Teachers are not going on strike because we want to, we are going on strike because we have to. Any teacher can tell you his or her favorite place is inside the classroom with a room full of students. However the sacred process of learning is under attack and we are being put into a position where we will no longer be able to do our jobs well.
One of the major factors of an ideal learning environment is classroom size. When I first started teaching, the maximum class size for students was 26 for High School. The current contract is at 32 and the number increases every year. In physical education classes that number is 40+. As an English Teacher, I have to take into consideration the number of students I have when assigning writing. Right now, my total class load can be up to 140 students. If I collect a 3 page writing assignment from them, provide the written feedback to really help those students I am looking at 420 pages. If I spend 5 minutes on each paper, that is 2100 minutes or 35 hours worth of grading. Currently, we are provided with 50 minutes of “prep” time during the week, but that time is often spent giving one on one attention to students who need extra support (because there are too many students in the classroom) or preparing for future lessons (writing lesson plans, copying assignments or writing exams). While we work 40 hours a week, we are spending an additional 35 hours attempting to grade and that is if we give just one assignment. That 35 hours has to be subtracted from time we could be spending with our own children and spouses, time we should be sleeping, exercising or taking care of our other needs.
Additionally, most public school teachers are against the explosive increase of charter schools. There are some neighborhoods in Chicago that don’t even have a traditional public school. In order to be admitted to a charter school you have to apply and there is usually a lottery system that selects students. Charter schools can dismiss a student who misbehaves or who doesn’t follow the policies and procedures set forth by the school. Students have to do something horrendous in a public school to be expelled and even then, they are generally shuffled into an alternative school. Charter schools also have the luxury of private funding, but you have to ask yourself, are these private corporations who are dumping millions of dollars into education doing so out of the goodness of their hearts? Education is big business! We have to pay for textbooks, furniture, access to the internet, academic databases, attendance taking software, and so on & on. If more money was spent providing elementary school children with the extra support they needed, setting up technology to support student learning and investing in wrap-around resources at the High School level (school counselors, psychologists and nurses) – we’d see a change in the achievement gap.
Merit pay is another major contract issue. On the surface it sounds wonderful. Those teachers who do well should be rewarded for their achievement right? The problem is, in the city of Chicago there is a huge disparity between magnet or selective enrollment schools and neighborhood schools. Students who attend Skinner Elementary or Northside College Prep come into the door one or two grade levels ahead. They are high achieving students. So you mean to tell me that a teacher at one of those schools deserves more, when a teacher at a neighborhood school may receive students who are reading at four or five grade levels behind? You mean to tell me that the teacher who has to spend more time disciplining students to no fault of her own deserves less pay? It is my belief that the best teachers should teach at the lowest performing schools but that is usually not the case and a merit pay system where a teacher knows that her paycheck is directly connected to her student test scores is less likely to want to work at the lowest-performing schools. You will then have an even greater achievement gap. Merit pay encourages individualism, and in order to help children the last thing we need is more adult competition.
Teachers want to be included in the reform process. We have attorneys, businessmen, politicians and everyone else telling us what is best for schools and what is best for kids. We are not respected as professionals despite the fact that we are some of the most educated professionals. I had to pass three exams in order to become a teacher and I have to continue my education and show documentation that I’ve done so and recertify every four years throughout my entire career. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing because I enjoy learning but I am saying that I know my craft. I know how to help children between 6 – 12 grades learn to speak, read and write English Language and Literature. Teachers have to be included in this process of reforming public education because we know what is best for the students we see 5 days a week for 9 months out of the year. There is no teacher I know who has ever been asked by a school board, or by the government what he or she thinks it will take to improve public education.
It may be hard to wrap your mind around this idea of teachers withholding our services, but it is the last tool that we have. You don’t go into the field of education to make a lot of money, which is why money is the least of our concerns, but we cannot continue to stand by and watch this assault on public education as it is the most important tool for upward social mobility and one of the pillars of our democracy.