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Etan Thomas Headshot

Chicago Teachers Shouldn't Have Had to Strike

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Maybe it's because my mother was a teacher for the Tulsa public school system for 27 years, but I feel connected to the teachers striking in Chicago. I remember seeing her struggle to teach in an oversized classroom with outdated books and no air conditioning. Maybe that's why I get disgusted when I see and hear the pundits characterize the teachers as being money hungry, greedy and overpaid.

I've spoken at a high school in DC where the rooms were so cold in the winter that children had to wear their coats to class. Meanwhile, down the hall, others sat in sweltering rooms because the heat couldn't be turned down. Another school I visited had a foul odor that flooded most of the building because of an overflow of sewage. A third school had buckets everywhere because each time it rained, the entire school would leak from the ceiling.

The point is, these conditions are not conducive to a healthy learning environment. And they are not conducive to a healthy teaching environment. And it's why supporting the striking teachers in Chicago is imperative.

So, what are they fighting for? It's basic: Fair teacher evaluation, limits in classroom size, better working conditions and keeping their health benefits. That doesn't sound like a ridiculous list of demands to me. They are demanding conditions that allow them to do their jobs and command authority in the classroom.

In many circles, the teachers are portrayed as greedy money hungry vultures who don't have anything to gripe about. Pundits, and the media outlets that let them talk unchallenged, have tried all week to shift public opinion. They continuously point out that teachers in Chicago earn an average of $74,839 dollars annually, inferring that the men and women who teach our children make too much money.

But this ignores the fact that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D) is hoping to roll back an already negotiated raise. Would any worker, in the public or private sector, concede to that? And despite these well known facts Rahm Emanuel called this "a strike of choice and it's the wrong choice for our children and it's not necessary"

Listening to Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney, you would think the teachers are the ones at fault for this strike. Could it be that the right really only cares about educating the kids of the 1%? And that having brand new metal detectors but old outdated books in inner city schools doesn't make them lose any sleep at night whatsoever?

Paul Ryan issued a statement showing his support for Mayor Emanuel saying, "Mayor Emanuel is right today in saying that this teacher's union strike is unnecessary and wrong."

Mitt Romney took it even further in a statement he released saying, "I am disappointed by the decision of the Chicago Teachers Union to turn its back on not only a city negotiating in good faith but also the hundreds of thousands of children relying on the city's public schools to provide them a safe place to receive a strong education [...] Teachers unions have too often made plain that their interests conflict with those of our children."

"This is not about money. It's about working conditions and class sizes that haven't changed in 35 years," said Karen Kreinik, 46, a pre-school teacher at De Diego Academy. "It's absolutely shocking to me that we have a Democratic mayor who's anti-union."

Jesse Sharkey, the union's vice president, told Reuters that teachers were trying to reach a contract with the city:

"I do think it happens to be that the issues we're facing in Chicago are the same issues that people are facing across the country," Sharkey told the news service. "Public education has become an issue that's about people's rights and people's access to a high-quality future and so we think we're fighting for good public schools here and that's something worth fighting for."

What the backlash against the teachers tells me is that we undervalue teachers and our children's public school education in America. We are accustomed to blaming children and teachers if the student's test scores are not high; but so many ignore the conditions under which our children are being taught. With this in mind, I was moved by a comment made by a good friend of mine, Nikeya Young, who is a former teacher in the Chicago public schools. In a heartfelt Facebook message she told me:

These so-called "experts" who have NEVER: taught in a CPS classroom without air conditioning, [or] spent hundreds of dollars of their own money on supplies for their classroom, [or] had to make hundreds of xerox copies of materials because there were not enough books for each child (only to be told by their administrators that they're making too many copies), [or] received NO parental support WHATSOEVER (funny how these unsupportive parents have suddenly found their "voice" since they've lost their "babysitters"), [or] spent 60% of their time being a referee, therapist, nurse, and mother/father and 40% of the time teaching due to the issues that most inner-city students bring into the classroom to please stop ...need to stop commenting on things they know nothing about.

This is the problem. We blame the teachers when the children show up unprepared. We blame the teachers when students don't perform. The least we can do is support the teachers as they try to sort through the complicated day-to-day routine of educating the future leaders of America.

Bill Cosby wrote in his book, Come On People:

The worst schools in any community are in neighborhoods where people are poor. These schools often have inferior resources, weak teachers, and low-quality courses. Affluent parents of any race, who live in cities with poor public schools, can afford to bypass the public school system altogether and send their children to private schools. School systems in most cities remain heavily segregated with high percentages of poor Black and Latino children. These poor students do not have equal educational opportunities, and there is blame enough to go around- schools, parents, and the entire community.

Mr. Cosby also wrote, "The schools need to get their acts together and start educating our children as if they mattered."

Mr Cosby, I couldn't agree with you more.

A version of this article was originally posted in The Washington Post.