Striking from a Distance

Fair Warning:  I want to warn my readers that this is a very different kind of post for me.  We’ve dedicated this blog over the past year to writing about our observations, challenges and needs while living in Ethiopia, particularly at a children’s home in Wolaita Soddo.  That will continue, but today I’m missing Chicago and my former teacher friends and colleagues as they head for the picket lines for the 2nd day as the Chicago Teacher’s Union faces off against Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and the Chicago Board of Ed.  This blog post will be political and not really about Ethiopia.  Feel free to cease reading here if you’d prefer.


Before moving to Ethiopia, I spent five years as a CTU member (Chicago Teacher’s Union) and high school social studies teacher at UPLIFT Community High School, a CPS (Chicago Public Schools) high school in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood.  Those were fabulous years that I have very fond memories of.  During those five years, I learned that Chicago was a pivotal place in the nation when it came to the debate and struggle around public education.  Just to demonstrate the influence of Chicago on the national education scene, President Obama calls Chicago home.  During his years as a Chicago resident, he played basketball often with Arne Duncan, then the CEO of Chicago Public Schools.  When Obama went to the White House, he took Mr. Duncan with him as the new Secretary of Education.  To further cement the Washington to Chicago connection, Obama’s former White House Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, is now Mayor of Chicago, not long ago replacing long-time Mayor Richard Daley.

Legally, this strike in Chicago is over teacher compensation.  Rahm wants to lengthen the school day for students in CPS without a fair increase in compensation for teachers and he wants to attach compensation of teachers to student scores on standardized tests.  Unofficially, though, this strike is about much more than teacher compensation, but because of state law in IL, the CTU can’t strike over the real issues; they can only strike over compensation.  The real issues are about class sizes, resources, and a well-rounded support staff in schools (social workers, educational psychologists, nurses, special education teachers, librarians, after-school activity directors, etc.).  It’s about standing up for neighborhood and community schools, which have become under-resourced dumping grounds for all the students with certain challenges that the magnet schools and charter / contract schools don’t want.  It’s about standing up for the teacher profession, because most CTU teachers in CPS are good, qualified teachers who are doing their best everyday to help provide an education to students in an incredibly challenging environment.  It’s about saying, “we are professionals, we are teachers, we are educators, we have skills and knowledge and abilities; stop dumping all the system’s problems on us and give us the tools and resources we need to do our job before you condemn us.”

Though I’m a long ways away from Chicago now, and can’t claim to be intimately involved with this specific strike and struggle, upon reflecting on my current situation, I felt I had something to add to the conversation to show my support to my former colleagues and friends.

About two months ago, I took at job at a private international school here in Addis Ababa.  My family and I wanted to remain a longer time in Ethiopia, but needed a job that paid money in order to do so.  This job provides that for us.  This school is a private, English language international school that serves the international community of Addis Ababa. Most of the students have parents that work at embassies, the Africa Union, the UN, or some big international development organizations like Oxfam, Save the Children and USAID.  As a fully private school, the yearly tuition is no joke; it is steep, on pare with lots of private schools in the Chicago area.  As a strong proponent of public education, I find myself in the awkward position of now working for a private school only accessible to families with considerable resources.

One of the things I’ve learned from this experience so far, however, is just what a private education looks like.  My previous experience in CPS and now my new position, has provided me with a unique opportunity to compare the two.  I now have an insider’s perspective on the kind of education that Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s kids are likely getting while attending the private University of Chicago Lab School.  It’s interesting that politicians who send their kids to elite private schools are often the ones saying things like, “we can’t fix public education by just throwing money at the problem,” or citing some research study that claims that class size doesn’t actually matter when it comes to quality of education.  Strangely, someone failed to pass that kind of research on to the people running private schools like mine.  Let me tell you a little about my school, where my school puts value, and what kind of education kids get when there are resources.

My new school has a large, open campus, with green space, playgrounds, sports fields, a track, flowers, trees and gardens.  It has excellent facilities, including science labs, music and art rooms, computer labs, a well-stocked library, a nice gym, cafeteria, etc.  My school has new uniforms for all the sports teams, it pays its coaches, it sends its teams on out-of-town trips for tournaments and competitions, and it has a well-qualified athletic director whose sole job is to oversee the athletic program and ensure its quality.  My school has a bunch of great after school activities offered four days / week and some on weekends. My school has new-edition textbooks, literature books and supplies for all students.  My school has a 1-to-1-laptop program where all students from grades 6 – 12 are issued a laptop for the duration of their academic year.  My school has great wireless Internet throughout the campus, and has access to online e-learning and student e-portfolio programs that are integrated into every class.  My school has an extensive, professional IT staff that services, maintains and provides support for all technology on campus.  Every classroom in my new school is equipped with an LCD projector and many classrooms have smart boards and document readers.  The student cafeteria serves fabulous meals that are healthy and have variety at very reasonable prices.

My new school values its teachers and recognizes that a quality education requires teachers that are taken care of and provided with appropriate resources.  There is a full-time staffed copy center that can turn around my photocopy requests within 30 min.  There is a non-stop supply of coffee for teachers and staff in various locations around campus.  There are computers and printers (with ink) at every staff workspace.  There is a “teacher store” on campus where teachers can go get pretty much any classroom supply he / she could ever need without paying for it out of his / her own pocket.  Teachers are provided with adequate preparatory time, collaboration time and professional development time, built into the school day.  Teachers are compensated with a good salary and great benefits (medical, dental, retirement, etc.).  Teachers are given appropriate benefit days, including sick leave, personal days, and professional development leave days, and teachers are not made to feel guilty for using these days when they need to.  Teachers are given $1500 / year as a professional development allowance so they can attend professional development conferences and trainings.  Teachers are given a personal technology allowance, so they can stay updated with the necessary technology tools to be an affective teacher.  Teachers are provided with opportunities to further their education and encouraged to participate in these opportunities (in CPS I knew principals and district staff that voiced frustration over teachers getting higher degrees because it meant they would cost more on the school’s budget… I was also part of hiring committees that were told we couldn’t hire teachers with more than one degree or with more than a couple of years experience because the school couldn’t afford it).  The administrative staff and school board also often host appreciation events with food and drink just to show teachers that their hard work is not unnoticed.

And as for that issue about class sizes and staff-to-student ratios: all of my classes are between 15 – 20 students maximum.  I never have a classroom without adequate desks and space.  I always have enough textbooks and literature books for all my students.  There is a whole staff of teaching assistants, most of which have teacher qualifications of their own.  Every elementary school classroom, despite only have a maximum of 20 kids, has a primary teacher, plus a qualified teaching assistant in the room, not to mention the extra “specials” teachers for art, foreign language, music and PE.  Despite being a relatively small school by CPS standards (about 800 students from PK – 12th grade), there’s a whole ELL department with several qualified ELL teachers who provide pull-out and push-in support.  There is a special education department that includes school social workers, educational psychologists and special education teachers that provide both push-in and pull-out support, though only a small percentage of our student body has special ed. needs (compared to 30% of the student body at my previous CPS high school).  Beyond this, there are custodians, lab techs., grounds keepers, facility maintenance staff, extra coaches and coaching assistants, office staff, security staff, after-school activity staff, etc.  For a student body of 800 kids, there are 80 full-time faculty, plus 40 TAs, 6 full-time IT specialists, and an administrative team of 20 (and, by the way, the school director and principals are all actual educators who have spent years as teachers in classrooms; they’re not former lawyers, business-people, nor military generals).

This is the kind of education that kids from well-resourced families are getting.  This is the kind of education that Rahm Emanuel’s kids are getting.  Now, while it may be true, that taxpayers can’t afford to pay for the full extent of this kind of education in our public system, it is also true that resources do matter.  If resources didn’t matter, why would those who can afford it, send their kids to private schools with absurd amounts of resources?  If we really believed in equal education for all of America’s kids, don’t you think the kids coming from the least privileged backgrounds are exactly the kids who need the resources?  Don’t you think the schools with student populations that are 95 – 100% free and reduced lunch are exactly the places that should have extra resources?  Don’t you think that schools with student populations with 30% special education needs are exactly the places that need full-time social workers, qualified special education departments, and educational psychologists?  Don’t you think the schools where students bring a lot of pain and baggage from their pasts, their homes and their neighborhoods are exactly the schools that should have smaller class sizes?  Don’t you think the schools in gang invested, high-crime and violent neighborhoods are exactly the places that need more resources for after-school activities?  Don’t you think the schools in predominately immigrant communities are exactly the schools that needs greater ELL support?  Don’t you think the schools with transient student populations and with kids well-behind grade level are exactly the schools that need adequate and current educational materials?

And don’t you think the teachers that work in these schools deserve to be taken care of?

Support the CTU and support public education.


6 responses to “Striking from a Distance

  1. This is perfect. Jackson and I were just talking about this on the long ride home from the dentist. I told him that you used to work there-and he was thinking about asking you some questions via facebook, but I will direct him here! 🙂

  2. Thank you sharing that – it’s funny how easily people normalize inequality (in everything from housing, food, and education) and ask teachers and students to just deal with it! – I’m very curious what Obama’s position will be on the CTU – and I often remind people that silence is a position 😦

  3. Extremely well stated. This should be forwarded to our Chicago Mayor, the President of the Teachers’ Union, Illinois Congress Persons as well as our Federal Congress Persons. I once had 44 students in my third grade class in a low socio-economic area near Cook County jail!!! Thanks for your very insightful commentary.

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