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The Chicago Public Schools season is in high gear going into its third week, and the tension between the teachers and CPS may be just as high.

Chicago teachers are entering the second year without a contract with CPS. As CPS CEO Forrest Claypool repeatedly says, there are no additional funds to meet the contractual terms.

According to salary.com, the average teacher’s salary is between $49,147-$65,004, but with longer school days, bumped up health care insurance and no raise since 2012, many CPS teachers feel pushed to the wall.

While money is one of the main concerns in the negotiation, it is not the driving force in moving forward with a strike. When speaking with current Chicago Public School teachers, they said their main motivation are the students.

There is more to the story behind the teachers’ feelings on working in a system that many feel has become increasingly “thankless” and forcing experienced educators out. This includes over 50 CPS principals who have resigned or retired in 2016.

A strike date of Oct. 17 is on the calendar for thousands of teachers to leave the classroom. The Chicago Teachers Union House of Delegates has not yet voted on the decision, but close sources are sure this vote will be passed.

While teachers have laid their roots down in the city and have invested heavily in what they love to do, some are conflicted with the decision to strike.

The Chicago Defender interviewed some tenured teachers who work in the CPS system to get their perspective beyond press conferences, protest marches and television sound bites.

With a strike looming in less than a month, teachers who have been interviewed preferred to stay anonymous, afraid of possible administrative backlash.

A teacher for nearly 14 years, Ms. Jones (not her real name) has worked in a variety of fields before going back to college. She currently works on the North Side at a selective-enrollment school but comes from a long family tradition of educators. “My mom is a teacher, and my grandmother — along with my aunts and uncles, from preschool teachers to university presidents from around the country,” she said.

It was in college when she discovered this is where she wanted to be. She said, “I fought it for a really long time. It wasn’t because I didn’t enjoy it, but I was always looking for that out.

Budget Pinch

The recent CPS budget and the layoffs of nearly 1,000 teachers and support staff have put a great deal of pressure on classroom size and the workload that most teachers are facing.

Throughout the years, Ms. Jones has taught fourth, fifth and sixth-grade students. “Due to budget cuts in typical CPS fashion, we had lost the position of teaching average classroom sizes. So it was either someone take the entire 6th grade or take splits all the way down the line,” she explains.

Teacher helping girl in classroom

“Having split grade levels is not in anybody’s best interest. You’re trying to teach a 5th grade and 6th grade simultaneously. It’s just a horrible task overall. The kids don’t get what they need and the teachers are stretched so thin.”

But understanding the challenge at hand, she accepted the entire class of over 100 students. “I said I would do it and take the entire 6th grade. They were the lowest-performing group in the building the worst-behaved group in the building. So I saw this as a challenge. There were so many of them compared to others. We brought on extra teachers with fundraising efforts.”

It was only the year before that Jones was teaching 15 kids in one class and close to 20 students in another. An unbelievable task for todays’ standards with 30-40 kids in one classroom. 

This doesn’t deter her from giving her best and wrestling with the reality of a strike being close to her doorstep. Although the school she teaches is considered in one of the city’s more diverse neighborhoods, students come from as far south as South Shore and as far west as the Austin community. It’s important to have an objective and empathic mindset when working with all students from various backgrounds.

“You have to be persistent, consistent and you have to be fair. One of the things that kids who come from at-risk neighborhoods or fractioned families, they just need someone to be fair. Somebody who they know — they may need something to eat, or someone didn’t come home the night before — they need to  know that you were going to be there no matter what they did, they are going to get the same reaction out of you.”

At the high school level, across town on the South Side — a high school teacher feels similar to Ms. Jones. 

Mr. Washington, who has had his battle with keeping a positive outlook, discussed the top reasons he became a teacher.

He said equality was the first reason. “I believe that all kids deserve an equal and just education. Community plays a major role in giving back to my community. I grew up in Humboldt Park but I don’t teach in Humboldt Park, I teach in South Shore because this is my community. I live and teach here. I have roots here. I think that’s important.”

Washington feels that having hope that things would get better for students that may have the decks stacked against them is important.

“Hope for the future. The reason I teach high school students is because some people give up on young adult students. They think, ‘If they don’t have it by now, they are not going anywhere.’ I think that’s their attitude especially for inner-city kids. They’re not going to make it or they’re a lost cause. I don’t believe that.”

Having attended a major top 10 university, his goal was to become an attorney until he was persuaded to work with Teach America. Teach America trains college students to become certified teachers. Although the program has come under scrutiny for its high turnover rate, it was there that Washington was placed to work with grade-school students on the East Coast.

Mayor Gets Blame

Barbara Byrd-Bennett the Chief Executive Officer of  CPS.  with Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Barbara Byrd-Bennett the Chief Executive Officer of CPS. with Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Having worked within the CPS system for close to 10 years, Washington is a tenured teacher working under the constraints of new evaluations and longer hours with no additional pay.

Some feel the system that is in place was a work-in-progress before Mayor Rahm Emanuel entered office.

“It started with Mayor Daley, but we just didn’t see it. He was as open with what he was doing with his vision for education. With Rahm, he’s made it very clear. His mission is to dismantle the union and privatize education. He wants there to be choice for parents, but this means no public schools in the way that we know public schools to be.” 

With the clock ticking, the anxiety is there among the teachers and administrators who also have their children enrolled in Chicago Public Schools. This would also impact the loss of financial contribution to many households.

Ms. Jones concurs with Washington’s sentiments. “I’m on a team of more than six women. They go home and they all have families. I don’t know how those women do it. How do you say it’s okay to not pay the teachers, not give us raises or not compensate us for our education?” She pauses, frustrated but stern. Having worked in corporate America prior to teaching, she feels strongly about the lack of equality among men and women in education.

As a teacher, it’s important that the public understand there are many teachers who care a great deal about their students and are torn between leaving the classroom or making a stand.

“I don’t want to strike. So, from a personal standpoint, this is something that I wrestle with daily.” She says, “I’m also very realistic if this was any other business, especially any other male-run business, this would not be a problem — people don’t talk about that much. This is a female-dominated industry except at the very top. If they are not going to give us what we need and what we deserve, then yes, that’s what we need to do. We need to fish or cut bait.”

Feeling similar on moving forward with a strike in mid-October hangs heavy on Washington, who has discussed other alternate forms of income with his wife — also an educator in another school district.

“I feel forced to strike because I can see the pitfalls of these issues. There is a little bit of a divide between the old and the new regime. Is it going to change a whole lot? No, I think we’ll get a little, but we’ll be giving up a lot,” He said, “It’s sad. Striking isn’t going to change everything. We’re striking just to get an inch. We may get one or two concessions out of the whole thing.”

Living in the community where he works is a bittersweet pill because he is searching for other forms of employment as memories of 2012 haunt him.

“If I get something, I’m out. That’s sad for the kids because the system is broken. I don’t feel like going through this again.” 

As we conclude with getting an up close and personal perspective from real teachers who currently work at CPS area schools, it comes down to the connection between the teacher and their students.

Ms. Jones said, “That moment when you see that kid get it. It’s that moment you get the note from that parent who said, ‘My kid never says anything about school and my kid is not feeling well, but he had to come to school because he wasn’t going to miss your class. When the kid doesn’t have any friends, sit down and start talking to somebody about whatever it is you’re working on and you’ve allowed that conversation to happen by providing a safe place. It’s that moment when you sit and cry with the kid because you’re the only one that kid trusts.”

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