothes and sneakers, so that I could chase down delinquents and deliver them to our lone officer.
Some things have changed in the Chicago public schools since I left. There are metal detectors at the doors, and I understand there are now two policemen assigned to each building.
But it’s obviously not enough, as violence proliferates, including three shootings last school year at the very building where I spent two decades, Chicago Vocational Career Academy (formerly known as Chicago Vocational High School).
A community activist worried aloud about Vocational in a local newspaper last spring. “The school is like a war zone on the third floor with the gang fights,” he told the Chicago Tribune. “The security won’t even go there. I don’t understand why they can’t get it right.”
Perhaps by they, he meant the administrators, and Ph.D. education consultants, and editorial-board members now angry that teachers didn’t give up enough for their 4 percent raise.
Perhaps they neglected, in their research, to examine the master plan for education put out by one presidential candidate, Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, or that of the entire U.S. Catholic education system, both of which are predicated on this primary principle: respecting teachers.
Perhaps, had they spent enough time in one of those brick-and-mortar buildings, our schools’ real priority might have hit them square in the face.
A version of this article appeared in the November 28, 2007 edition of Education Week as Respecting Teachers