Bargaining For Common Good: Chicago Teachers’ Strike

Getting to Yes. That’s what it takes. Saturday, an autumn day of falling leaves, football, Halloween parties and pumpkin patches. Hopefully you have power on, are safe, warm, and enjoying your weekend. However, in Chicago, teachers and city officials are meeting as I write, to possibly close the deal, ending traumatic negotiations, missed classes and a lot of mixed feelings.

Let me start by saying this is strictly an opinion piece. I am not citing a bunch of references, just sharing from my extensive life experiences as parent and educator. Getting to Yes.

I understand as of now, eighty issues have been resolved, but big ones remain, regarding class sizes and staffing. Not only teachers are striking, also Service Employees International, (SEIU, support staff). Total: 36,000. Big numbers, 360,000 students had classes cancelled. While schools were kept open and meals served during this time, few students attended, maybe 2% on Thursday.

Chicago Teachers Union has been around since 1937, one of the biggest in the nation. Some years back I met a lot of enthusiastic Chicago teachers when I Keynoted for CTU Back-To-School. Not only was I greeted with welcome signs, buttons and chanting, I was asked to stay in one of the teacher’s homes. Who does that? These teachers were so kind to me; I vividly recall hearing back then about their plight, tough challenges meeting the diverse needs of children in their care, with scant resources. Pretty much the same everywhere I went, by the way. Only now we are at a tipping point. Anybody listening?

Recalling teacher protests and strikes in West Va., Denver, Oklahoma, L.A. and Chicago, teachers’ unions are rallying for salary improvement to catch up, class resources and supplies, smaller class sizes and guidance counselors, mostly the same issues as Chicago, currently. Recently the topic of support personnel is frequently coming up, because I believe every school has to have at a minimum, a counselor and nurse, social worker, too, beyond our school secretaries being way overworked, wearing too many hats.

I am reluctant to write this blog today, day ten of the Chicago Teachers’ Strike. I loathe strikes, the damage done, trust lost, inconvenience for parents and caregivers, social and emotional toll and lasting repercussions by many community stakeholders. I believe everybody wants the total package the teachers deserve, but the darn funding issue gets in the way, with politicians and an assortment of others supporting the idea there is no money for our schools. The desire is there, but no money.

While Principal I was asked to be on the negotiations team one school year, and thinking I would be a really useful addition, wrong. I went through the “training” course “Getting to Yes”, including reading the handbook, but the reality of bargaining at ‘the table’ was the pits. Repeatedly I heard reasonable requests and demands by teachers and finally thought “I am simply on the wrong side of this table”.

Everything the teachers were asking for was so obvious to me, so logical, I couldn’t imagine why there was even a question about it. Yet, that was not how things were, so after the year, off I went. I likely didn’t look like a team player to district administration, which is so weird considering all the years I taught both Credential Courses and School Administration at University level. I  have always believed our main job as leader is to get teachers everything they need. Period. Whatever it takes. Everything is possible. And when we co-teach with teachers, we know what is needed because we see it, feel it and breathe it.

That’s when we shift our own attitudes toward collegiality, collaboration, a new view of professional development and just about every aspect of school life. Then no need for strikes. Autonomy. Teacher Autonomy. About time. Class size matters! One new kid with issues needing immediate attention changes the dynamic of our class; we know that. We meet that need and continually readjust what we are doing, mid-course corrections the norm and just fine. But Chicago teachers with classes over thirty into forty, how in the world can these teachers do it day after day?

We are only asking for burn -out, way beyond self-care and Twitter support. And the teachers having a child come into class having witnessed brutality, with no adequate support personnel, come on, now! Active shooter drills only add to the mix. Keeping classrooms calm, with Brain Breaks, anti-anxiety strategies, mindfulness, resilience only goes so far, kiddos and teachers. Let’s be realistic. Teachers need support and lots of it, bargaining for the common good goes way beyond the physical school walls.

What top are we racing to when we left untold children behind, with unreasonable demands put upon our youngest learners who may have had only cereal, if that, and slept in a car. The child who is hitting other kids, or the teacher, so angry yet the root cause is lack of a bed to sleep in, dinner and a safe, secure place to call home. Schools are now home for the mind, body and sanctuaries for the soul and our teachers are burning out, fast.

On Twitter and social media we write of our gratitude, our burning desire to make a difference and we do! We thank those in our communities who give, “ordinary people” helping others and for that I am eternally grateful. But teachers need our help. We are all teachers, schoolhouse, workplace and home and we all have a vested interest in the betterment of our planet. Collectively, there is no end to what we can accomplish.

The CTU strike began on October 17, 2019. This was the first major walkout by personnel since the 2012 strike which lasted seven days, as I recall. Teachers didn’t just decide to walk out, negotiations were ongoing for ten months around issues common to all districts, pay, benefits, class sizes, working conditions, etc. I find it unimaginable that both sides couldn’t get it together before it came to a strike. By the time you read this, hopefully an agreement is reached, and the kids will be back to school on Monday. Strikes are rough on everyone, so surely something good must come of this, with getting to yes, of paramount importance.

What stands out most to me in this particular strike is the idea the teachers really dug in on social issues. Nobody can be adequately prepared to teach children every day who are suffering from homelessness, hunger, or food insecurity.  Children who don’t have clean clothes and a safe environment to go home to. Teachers are facing far more than meeting academic standards, teachers today model soft skills necessary for life, under challenging circumstances themselves.

Teachers who may be hit, kicked, bitten by children so angry, so needing special services, services most likely not there. Teachers figuring out how to serve their inclusive population of wonderful kids but in class sizes so large there may not even be enough seating, much less room to move around or differentiate instruction, as planned.

Let’s not even go into working conditions with an uneven proportion of schools in more affluent areas having supplies and resources and capability to innovate their curriculum while schools in impoverished areas scrounge for materials, resources and services. That’s why the teachers in Chicago have chosen this strike to be a last stand of sorts as “justice warriors” these teachers like countless others so believe in equity, and the notion that all children truly are scholars in waiting, they did not give up. Counselors, psychologists, nurses, social workers, paraprofessionals, librarians. Needed now, in every school, everywhere, really.

For every cut made to school budgets over the past years in Chicago and elsewhere, the race to the top meant losing arts, music, vocational courses, support personnel, that protective layer of school services so necessary for many needy children. Teachers are now nurses, counselors, social workers at the same time expected to perform at such high levels their very evaluations may be determined by the test scores of their students.

Hey you politicians!

Spend even one day in a classroom and you will undoubtedly see why class sizes matter. Notice there may be  an acting out kid or two. Maybe the teacher even has to clear the class while you are there. Support is lacking for that kid at the back who needs a personal aide. Sorry, no recess for you, your homework wasn’t done. And we know every kid needs recess, teachers, too! Library is closed, sorry, no librarian. Didn’t pay for your lunches? No hot meals for you. Oh, not enough chrome books for everybody. Sorry, no music classes anymore or P.E. Principal is stuck in office dealing with discipline referrals, since the counselor position was cut. The Secretary is taking care of a medically fragile student as there is no school nurse anymore. Another fundraiser for you to stay for, field trips were cut. And more. Get real, politicians. What in the heck are you thinking? You want world class schools? Pay for it.

We are in the worst of times, yes, it has come to strikes for teachers begging for their autonomy as teaching professionals wanting to be treated “professionally”. The best of times, in terms of what teachers know to be extraordinary strategies, but kids have to be ready to learn and participate.

Issues I am personally concerned about, based on my experience as teacher and administrator:

  1. By requiring teachers to live in the district they teach in, this may be unaffordable, pricing out quality teachers.
  2. Pay teachers fairly. Salaries need to be commensurate with cost of living in their communities.
  3. Treat teachers as professionals, which they are.
  4. Stop nearly all standardized testing. Put the money into salaries and classrooms.
  5. Instead of canned curriculum, teachers decide what they want to use.
  6. Professional development should be decided by each teacher, including what’s needed, wanted, where to get it.
  7. The key is autonomy. Teacher as professional deciding how to teach, self-evaluating, as action researcher and thought leader.

I am an optimist by nature, and I believe with all my heart there is a lot more to the Chicago strike than the notion of more pay, if that’s what people are thinking. That is already settled. These teachers are bargaining for the common good, that of students and themselves. And that is something we can all hang onto, hope for, and work toward.

Leaving footprints on your reading hearts, Rita

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As always, thanks to BAM Radio Network!


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