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Gregory Michie Headshot

A Strike of Choices

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So Mayor Rahm Emanuel says the Chicago Teachers Union is engaging in a "strike of choice." I'd say it's more like a strike of choices.

After all, it's rare that anything is chosen in a vacuum. Choices are made within a context, a climate, and often in response to other choices made at an earlier time.

To call what's happening in Chicago a "strike of choice" is to deny how we got to this point, to conveniently ignore the prelude of choices that came before.

Last year, when Emanuel's appointed school board rescinded the four percent raises due to Chicago public school teachers according to their contract, that was a choice.

When the mayor promised a longer school day without knowing how he'd pay for it or consulting those most affected, that was a choice.

When he pushed for a state law that would make it harder for Chicago teachers to strike, and require that teacher evaluations be based partly on student test scores, that was a choice.

And when he relentlessly praises charter schools, or backs unproven "reforms" that are widely seen by researchers and educators alike as harmful -- those, too, are choices.

All this has added up to create a tense, combustible atmosphere surrounding the city's schools. The mayor can blame teachers, but anybody who's been paying even casual attention knows the deal.

I'd been watching the situation pretty closely during the past year in my role as a professor of education. But now, thanks to a choice I made over the summer, I again have a front-row seat: I left my full-time university faculty position to return to teaching 7th and 8th graders at a Chicago public school.

I wish I could say more about how things have gone in my classroom so far, but when the strike was called, we'd only had four days of classes, and two of those were cut in half so students could take standardized tests. Still, I think it's safe to say that it's going to take some time for me to hit my stride. Last Friday afternoon, I was trying to help a group of 7th graders understand the quote, "Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire." The blank looks on some of the kids' faces spoke volumes. I was doing some pretty efficient pail-filling myself.

Of course, a lot has changed for teachers since I left CPS in 1999. I don't remember uttering the word "data" once during my previous nine-year tenure, but it's a data-driven world in schools now. Many would say that's a clear sign of how far teaching has come as a profession. Count me as a skeptic.

But some things are as I remember them. Many teachers still show up the week before their work year officially begins, spending entire days getting their rooms ready. Educators' supply stores are still full of teachers spending their own money, sometimes hundreds of dollars, on materials for their students and their classrooms. It's still common for teachers to stay at school well beyond the final bell, preparing for the next day, collaborating with colleagues, or counseling students.

And even in the uncertainty surrounding the looming strike, when it would've been easy to be bitter or distracted, teachers -- to a person, from what I saw -- made the choice to remain upbeat and hopeful, to stay focused on the kids, the work at hand. "I have a feeling it's going to be a great year," one veteran teacher told me, and others seemed to echo that sentiment with the way they approached their days.

So when Mayor Emanuel calls the current action by the Chicago Teachers Union a "strike of choice," and implies that teachers are choosing their own interests over those of their students, I take it personally. And when the Chicago Tribune's editorial board writes that the city's striking teachers "abandoned the children they say they're committed to teaching," I'm incensed. Judging from the size of the downtown rallies the past few days, I'm far from alone.

The mayor seems to think public opinion is with him, but it may be another sign that he's out of touch. Tuesday the Chicago Sun-Times reported that a survey of 500 registered voters showed that 47 percent support the teachers' strike, while 39 percent oppose it.

Out in the neighborhoods, the car-horn vote is even more lopsided. Based on three days of picketing with fellow teachers in the Back of the Yards neighborhood, I'd say the honks and hollers of support have outnumbered the thumbs-down gestures about 500 to one. And the encouragement is coming from a wide cross-section of Chicago's working and middle classes: Latinos, African Americans, whites, Asians, parents, former students, Chicago Transit Authority drivers, police officers, landscapers, plumbers, streets and sanitation crews, roofers, long haulers, and people who drive tortilla trucks, milk trucks and beer trucks too. These may not be members of the Commercial Club of Chicago, but I bet most of them vote.

The real shows of solidarity, though, came in the downtown marches and rallies. The sea of red, the common purpose, the swelling pride in the important work teachers do, the reconnections with teacher-friends who work in far-flung corners of the city. One of my favorite moments followed the march on Monday, when a large circle of teachers and their supporters formed around a group of drummers and impromptu dancers, all of us bouncing up and down and chanting to the beat, "I believe we are gonna win! I believe we are gonna win!"

It's too easy, of course, to cast this strike, or any social conflict, in terms of good vs. bad, winners and losers. But while it's not a strike of choice in the sense the mayor intended, it really is a strike about choices -- about which direction we the people want public education to go. Do we want to keep heading down the same road of more testing, more data slicing, more reforms based on a business model? Or do we want our schools to aspire to something different, something better, something more?

Tuesday morning, one of my new teaching colleagues, a first-year teacher who grew up in the neighborhood, brought her younger brother along to picket in front of a nearby school. His name is Angel. He's 10 years old and in fifth grade. For several hours he stood among us rather unassumingly, listening to the passing cars honk their approval, holding up a hand-lettered sign.

"I am in the middle of a lesson," it read.

Aren't we all.