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Kevin Lee commented onSend a Message of Support to Chicago Teachers

I am one of the teachers in Chicago who is on strike. Education is one of those topics on which very few people actually have knowledge, and those who are least knowledgable seem to have the most say (or yell). The number of people with first-hand knowledge who are engaged in the public discourse is depressingly low.

Teaching in an urban school district is not like what most people think. (It certainly is not like the movies — even the documentaries.) Chicago in particular is the most segregated school district in the nation and we have schools in the middle of deeply impoverished neighborhoods. I teach at a high school which is 100% (maybe 99.9%) African-American. Some of our students have very difficult lives.

As teachers, we notice signs when a student is homeless — and we buy clothes for the student. We see students who are pregnant from rape (typically a mother’s boyfriend). For many students, the school lunch is the only meal of the day. And we have a lot of students who aren’t officially homeless, but are bouncing between the couches of relatives and friends and during the school day are worrying about where they are going to sleep that night. I have had the student who is distraught one day in class because a friend was in the hospital from a shooting or killed.

I can’t even remember all the names of students in the school where I teach who have been murdered. The awful thing is that I don’t even consider the school that I work at one of the most impoverished in Chicago. At a school I worked at previously, we would often write down in our records for some of our students the name of the students’ parole officer (parole officers are easier to contact — numbers for parents are frequently disconnected).

But we teach. We teach our subjects and we teach so much more. We use expertise from our educations and our experiences and pour our blood and sweat into the classroom each day. Unlike most jobs, we don’t really get breaks. Unlike most jobs, we take work home, even after a full day of work where we have come early and stayed past quitting time. Unlike most jobs, we buy many of our own supplies. (This past weekend, I bought $50 or classroom supplies so that my students could work on a project. This is on the low end of what many teachers spend.) And unlike most jobs, the most important things of the job are not even part of the job description. We are not rewarded for the true value that we add to our students’ lives.

There are two main issues in our strike. The school district wants to eradicate the lane and step system. They want education and experience to count for nothing. Companies base pay on education and experience, and traditionally schools districts have as well — and for good reason. When you don’t teach, you don’t really see all of the things that an experienced teacher brings to the classroom. Everything looks easy. You don’t see the fight that didn’t occur at all because the experience teacher could see it before it happened and preempt it. You don’t see the student who didn’t misbehave due to subtle nonverbal cues from the teacher. You don’t see how the lesson completely changed from the lesson plan due to a student’s question and the “teachable moment” that arose (the outside observer would hardly be able to tell that the lesson was actually being extemporaneously created — it would look completely planned). Teachers with experience are the pillars of our school community and our neighborhoods. The board of Chicago Public Schools wants to throw away that experience. And somehow, they think educational achievement and degrees are worth nothing in education. I think that this is crazy.

The school board also wants to institute “merit” pay and use “merit” in our evaluations based on test scores. But how do you really measure “merit”? Do rising student test scores measure “merit”? Does this even work for the music teacher of the foreign language teachers whose subject does not even appear on standardized tests? Perhaps. But teachers receive different students every year. How do you account for differences in the students taught from year to year? How do account for students’ home life? The district has some complicated statistical model which supposedly measures the “value added” by a teacher.

But is this valid? In New York, they are trying to do this. But under this model, there have been teachers receiving wildly different numbers in the same year and wildly different numbers from year to year. If the masters of the universe cannot even properly mathematically model the value of a credit default swap on Wall Street, how can they measure the infinitely more complicated contribution that a teacher makes for her/his students in a year? This is not “merit” pay. This is random pay.

I do not want my career based on random numbers and made-up statistical models, and neither do my colleagues. If I wanted a career based on random chance, I would have never entered teaching and have instead played the lottery every day. We have seen too many times numerically illiterate administrators drive education off the rails with “data.”

Ultimately, we teachers want to be treated with dignity and respect. Chicago Public Schools is paying us for our knowledge, our skills, and our expertise. And yet they will hire outside consultants at great cost — consultants who do not know the subjects we teach and who have never set foot in a classroom. These consultants ignore what we teachers say and give great pronouncements and edicts which are expected to follow. I have a doctorate in my subject and almost two decades of teaching experience.

Why is someone who does not know my subject and who has never set foot in a classroom being allowed to dictate what I should or should not teach? The consultants and busybodies on the school board (there is not a single educator in Chicago Public School’s board — most of the members are rich multimillionaire hobbyists and dilettantes and cronies) seem to think that we teachers are the problem and if only we did exactly what they order, then the world would be right. We teachers, with our hard-won educations and our hard-won experiences, we don’t think so.

We teachers are not a monolithic bunch. Our politics don’t agree. We come from a diversity of backgrounds and hold a diversity of viewpoints. But we are united by our classroom experiences and our everyday engagement with the community. The fact that 90% of the teachers in Chicago (98% of those who voted) authorized the current strike should tell you something. We are not motivated by ideology or theory. Sometimes we are motivated by pay. But really, it is the students with whom we share our lives that really motivate us.