Saturday, September 22, 2012

Dear Mr. Mayor: There is Hope for Chicago's Children, In Spite of You

Dear Mayor Rahm Emanuel,

A few months ago I wrote an open letter to you about why I will not teach in your schools.  You, and your corporate education reform buddies, are turning our schools into testing factories.  You use punishment and fear--I believe you call it "accountability"--to wield unlimited power over teachers and students.  You starve schools, deny them vital services, unilaterally demand a longer school day with no new resources, write off 25% of our city's youth as disposable, allow racist and ageist hiring and firing policies to persist, and then callously sell off our schools to your venture capitalist buddies like Bruce Rauner or Juan Rangel, all while acting like you are doing something "for the children".

You, sir, do not even know the children.

Can you tell me the children's names?  Their talents, their fears, their hopes and dreams?  Because I, and the other teachers in Chicago, can. 

But Chicago's teachers did something amazing last week. They stood up to your terrible, racist, cruel policies and said "no more".

Thanks to those teachers, I believe the Chicago Public School system is a place I would once again consider working. 

Their new contract has many wonderful provisions such as adding $1.5 million dollars for more special education teachers, a promise to hire more social workers, nurses, and counselors, a guarantee to have textbooks on the first day of class, an increase from $100 to $250 given to teachers for supplies, new clauses about including parents on class size monitoring committees, $.5 million dollars for class size reductions, allowing teachers to follow their own lesson plan formats instead of using the top-down mandated one, an anti-bullying clause against workplace bullying by poor administrators, and 600 new music, art, and gym teachers.  The CTU also stopped the collaborative-culture-crushing idea of merit pay, preserved steps and lanes in the salary schedule to ensure we value experience and education in our teaching workforce, and kept the use of student test scores in teacher evaluation to the legal minimum.

But more than the victories in the new contract, I would once again work in CPS because of the rank and file teachers.  Chicago's teachers have remembered something this country forgot decades ago:

Power conceded nothing without a demand--Fredrick Douglas

I would be excited to join my brothers and sisters in demanding better schools for all children.  I would proudly join those who fight for equality, for educational justice for all students regardless of zip code.  I would gladly go back to Chicago's classrooms and help children both through my classroom practice and through the work of social justice outside the classroom.

Mr. Mayor, I would go back to Chicago's schools IN SPITE of you.

This I know: you are wrong.  You know nothing about education or our students. And the battle for great schools is not over.  Teachers are a hard-working bunch who know how to persevere through trying circumstances. And they have right on their side.  They fight for actual precious human beings.  And like the mother defending her young, they will never give up the fight to protect their students.

So Mr. Mayor, I suggest you step back and let teachers lead the way.  Abandon your call to close 100 more schools. Forget the twisted logic of your corporate elitist friends. 

And to any progressive, free-thinking, social-justice minded principals out there:  Do you need a special education teacher?

Ms. Katie

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Chicago Teachers Strike: A Turning Point

It has been an amazing couple of weeks here in Chicago.   For once, the topic of education was part of the national-no international-conversation.  And not told by Michelle Rhee.

Some of the debate has been incredibly encouraging, practically unthinkable just months ago.  I especially liked this MSNBC Up With Chris Hayes segment (Monologue starts around 4:32 but please watch all the segments regarding the strike.)  I literally was jumping up and down in my living room very early on a Sunday morning when they aired this-I couldn't believe they were finally asking the right questions, having the right conversation.  (They mentioned poverty!  They talked about underfunding!  Woo-hoo!!)  Or take this piece by Eugene Robinson entitled Standing Up for Teachers.  Wow, the press is actually taking teachers' side. We're not in Education Nation anymore.

I was elated as my friends, and passionate education activists, took to the airwaves and big news outlets.  Teachers and parents were finally being given a platform to speak truth.  Xian Barrett a CPS high school teacher at Gage Park High School, Wendy Katten a CPS parent and member of Raise You Hand, Phillip Cantor-a high school teacher at North Grand, Jen Johnson-CPS high school teacher at Lincoln Park High School, Adam Heenan-teacher at Curie High School, Matt Farmer-CPS parent, and so many more enlightened us with their knowledge and experience.  And of course my friends and collegues in the union itself spoke truth to power!

At the most recent rally last Saturday, I quipped with my activist friend, CPS elementary school teacher Michelle Gunderson, that I missed my rally and marching buddy after not seeing her in the crowd.  We had become friends after meeting at multiple education events over the past year.  She replied, "it's not just the same twenty of us at these rallies anymore."

No, it is not indeed.  And the movement is growing.

There was solidarity from friends and strangers across the country and the globe.  I was getting messages on facebook and twitter from old friends and acquaintances from New York, Seattle, LA, Indiana, as well as Japan, Germany, Australia, and more.  The whole world had its eyes on Chicago with the understanding that something major was taking place in this town.  

And yet, many in the media didn't report it that way.  A large part of the conversation out in the media and bloggosphere has been around the call for collaboration and trust. Many seem to think that if Rahm had simply been less aggressive, and if the union had been less rigid, they could have collaborately come to an amicable agreement.  This argument might have made sense if the fight were really about pay raises or benefits.

But anyone who actually listened to teachers knows this was about so much more.  This fight is not about compromise on a contract, it is about power and oppression. When up against oppressors, there is a clear right and wrong. Pundits need to admit that Rahm is wrong. As Karen Lewis said, this fight is about the very soul of public education.

Teachers were speaking up for their students, for their learning conditions, speaking against the savage inequalities of school funding and school reform.  About what really hurts our students.  This strike was about pushing back on the powerful who would sell our schools to the gods of privatization and competition. 

To call for "compromise" is to side with the oppressors. It says that "a little abuse" is acceptable all in the name of warm fuzzies and "just getting along".  It tells that battered wife that she shouldn't fight back against her abuser, 'cause the conflict might confuse the children.

No, there is a time to fight.  And in education that time is now.

Others made this yet another labor struggle. No, this is not about labor, or rather not just about labor.  Some have labeled this strike as the next Wisconsin. In some ways, certainly, this is about collective bargaining and the right to strike.  But to me, this fight was about a union which chose to fight in a social justice movement.  It was about redefining the role of what a union could be.  The CTU is a fighting union!  And the fight it took on was the fight against harmful corporate education reforms, the reforms of the elite, reforms that hurt children and their schools.  It is a fight for justice.

And I will admit it, it felt good to fight.  As I wrote on Anthony Cody's blog last week, there was jubilation on the streets of Chicago.  Finally someone was standing up to these cruel policies.

Before the strike, I had written off the entire press corps, especially the so-called "progressive" journalists, as 100% sold on the corporate education reform movement.  No one seemed willing to do the hard journalism to expose the truths behind corporate ed.  Perhaps their friends were reform-minded.  Maybe it was all those New York cocktail parties where teacher-bashing was becoming common-place.  I don't know.  They weren't reporting on the realities of our schools, just sound bites from Duncan, Rhee, Kopp, Klein, Bloomberg, and all the other Deformers.

Now that there are at least some journalists reporting the broader story of poverty, of inequality, of the profit-motive, of the damage of school reform on classroom practices, the others cannot simply ignore it anymore.  This strike represents a turning point.  Like the moment when reporters called out big tobacco on its intentionally suppressed deadly health risks, you can never go back to the time before the connection was made.  

Us public school advocates are no longer protesting with a small handful of other like-minded folk.  We are now part of a full-fledged civil rights movement calling for educational justice.  I thank the CTU for the long, hard, upward battle it has fought to reach this point. I thank them for building bridges to communities, to educating, to mobilizing its members into collective action.

That action made a difference.  The battle rages on, but one thing is sure, things will never be the same.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Arne's Bus Tour: A Call To Action

Dear friends, colleagues, activists, and supporters of public education:

Arne Duncan is coming soon, to a city near you (by near you, I mean no where near places like Chicago, where tens of thousands of teachers have taken to the streets to protest his policies!) but to other important towns and cities across the nation.

Here is the route.

This tour is a great opportunity to remind Arne, AGAIN, that his policies are misplaced and harmful.  Will you organize a grassroots groups of teachers, parents, students, and community members to have a rally as his bus comes through? 

Maybe you can wear red in solidarity with the CTU to remind him that his hometown, where he started all these terrible policies like closing down schools, firing teachers, and vastly increasing the high-stakes tests in our schools, is rejecting his legacy! 

And remind Obama too.  Don't let him keep ignoring us!

So who will organize?  I can already imagine the great signs and slogans all you wonderful activists out there will create. 

Let's keep Duncan on his toes.  He cannot actively destroy our schools and hurt our students without a massive outcry from all of us! 

In Solidarity,
Ms. Katie

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Reformers Just Don't Know....

In the endless back and forth in education debates, a favorite line echoed by Teach for America, the Gates Foundation, KIPP, and all the powerful ed reformers out there is "Poverty is Not Destiny."  The idea is that schools don't have to wait for poverty to be fixed outside school, but rather schools can help fix poverty through great education.  And that great education is provided primarily by "great" teachers.  It is interesting that these ed reform proponents, while talking up how important in-school factors are since "that is something we can change NOW" (urgency! they are full of righteous anger-fueled urgency), almost never bring up the issue of inequity and gross underfunding in the schools suffering the worst effects of poverty.  But that is the spiel they have chosen.

People like me, on the other hand, say that schools absolutely should be improved, but that that improvement rests largely on providing more resources and opportunity, not on firing the "bad" teachers and hiring only the "effective" teachers.  But, even if we decided tomorrow to flip the funding formulas between affluent and low-income schools, or if state legislators suddenly got serious about "failing schools" and decided to double, triple, even quadruple the funding, just improving what happens inside schools will never be enough.

I am beginning to realize that many ed reformers may have never seen the worst effects of poverty on kids.  Many of the folks coming through TFA are being placed in charters, people who work at KIPP only see the least-damaged students, and the politicians and non-profit workers have, for the most part, never done more than a photo op with children from low-income backgrounds, usually at a charter school.  And as someone who has worked closely with the kids from the charters, I know those kids are much better off than many other children. 

Most ed reformers have never seen what I see everyday.

As anyone who has ever read my blog knows, I work as a teacher on an inpatient psychiatric unit for children and adolescents in Chicago.  I work with kids who are so sick, that they had to be hospitalized in order to keep them and those around them safe.  On our unit, children and adolescents may not even have pencils unsupervised or paper clips for fear of harm.

And through my job I have seen, real and personal, the effects that poverty can have on our young people.  I have seen children, with a history of abuse, placed in the foster care system, who are so sad that they bang their heads against walls, scratch their faces, and scream "I want to die."  I have seen children who get so angry-who have so little frustration tolerance due to living in unpredictable situations where they had to be in a constant "fight or flight" state to keep themselves safe on the streets-who will beat another child just for looking at them the wrong way.  I have seen countless children who were exposed to substances in utero and now their brains do not work the same as their typically developing peers.  These children get angry, throw chairs, scream in frustration when their needs are not met, and lash out to hurt anyone around them.  I have seen these same children struggle to learn even basic letters and counting, thanks to the cognitive impairments they have. I have seen children who were homeless for most of their life, whose brains were forever damaged by the stress of their early childhood experience, who now require one to one assistance just to be able to function with a group of children.  I have seen young girls, so severely depressed about growing up in our lawless inner-cities with parents overcome with drug addiction and gang affiliations, grab a bottle of cleaning fluid and try to kill themselves.  I have seen child after child exposed to greater trauma on the streets of Chicago, than our soldiers in Kabul face!  I have spoken with countless children who feel hopeless, who feel abandoned, whose lives are forever altered due to the rampant poverty we let them be exposed to.

Now there are things we can do to help these kids.  And believe me, people like me are doing our best every day to help repair the damage done to these fragile children.  The proper interventions are expensive, time-consuming, and will not work for every child.  But those of us in the mental health field do what we can with the few resources we are given.

But I ask you, why do we as a society LET these beautiful children become so damaged in the first place?  It is as if we are sitting back and letting a child be beaten again and again by an abusive parent, and then looking the other way.  The education reformers out there are saying "sorry you got beat, here are some chants and gimmicks that will help you catch up academically".  We tell the kids to "work hard, be nice" as if that were enough.  And if some kids can't just "get over" the massive abuse done to them, then they clearly are at fault and don't deserve quality education.  God forbid kids, after being exposed to all types of trauma and then coming to an understanding of the savage inequalities of their lives, don't want to just "be nice". 

As poverty in this country deepens, we are seeing more and more kids with even more debilitating disabilities.  Insurance agencies are shortening the amount of time these kids are allowed to heal in hospitals like mine.  Add to that cuts in mental health services, child and protective services, and the schools that serve these children, and these kids are being doubly abused. 

For too many of these children, if their families had not been battling the weight of deep poverty, they would not be sick.  Let me say that again, if these kids had not been born into extreme poverty, they would not be screaming, gouging their skin, threatening harm, crying every night, and put into a hospital.  It is unconscionable to allow these children to continue to be put in harm's way.  Every penny we have should be thrown into prevention, not just in helping after the abuse has already happened.

Ed reformers, go and get educated.  You clearly do not know the realities of what growing up in poverty can do to a child.  It is a reality that every public school teacher of low-income students knows and experiences daily.  It is why we fight, tooth and nail, your disgusting insistence that "poverty is not destiny".  That excuse has been used for far too long to allow us to ignore the growing mental health crisis affecting all aspects of children's lives including school.  If you did know the realities, and still continued to chant "poverty is not destiny", then you are complicit in nothing short of child abuse.

Well ed reformers, you have been told about the real effects of poverty.  Now what are you going to do about it?