Chicago Teacher’s Strike: Swat Alumni Talk Picket Lines and Politics

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Chicago Public School students returned to school last Wednesday after a 10-day standoff between Chicago Teacher’s Union representatives and city officials regarding salary, teacher evaluations, and class size. Among the teachers striking last week were two Swarthmore alumni working in Chicago public schools.

The strike has been largely depicted in media outlets like The New York Times as a source of confusion for Chicago residents as they scrambled to secure emergency childcare and for teachers who weren’t entirely sure what they were striking for.

For Jake Baskin ’10 and Kara ’12 (who asked The Daily Gazette not to disclose her last name), the strike was, while disruptive, an opportunity to bring some of the ongoing problems within American urban schools (like lack of resources) into the public sphere while demonstrating the deep sense of community and pride that students and their parents associate with the schools.

Both alumni came to work in the Chicago Public School system through Teach for America (TFA), a national program which places young teachers in high-need schools across the country for a minimum of 2 years. Kara said she landed at her school “through some great shuffling of the cards.” Of her experience there so far, she said “I feel so lucky to be at my school. My colleagues are incredibly supportive, inspiring teachers and coworkers.”

Baskin had similarly warm words for his school. In fact, he said he enjoyed working at the selective enrollment school (meaning students take an entrance exam) so much, he decided to remain after his original 2-year TFA contract expired and is now entering his third year teaching Computer Science.

After the strike began last week, Baskin said he and other union members received daily email updates about protest plans for the next day. He and his colleagues began picketing outside the school they work at, but were later relocated to one of the schools the union left open for half-days.

According to Baskin, the biggest concern among the faculty at his school seemed to be teacher evaluations. For Baskin, this is a critical issue because “a lot of media outlets have made it seem as though CPS teachers do not want to be evaluated, [and] at my school this couldn’t be further from the truth.”

The discrepancy lies in how teachers will be evaluated. Many feel the emphasis on standardized testing is too great.

“There does not appear to be any research showing that this is a good proxy for measuring effective teaching, [and] there are a number of subjects, like CS, that are not covered by standardized tests,” Baskin said.

While Baskin and his colleagues had their regular email updates, they found out about negotiation progress through Twitter.

“With a union of 26,000, as soon as they told us they were essentially telling the general public anyways,” he said.

The sheer mass of the organization eventually required that the city shut down major streets where marches were taking place, and that the teachers themselves had to be creative to make their message stand out. By the fifth day of demonstrations, Baskin and his colleagues were “showing off our nerdy sides.” Baskin said he made a picket sign in binary, and the math teachers reportedly boasted equally “dorky” slogans.

While picketing at her school, Kara, a first year biology teacher, estimated that 95 percent of people driving by would honk or roll down their windows to voice their support.

“Feeling the overwhelming support from people who understand where our kids are coming from was an inspiring experience [that helped me] feel closer to the community where I teach,” Kara said.

As far as the actual efficacy and results of the strike, both Baskin and Kara have mixed feelings. Baskin says the most profound impacts of the strike have been regarding broader issues that weren’t directly on the table, probably because they are not matters on which the city is required to negotiate such as ballooning class sizes and lack of resources.

“The strike, at least for a short period of time,” he said, “has brought the questions of poverty and inequality into the discussion in Chicago.”

These larger questions are hard to pin down and were not explicitly made priorities in the negotiations, but are critical parts of the ongoing school-reform debate. Both alumni cited the insufficient numbers of social workers and school nurses as symptoms of the district’s poverty that affect their students daily.

Kara said students will continue to feel the impacts of the school system’s lack of resources.

“[The new contract] only commits to address these issues if more funds arise, which seems highly unlikely,” Kara said. As a new teacher, Kara said she is still trying to figure out where she fits into the discussion of how to close achievement gaps through teacher contracts, but she said the strike has been a good opportunity to ask herself those questions.

Although neither alumnus is completely satisfied with the results of the new contract, both spoke with a sense of hope about their work going forward. For them, the systemic problems remain complicated and far from solved, but they headed back to work this week reaffirmed by support and assurance from their students and communities.

– photo courtesy of Mother Jones

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