Wednesday, September 12, 2012

From the Trenches - a Chicago Public School Teacher, speaks by Katie Patton

So I've been getting calls, texts, emails, facebook messages from around the country asking me about the strike. After wrestling with my thoughts and beliefs I have come to some semblance of a thesis that I would like to share with you so that you can hear a more nuanced view of what exactly is going on. Feel free to share it as you wish. I realize that I do not have facts or articles to back everything up but know that I have read everything in here somewhere and could work hard to find the source if you would really like it. 

When exactly did the public slander towards teachers begin? Coworkers and I were postulating yesterday that it began with No Child Left Behind and the move towards accountability using standardized measures. There has been a slow build that now manifests itself in very public teacher hating from many parties. Unfortunately I came into the field when this was already happening so I cannot claim to know what it was ever like to have been a fully supported teacher. Of course I've always had my loving friends and family but there are still the "well you don't work all summer" jabs and the "yea well you're just a lazy teacher right?" comments that do leave a mark whether or not its seen. I myself may not be offended but my profession is. And yes its a profession. These are hard working very well educated people. When people say these things to me I always say "well if its so easy, then why don't you become a teacher?" and they always say back "oh no I could never do that." Case and point. 

But let's get to the sticking points.

Do I think teachers should be held accountable for the work they do in their classrooms? Of course. 

Do I think there are bad teachers out there who are giving the rest of us a bad name? For sure. (but I'll also point out there are some pretty horrific accountants/stock brokers/CEOs out there who manage to get away with a lot more than sitting while kids are doing work)

Do I think that we need MAJOR education reform? Without a doubt.

Do I think this is the way to do it? Absolutely not. 

For me personally, the reason I am striking is not really about the benefits and pay and hours etc, its about respect. Yes, the issues are very important for many people who are not as fortunate as me to be young and single (ha a little zing in there). Let me be clear about this: we are NOT asking for a raise. We are asking to be paid for the extra work we are doing. We are being asked to work more hours at the same pay. For mothers and fathers with children in daycare that means paying for an extra hour or two per day for daycare. When my coworker added it up she realized that she was actually working longer hours for a pay CUT. Rahm and the board are also trying to increase our class size, which is already 28 students. They want to change the wording to "appropriate" class sizes which is CPS code for "as many students as we can fit." They also want us to pay more for our benefits which obviously would result in another pay cut.

But as I said, for me, its about respect.  As I teach my students daily, if you want something you need to learn to ask nicely for it. This is the mantra in my room. Students who bully, whine, yell WILL NOT get their way and will have to deal with me. Bullying doesn't fly in my classroom and it will not fly in my life. Never once did Rahm ask the teachers, the ones doing the educating, how to fix education in this city. Never did he say "you know guys, I really appreciate your hard work. It is your work that gives our students hope. But we really don't have any money right now and I think a longer day might help. Can we try a half hour this year and see how it goes?" For me. that would have been all I needed to work a longer day. Obviously that's simplifying the issue but HE NEVER EVEN TRIED IT because he wants us to know that he could care less about us. 

More importantly, this lack of respect for teachers is what is causing the education crisis. Here is a list of things that are currently popular in education reform: standardized testing, merit based pay for teachers, longer school day. NONE of these things have been empirically shown to be effective. In fact most of them have been empirically shown to be INeffective. The United States has a long school day than most first world countries, yet our scores are some of the lowest. Clearly extending the day even further isn't going to solve anything. See the article below for reasons why standardized testing and merit pay are questionable at best. The countries that are exceeding in education are countries that highly value public education and its teachers. In fact the only thing that seems to be proven time and time again is that a student's teacher will determine their success in school (see the second article below and there are many more on the topic).

Maybe I'm egotistical or narcissistic, but I believe that my job is invaluable. I fully believe that the only chance for the success of this country is an educated populace. Clearly there are people out there who want the opposite, i.e. for-profit prisons, corporations who need public ignorance in order to sell their shitty products, etc. and so it is my job to work even harder. 

But imagine the environment in which I work. I get to work at 7:15 and start to prepare for the day. I am called down to a meeting with an angry parent because remember, in this day and age, its always the teachers fault. I pick up my students trying to push away the attack I just felt. I spend hours working as hard as I can to teach them. Around 10 am I really need to go to the bathroom but I can't until 11 when its lunch time. So I start learning not to drink water so that I won't have to go to the bathroom. Around 10:30 I am really hungry but I can't eat until lunch time. At noon the child in my room with autism starts to bang his head against the wall out of frustration and I have to leave my other 30 students to help him. At 1 pm the student in my class with ADD and anger issues starts arguing with the student next to him about a pencil. At 2 pm I'm informed that the computer teacher is absent and I will have my students for another hour with nothing planned. Finally, at 3 pm the school is on lock down because someone just outside the building was shot. This is not a stressful day, this is a typical day. The stressful day is the next day in which my students will be going to a computer lab to be tested. A test that will be tied to my name and potentially my pay in the future. Now imagine on top of that I go home to read an article about how teachers don't care about their students. On Saturday I'm asked to go to a training for a new initiative that will never be actually used but I will be forced to waste my time and brain power on it.

And on Monday Rahm Emmanuel thinks he knows better than I and suggests a longer school day for no more money. Wouldn't you strike?

Then on Tuesday, Rahm unveils his 25 million dollar contingency plan in anticipation of a strike. Money that, you know, could have been used to pay us the wages we asked for and alleviate the need to strike in the first place.

In sum, I am striking for the future of education in this country. I am striking to stand up for the respect that teachers around me deserve and the respect that will create teachers who are able to perform their best. I am striking because I refuse to give in to bullying and succumb to public slander. Most importantly, I am striking because if I don't stand up for what is best for my students, who will? 


Further Reading    This one is about the inadequacy of test scores.

To schedule a reading or an appearance please contact Ofer Ziv at Blue Flower Arts at 845-677-8559 or email

Monday, September 10, 2012

What Education Reform and the Chicago Teachers' Strike tell us

What Education reform and the Chicago Teachers’ Strike tells us.

Here’s a story:  For the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, which became the home of the Miracle on Ice, where the United States finally beat the U.S.S.R. in hockey to win the gold medal, the Olympic village was built a few miles away in Saranac Lake.  Rumor or legend has it, that given the opportunity to turn the Olympic Village into either a University or a prison, post Olympics, that the community chose a prison – for the jobs, presumably.   This is 1980, remember, and the War on Drugs has not yet been declared.  Indeed, it is two years before that war is declared and a few more before the crack epidemic hits the streets of urban America.  The Rockefeller Drug laws begins carting young men (mostly from the streets of New York) to face long prison terms over what is often no more than possession for personal use.  By the time I land in New York in 1987, we know when brothers say they were gone ‘upstate’ for a minute, that is code for having done a bid.  By the time Notorious B.I.G. releases his first album ‘Ready to Die’ in 1994, most black New York boys recognize the album’s early reference to C-76, a cellblock on Riker’s Island.  At one point, New York State boasts more prisons per capita than any other state in the union.  The absurdity of the Rockefeller Drug Laws having been brought to bear, the NY prison population has actually fallen by about 20 percent in recent years, but for an entire generation of young men, the damage has been done.  Further, this type of story is not germaine to New York State.  It has been a reality throughout the United States – skyrocketing prison populations between the 1970s and now, such that we outstrip every other developed country in the world (by far) in the percentage of our population incarcerated.  The vast majority are Black and Latino.  For quite a while, many states decided how many new hospital beds needed to be built, how many new hospitals, based on standardized test scores from 3rd grade, or 8th grade or 5th grade, or something equally preposterous.  In an age of prison explosion and the privatization thereof, our state apparatuses were planning, not on how to keep their youth out of jail, but on how to house them when they got there.

Education activists and teachers toil long hours trying to effect change in education policy.  There are many different theories abut how to ‘rescue’ the youth whose education, just about everyone can agree, is woeful.  Brilliant teachers find ways to actually educate even in the midst of every regulation designed seemingly to thwart that.  I speak to teachers everyday, and the lament is consistent – there are things we want these students to learn, ways in which we want them to be educated, that we cannot work on because standardized testing and /or restrictions on what we’re allowed to teach prevent teaching and learning of critical thinking skills.  Many of these teachers work ridiculously long after-hour extra-curricular activities that they hope provide some of what they don’t get to do in the class.   Further, these teachers in urban classrooms especially are finding that the massive disparity in resources available in their districts, as opposed to suburban (read: mostly white) districts, means that they’re consistently trying to produce a student who can compete on the next level, with less than half, less than quarter the resources available in other places.  Throughout the country, conservative thinking politicians have made this an excuse to gut public education – not transform, but gut.  The ambitious, beautiful experiment; the idea that a country is made stronger by educating its citizenry is paid much lip service as education is turned over bit by bit to the private sector.  We’ve always been aware that we were being educated so as to be a workforce, so as to produce the ideas that build well… the most powerful nation on Earth.  Seems like that idea has been modified some.  Apparently we no longer need big critical ideas.  We need folks who will do/facilitate the work that will help multi-national corporations get larger and larger.  What it appears we no longer need is the sort of system in which an education might lift up or God-forbid, enlighten a working class across the lines already set up to divide it.  So public education is going the way of all things.

It is important to understand that as we examine the rhetoric around the Chicago teachers’ Union strike which began today.  Rahm Emanuel et al have done a marvelous job (with the media’s help) of painting the teachers as unreasonable, as callous, greedy loafers who don’t care about the children and just do this as a job for which they want to be paid handsomely.  They will not tell you that the majority of teachers stay after school and involve themselves in after-school programs, or at some point have had to drive children home, or to the hospital, or to the poetry slam, or coach debate or chess or football – you get the picture.  They tell you it is about bigger class sizes and longer school days which teachers are too lazy to do, but they don’t tell you that the teachers are mostly already working those hours and they certainly don’t tell you that one of the biggest sticking points is about the attempt to introduce merit pay for teachers – a system in which a teacher’s salary is determined by the success of the students. 

There is no theory of education that suggests that this is a good idea, even if the magical circumstance existed, in which the playing field is level across all regions, classes, housing zonings etc.  There is just no way that the full intellectual and human possibility of a student can be held hostage to the salary of those providing the instruction.  This is but one of the big ideas being wrestled with in these negotiations.

In Englewood, on Chicago’s South Side for instance, students in High School there can all tell you about someone whom they know who’s been killed, and or imprisoned.  There are schools there without a school nurse or a varsity team of any kind, or a gymnasium.  Teachers are being asked to ensure that these students succeed in environments in which they absolutely cannot, and every year the education budgets get cut and cut again.  That education is as segregated as it was before Brown vs Board of Education is not even a subject that those in authority want to discuss.  To discuss that is to admit that we are broken; that an overhaul of the ways in which we think about education and the people who provide it, and how we equip them to provide it is necessary.

This is the fight being undertaken across the country that finds symbol now in the Chicago Teachers’ Union strike.  2012 has been the year of suppressing unions as a whole, and this struggle is no different, but here’s the bad news.  Those of us who see ourselves as education activists begin with the notion that we all want the same thing.  We begin by assuming too often that everybody wants our young people to be the best they can be.  I mean, who wouldn’t want such a thing?  Who doesn’t want to see the next generation across the board achieve the American dream?  We appeal to the authorities because we believe that if we can get them to see our arguments, that we will begin the process of positive education transformation.  We couldn’t be more wrong.

Let’s go back to prison:  The Corrections Corporation of America, the largest such company in the country boasts a war chest of $250 million and sits on the New York Stock Exchange.  It sent letters to 48 states offering to buy their prisons outright.  The corporation insists on a guarantee that the prisons be kept at least 90percent full so as to ensure their profit margin.  The world’s largest private prison corporation is banking on a weakened economy to keep afloat a business that they see as being threatened.  After all, crime has dropped significantly in the last 20 years.  Still the prison population grows as these private massas still need bodies to fill their neo-slave needs.  This is not to even begin on the actual corporations who contract with these larger private corporations for the 93 cents a day workforce, to which they’ll have access.

Our politicians and corporations already know the relationship between a lack of education and imprisonment.  In fact they count on it.  The 3rd grade test scores tell them.  We’re not about to convince them of anything.  And this cynicism towards the education of our youth finds its way in to the treatment of our teachers.  Whether or not we have children, we need to understand that their education is all our concern and that the authorities don’t intend to get it done.  We have to recommend books to the children we know.  We have to volunteer with youth organizations and sport teams.  We have to engender in our youth the sort of critical skills that they might use to transform themselves and their peers.  And we must support the teachers and tell politicians that this is not the place at which you push back against the intellectual, monetary and physical resources to which OUR children should have access.  They won’t just see the right thing to do.  We have  to stay in the streets – make them do it, anyway.

To schedule a reading or an appearance please contact Ofer Ziv at Blue Flower Arts at 845-677-8559 or email