No Seat at the Table: Student Teaching on Eve of the Chicago Teacher Strike

By: Martha Aguirre

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Tomorrow the Chicago Teachers Union will either accept Rahm Emanuel’s contract or go on strike.

As a product of Chicago Public Schools (CPS), I am no stranger to massive strikes. I was a senior in high school when the 2012 Chicago Teacher’s Union (CTU) staged a work stoppage for seven school days. I remember the tremendous uncertainty for teachers and students leading up to that week-and-a-half. No one had any idea how long the strike would last or what would be the outcome of this historic movement. Chicago had not seen a teacher’s strike since 1987.

The strike was definitely a scary commencement to senior year. With college and scholarship deadlines fast approaching and no aid from faculty and staff (CPS shut off teacher emails), we were stuck. However, I didn’t blame teachers or the union for the situation I was in.

On the contrary, I picketed every day with my teachers, repping union red. My handmade sign asked, “How can you put students first if you’re putting teachers last?” I knew that there was a bigger cause behind the strike.

I was a student at Roosevelt High School, a neighborhood school in a low-income immigrant community on the Northside of Chicago. Every single time there was a budget cut or layoffs, my high school would take some of the hardest hits. I loved my school, but it faced insurmountable difficulties. There was a deteriorating infrastructure, lack of supplies, inadequate resources, and overcrowding in classrooms. I realized long before the teacher’s strike that schools like Roosevelt didn’t matter to Rahm Emanuel and to the school board. That I didn’t matter to the city of Chicago.

Even though the system gave up on students from underperforming schools, the teachers never did. The mainstream media in Chicago portrays this egoistic view of teachers selfishly fighting for their own benefits. In reality, they are fighting for so much more. When the CTU rallies, they bring up issues of social inequality and segregation within the Chicago Public School system. They bring to the table all of the social justice issues affecting students that have been swept under the rug by the city council. When our politicians and school board fail to make necessary changes in the education system, the teachers are the ones who stand up them. Teachers are fighting for the students and their communities. That’s what it’s always been about.

For that reason, it was during the 2012 teacher strike that I became 100 percent sure I wanted to be a teacher.

As the next strike is fast approaching, that wave of uncertainty is back. There is a lot of talk about how long the strike will last as well as the struggle for negotiations with our city council and school board members.

Here is a short version of what has happened thus far.

Since the 2012 strike, working conditions have worsened. Teachers have been working without a contract for more than a year now. Since 2014, CPS has failed to negotiate a contract with the union, who has been fighting for smaller class size limits, eliminating student-based budgeting, and replacing Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s hand-picked school board with an elected one. Moreover, CPS has proposed dramatic changes in the new contract that would harm teachers and students. They want to cut teacher salary and health benefits, close schools that cannot meet graduation requirements, and lay off significant amounts of faculty and staff. You can read the CTU and CPS contract proposals here.

There has been talk of a strike for several months, but it was not until 1,000 teachers and staff  were laid off on August 5th that a long strike became unavoidable. Many schools in the district were affected by this decision, including my high school, which lost some fantastic teachers and our only school librarian. The people that were handed a pink slip in August were people that students really looked up to. They put so much work and dedication into a school and finding out how they were laid off, broke my heart.

My university does not allow us student teachers to directly participate in the strike. I cannot go to rallies, picket, attend union meetings, or wear CTU attire, but this struggle for education justice in Chicago has always been one of my fights. Instead, I will record this important experience as a student teacher during a time of uncertainty in the education system.

These next few weeks, I will post entries from my journal from here in Chicago to keep you updated on the experience of a student teacher during contract negotiations and a potential strike. Let’s start with a walkthough of the past two weeks.

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Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Today is the first voting day. There are posters all around my student teaching placement school announcing the strike authorization vote. I first noticed a sign when I got on the elevator this morning on my way to teach Spanish class. All CTU members are voting either today or Friday. I walked into my classroom and my cooperating teacher was wearing her red union sticker, indicating that she voted this morning. In order to authorize the strike, 75 percent of teachers have to vote in favor of walking out. There will be an emergency union delegates meeting next week, where union leaders will decide the final strike call.

Since the strike is fast approaching,  I had to sit down with my cooperating teacher and plan my edTPA assessments carefully. For those who are unfamiliar with the Education Teacher Proficiency Assessment (edTPA), it is a required evaluation for student teachers in many states in order to receive licensure. For me, it is the most stressful part of student teaching. For the EdTPA, student teachers have to submit lesson plans, video recordings of class instruction, student assessments, student feedback, and self-evaluations to Pearson. I have to record myself teaching three or four lessons, but since my school is on a block schedule, I need a timespan of two weeks to record those lessons. Since the anticipated strike date is sometime early October, I might have difficulty gathering enough lessons to submit to Pearson.

Monday, September 26, 2016

It has just been announced that 95 percent of CTU voters have authorized the strike. We are all eagerly waiting for the House of Delegates meeting this Wednesday that will determine whether or not the CTU will give CPS a 10-day strike notice. On this same day, CPS announced a large loss of enrollment in the district of around 14,000 students. As a result, there will probably be more layoffs next month even though CPS recently laid off 1,000 staff members.

CPS uses student based budgeting to fund schools. To sum up this system of school finance, a school’s funding correlates with the number of students enrolled. If the district witnesses a massive decrease in enrollment, there is no need for those “extra” teachers. Usually in these situations, the newest teachers get laid off. I have a friend who works as an elementary school teacher on the South Side and her school has announced layoffs. The principal stared right at my friend as she delivered the news and suddenly my friend became worried that as a new teacher, her job was on the line.

It is upsetting seeing the public school system slowly crumbling. Many families have lost hope and feel that the public schools cannot provide an adequate education for their children. As a result, there is a large migration of students from the public to the private sector. Chicago has a large charter school system that is mainly privately owned yet publicly funded. Initially, the charter schools were supposed to serve as an alternative for families who were trying to escape the public schools in low-income neighborhoods and as way to experiment with new, effect curriculum, but in reality only 17 percent of charters actually perform better than the public schools. Moreover, the charter school industry has turned into a profitable business for the owners, especially the charter school chains like UNO and Noble. Is it right that managers profit off of bad schools while the city is laying off good teachers?

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Wednesday, September 28, 2016

THERE WILL BE A STRIKE ON OCT.11

I was entering my apartment when my cooperating teacher texted me, “Strike planned for 10/11…just got a text, but waiting for more info”. I grabbed my laptop and watched the live broadcast of the CTU press conference with my roommate.

CTU president Karen Lewis started the press conference by announcing that if CPS does not negotiate a contract with the union before October 11, there will be a strike. In front of Karen Lewis are several teachers with blank expressions, holding the CTU’s famous black and white picket signs that say, “Protect our schools,” “We stand with teachers and staff,” and “Rahm’s rich friends need to pay their fair share.” When a reporter asked Karen Lewis if the union was close to making a negotiation with the school board, Karen responded with, “I don’t know what ‘close’ means anymore.”

Those words gave me chills and made me worry that the strike was going to drag on for a while. I do not know what is going to happen to my student teaching placement, but I am sure that my program has a backup plan for me, so I am not worried about losing hours. My professor told our cohort that we might be observing charter schools, which I am not too excited about. We are still not sure.

Monday, October 3, 2016

What another sad day for the public school system. Today, CPS laid off another 140 teachers and 190 supporting staff members at schools where enrollment has declined. Laid off teachers have the opportunity to apply for vacant positions in other schools in the district, but even those are limited. The union and community members are obviously angry with the additional cuts, adding fuel to the fiery calls for a strike.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Morning: In order to support the upcoming strike, schools and universities across Illinois are holding walk-ins, a large rally outside the building before school. As a symbol of solidarity with the union, teachers, supporting staff members and even students march into the school together right before the bell rings. The University of Illinois in Chicago has sent out an email declaring their solidarity with the union. As a student teacher, I am not allowed to participate in any union events like the walk-in or even picketing. Since the struggle for educational justice in Chicago has always been an important issue in my life, it is difficult having to sit on the sidelines. However, I will continue to look for opportunities to show my support and solidarity with the union.

Afternoon: More breaking news! There is a talk about a charter school strike! I could
hardly believe the news. To sum it up, the Chicago Board of Education is in BIG trouble now. Teachers in the UNO charter school network have announced that they too want to negotiate a better contract with the city. If the city does not negotiate with UNO teachers they will strike on October 19th! Although many of the charter school teachers are not unionized, UNO teachers are a part of the United Educators of UNO Charter School Network (UCSN), a branch of the American Federation of Teachers. Moreover, many other charter school teachers are trying to join the CTU. Approximately, 96 percent of UNO voters approved the strike. By contracting non-union teachers, the charter schools served as a tool to dismantle the CTU. The managers’ disregard for unions and working conditions is coming back to bite them in unfavorable places…

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Friday, October 7, 2016

For the past two days, my cooperating teacher and I have taken time to talk to our high school students about the strike. Some students have expressed their undying happiness that school will be cancelled for a couple days. Many are also worried that they will fall behind with assignments and applications for college and scholarships because CPS will shut off teacher and student emails during the strike. During class we gave tips on avoiding panic attacks before the strike, like making sure they download any big assignments off Google Drive or collect letters of recommendation.

My sixth hour students, who usually have trouble focusing in class, dove into a complete 30-minute classwide conversation about the strike. They were genuinely interested about what was going on and they wanted to know all the details. One student, who never likes to participate in class, spoke up and answered a lot of his classmates’ questions about the strike. I was surprised to see how much he knew about labor movements and politics. How much more does he know that he hasn’t had the opportunity to share in class?  Another student expressed how happy she was that we took the time to talk about the current situation. “None of the other teachers are talking about it,” she said. “They just told us what assignments we were supposed to complete and that was it.” This goes to show how significant it is to have these conversations with students. We shouldn’t keep them in the dark about issues that affect THEIR education.

Monday, October 10, 2016

It looks like an agreement will not be reached with the school board today. My placement school’s union delegate has sent everyone an email, telling them to be prepared to picket at 7am tomorrow

It is safe to say that everyone is eagerly awaiting Tuesday, October 11th. Teachers definitely want to be in the classroom on Tuesday instead of being on the picket lines, but this issue has dragged on long enough and many teachers acknowledge the sacrifices they will make for the greater cause. The CTU and the school board have been negotiating all weekend, but have reached no agreement. It is 11:20 pm and the CTU is currently looking over a revised contract. It is really unsure at this point what will happen, but I will continue to follow the latest updates and participate however I can, even if that is just sharing my journal.

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Martha Aguirre is a Spanish and Secondary Education major at Illinois Wesleyan University. She hopes to teach foreign language in Chicago or abroad. Martha has conducted research in the field of education and enjoys learning about social justice issues abroad. She loves coffee, tacos, Latin American history, and fighting the system.

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