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Liz Ryan Headshot

Why I Don't Support the Chicago Teachers

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It is a horrible thing to say, I suppose -- "I don't support the teachers." What I mean is that right now, in the middle of a teacher's strike that is keeping 400,000 children out of schools in Chicago, I can't take the teacher's side.

That doesn't mean that I don't support teachers, teaching, and above all, kids. I have five kids in public schools (not in Chicago). I am a big fan of teachers, classrooms, principals and schools. I spend time at my kids' four schools every week if not every day. I've been a Band mom, a choir mom, and a school mom of every imaginable type in the 52 kid-years I've spent being a mother of K-12 students. I see how hard [some] teachers work. I've seen what can happen when a kid who's struggling and a great teacher get together, and it's a tremendous thing. I think that sparking those connections is the purpose of school. I hate standardized tests and everything I've heard about how teachers might be evaluated, but that doesn't mean I want to say Not Happening and shut down the conversation. I want to say "What's possible? What are we after -- blue sky version -- and how can we shift old frames to get there?"

I'm not happy with school, or with the state of teaching, right now.

There are amazing and inspired (not to mention inspiring) teachers everywhere, so I don't doubt that the Chicago Public School system has plenty of them. The problem for me is not that teachers don't work hard or give a tremendous amount to the kids. I'm certain that most of them do. The thing that keeps me from taking the teachers' side in this ugly strike is the disappointment I feel that hundreds of teachers in Chicago -- or close to four million teachers, if you enlarge the lens to include every public school teacher in the U.S. -- can't accomplish what they want to accomplish in another way.

I sat on our local school superintendent's budget advisory committee a couple of years ago, when the tough news from the states (no money for schools!) was starting to trickle down to local districts. In our committee meetings, we talked about programs. We talked about sports. We talked about cost-shifting to students and their parents. The one thing we never talked about was teachers -- who's good and who's not, how teacher pay stacks up to anything (apart from years in the classroom and years of continuing education, the two factors with zero correlation to a teacher's ability to teach or passion for the profession), or any topic remotely touching on the issue of teachers and their saintliness and it-goes-without-saying underpaid status. Those items were not on the table, and never discussed. The song blaring from the invisible loudspeakers in the room throughout the many months of discussion was "Teachers and their pay and benefits, their job descriptions and the nature of teaching, are all unmentionable topics."

I'm not talking about union contracts in place that couldn't be easily changed - I would understand why those topics wouldn't be the most useful ones to talk about. I'm talking about long-term planning, mid-term, shifting items around, you name it -- the message in the room was "We're just not going to go there, period." I saw the grid of teacher compensation 'steps' from new grads to retirement-age teachers, and I was appalled. What!? You can't enter teaching in mid-career, as a practical matter, because you'd be giving up whatever job you had (and going back to school for teacher certification, not that that has a shred of relevance to actual classroom teaching) for 30-something-thousand a year. What mid-career professional of any type would do that? How come that glaring anachronism wasn't on the table, and isn't on the table in general, all the time, when teachers negotiate contracts?

Could it be that teachers want to protect the broken, 19th century, "start a teacher out of school and stay a teacher until you retire" system? That system, with its built-in steps and absent requirement that teachers grow as people and educators throughout their careers, doesn't help kids. That system keeps passionate and talented non-teachers out. My husband has a K-9 teaching degree, and he remarks often on how useless his courses were. He graduated in 1995, and heard not a word about emotional intelligence, or non-rote learning. He heard about lesson plans and tons of other how-to tips, as long as the how-to a new teacher is curious about is the one called How To Do What's Always Been Done.

Pathological aversion to change, on the part of a person, a union or an institution, is more than bureaucratic: it's fear-based and hidebound and wrong. I don't want that behavior to be a role model for my kids or any kids. I want to teach kids to erase the whiteboard and decide how things should work, design something smart and nimble and tuned to real needs, and make that blueprint come to life.

I teach my kids to stay in themselves and try to pick the soft, rather than the hard-shell approach, when they can. I teach them that hostility and fear are two sides of the same coin, and that people who can't soften and take another person's point of view are hindered as surely as someone with a physical challenge. Teachers know that kids need to learn that lesson, don't they? If so, how could "See how well the schools function without us" be a rallying cry?

Teachers union reps say "We have no choice but to stand firm. The district is tough on us, and we have to be tough back." I don't agree. I feel sad for teachers, mentors to kids and molders of young minds, going into the trenches and standing between a kid and an education. That action seems shockingly un-teacherlike to me.

These teachers are college-educated, brilliant and I hope self-aware and world-aware people. Contentious digging-in and bluff-calling inspires no kid and builds no community. I love what unions did for miners and factory workers in the twenties, thirties and forties. That's a far cry from supporting a teacher's strike today, in 2012. For me the notion of old-school factoryesque collective bargaining for teachers flies in the face of what we know about knowledge work, emotional intelligence, and self-actualization.

I would support my kids in anything they wanted to do, but I'd never advise them to get what they need as value creators, much less offer what they've got to give the world, through the impermeable barrier of a collective bargaining agreement. That doesn't square with what I understand a teacher's mission to be: to grow little flames, individually and collectively, until they get much bigger. To grab kids emotionally and intellectually to give them the love of learning that makes the rest of the task -- passing tests and writing thoughtful papers -- so much easier.

Teaching is broken; it is obvious. We teach kids in school much the same way George Washington learned his ABCs. We can see, at the start of the 21st century, that we don't need to line kids up in desks in rows and shove rote learning down their throats. Many great teachers reach the kids over, under and around the restrictions that the traditional teaching method creates. My fifth grader's homework tonight was all worksheets, all computational, empty of spark or humor or interest or life. My fifth-grader said "Mom, I will do this because it's required, but it's painful to me to work through these worksheets." How can I blame the kid? I can hardly look at the gnarly things myself.

We've had plenty of time, as we wring our hands year after year over public school budgets, to take a page out of the Montessori playbook, and one out of the Waldorf program. We can see that hands-on and kid-led and right-brain/left-brain learning jazzes kids up and gets them excited to learn. My friends who have switched from school-schooling to homeschooling tell me that it only takes a couple hours a day to work through the day's classwork with the kids.

Where does the rest of the public school day go? It goes to pointless stop/sort/rank exercises, assessments and tests and other CYA activities. It goes to order-keeping activities that wouldn't be an issue if the classrooms weren't so large.

I get it. Teachers' jobs are brutal. But why, in the face of unworkable and outdated methods and an inhuman work load, would teachers ever conclude "Let's hold the district's feet to the fire for 45 extra bucks a week, and call it good"? Why wouldn't they say "This thing, this education system, is broken from the get. Let's rent a conference room in downtown Chicago and build a new model from the ground up. Let's sell that model to the district and start to turn this aircraft carrier around.?" Why would they spend two seconds or two calories of energy creating a bold strategy that changes nothing, keeps teacher evaluation out of the picture and gets them a two or three percent raise? That approach is so passive it's actually, in my view, irresponsible. It's a See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Change Nothing and Give Me My Raise approach that does a disservice to kids, families and communities.

My eighth-grader asked me one day what genius decided to cram one subject down a kid's throat for 48 minutes, ring a loud bell in the kid's ear to shake him out of his stupor, and then send him down the hall for a totally unrelated 48 minutes of something else? I had no good answer to his question. I was reminded of Kurt Vonnegut's short story "Harrison Bergeron," the one where smart kids get a buzzer implanted in their heads to sound every few seconds and jar their thinking. That's middle school in America in 2012. Elementary school and high school are variations. Great things are happening here and there (integrated arts and academics here in Colorado, up north in Loveland, for instance) but the real work will be dealing with the degree of brokenness in the fundamental American K-12 paradigm. That's what the teachers union should focus on. To do less is to be part of the problem.

Teachers are the people best qualified to envision, champion and bring to life an education program that supports real life in 2012 and develops kids as learners, rather than feeding them stale information and turning them into rule-following, A-grade-chasing sheep. Teachers can be part of the solution to the problem, or they can make it worse. Digging in to force a pay increase when the need and the opportunity to rip apart and redesign education around a kid's and a society's actual needs is the opposite of vision. It's the opposite of leadership. It's sad and it's victim-y, and that's the one thing I hope my kids never learn to do from their teachers.