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By Michelle Gunderson.

I want to paint a picture of teaching in Chicago for you.

Ten years ago I was teaching music in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago. Many of our children were impoverished and over 30 languages were spoken in our school. I had 847 students. I did not round the number to 850 for a purpose – it is the moral of the story.

The day before our winter break I produced a performance that included every student. We had to give our concert three times that day because only 350 people could fit in the auditorium. There was a choir with 60 students, a bell choir, recorder consort, and a guitar ensemble. All of the instruments had been donated by the Chicago Bar Association Young Lawyers. These wonderful folks believed in our music program, but there was always an underlying pressure when they came to hear our kids.

We have all done this as teachers – putting our careers and reputations in the hands of small people who at times do not always do what you expect.

Needless to say, it was a day filled with heightened activity, anticipation, and responsibility.

At the beginning of the day, several students came to me with Christmas gifts. I hastily put them aside on my desk while trying to organize all the materials for the day, including tuning 20 guitars.

It wasn’t until I got home that evening and plopped on my couch that I had time to open the sweet gifts the children had given me. One of them was a small figurine of an angel singing. The tag on the card said, “This reminds me of you.” It was unsigned.

That’s when I started to cry.

You see, I could not remember who had given it to me. I had been an important person in this child’s life, and great care had been taken to give me this present.

I keep the figurine on the desk where I do much of my planning for school. I see it every morning as I get ready to go back and do this work once again. Not as a reminder of myself as a singing angel, but as a reminder that the work we do is important to every single child.

It also is a visual reminder that all of us in Chicago have been given too much to do. It was an impossibility to teach 847 children as individuals, to know all their needs, to help them through their lives.

A dear friend of mine said the other day, “I am tired of people telling me as a teacher how to make impossible work better.”

So my message for all of us who have been given impossible teaching situations is this – do not be discouraged by impossible situations, do not own them as your fault. Fight a system that devalues our children to the point where all of this can happen in the wealthiest country in the world.

And with that I bid you peace.

Michelle Strater Gunderson is a 30 year teaching veteran who teaches first grade in the Chicago Public Schools. She is a doctoral student at Loyola University in Curriculum and Instruction.

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Anthony Cody
Anthony Cody

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