By Michelle Strater Gunderson.
A teachers’ contract is not just about money. It’s an agreement between government and a community about how children will be treated.
Now, don’t get me wrong – I will always advocate for reasonable compensation for educators, especially in light of the amount of education and expertise needed to do this work.
But a contract is more than a pay schedule.
As a member of the Chicago Teachers Union bargaining team I see our contract as a way of building a school system where both adults and children can work to build a world of respect, caring, and a joy of learning.
We have been working for over 18 months to come to an agreement with the Chicago Public Schools that makes sense for both workers and the children who benefit from their work.
We’ve asked for a reduction in standardized testing to only include state mandated tests. Our schools are run through three layers of management – “downtown” offices, networks, and school site administration. At each step along the way, each level of management has demanded more and more testing. We know of schools where kindergarten teachers are using the Haggerty program and are required to give sight word tests to each child once a week. That is 20 percent of a classroom’s reading instructional time. That is beyond crazy. Children cannot learn to read if they are being constantly tested on their reading. And this is just one example.
We are negotiating for less paperwork so we can spend time and energy on our students. Along with the layer of management comes endless paperwork. Many of the lesson templates that administrators require are so tedious that they take almost as long to fill out as they do to teach. There is one thing I know for certain, no urban school district ever improved through increased paperwork.
We are being crushed under a punitive evaluation system that includes tests scores and observations based on the Danielson Framework. There is a saying that we teach what we test. Even worse than teaching to the test, an evaluation system based on a rubric that does not fit the varied forms of teaching necessary in a highly complex system perverts our schools into testing factories and with cookie cutter teaching. We are looking to broaden evaluation range bands so that teachers who are just learning their craft are not crushed by test scores that plummet their evaluations. In my mind, this is just a sense of fairness.
But a sense of fairness is not what we have been met with by the other side. The Chicago Public Schools’ Board of Education is asking for nothing but cuts that dishonor the profession of teaching, and negatively impact the schooling of our children. Our schools are cut to the bone, there is nothing left to give.
Our school board is appointed by Mayor Emanuel and every step of the contract process goes through him. The inability of the mayor to run our schools with financial responsibility and his reluctance to seek revenue has brought the Chicago Public Schools to a screeching halt.
And on top of it all, Chicago educators have been treated with disdain by the new CEO of schools, Forrest Claypool. He has sent several letters home to families that imply that Chicago teachers are acting illegally and recklessly.
Union activist and educator, Lee Ann Revis analyzes the toxic climate created by Emanuel, Claypool, and the board that is filled with disdain, dishonor, and distrust:
We can’t shield our children from the fallout. No matter what we do, they see it, they absorb it, and they internalize it. As long as those in charge insist on maintaining this adversarial climate that creates a world of “dis” for our kids to exist in, the babies will never be able to “rise above” it.
Contracts are a promise – a promise for what schools can be and a promise for the future. The world is watching Chicago right now, and how teachers are treated in this city will have historical memory. It will impact who decides to become a Chicago teacher for years to come.
Michelle Strater Gunderson is a 29 year teaching veteran who teaches first grade in the Chicago Public Schools. She is a doctoral student at Loyola University in Curriculum and Instruction.
Photo by Kenzo Shibata, used with permission.