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Union Prez: "CPS Teachers Are Terrified"

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In this blackboard jungle, Chicago Public School teachers are catching spears on all sides, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis tells me.

Truthfully speaking, the Chicago Teachers Union and the Board of Education were never really into playing nice for the cameras. When there was a dispute, John Q. Public knew about it; the on-camera melee would continue for days, as the teachers dubbed the contract negotiations insulting and the Board of Ed dubbed the teachers spoiled.

But the Chicago Teachers Union always had a hold card--the teachers' strike--and sooner or later the issues would be resolved.

As ugly as it used to be, those were the good ole days. These are different times, indeed, and the state's record budget crisis has opened old wounds and inflicted new ones. These days, the Board of Ed and Mayor Richard M. Daley have the hold-card.

Lewis tells me, "What John Q. Public doesn't know is that teachers are terrified. Everyone is afraid. There was a time that if a principal told you something that was pedagogically incorrect, you would stand up, you would say, "Are you kidding? No, this isn't going to work, this is what works."

Lewis continues: "People do not respect our professional judgment. They don't believe that we know what we're doing, so we've got this set-up where principals come in and say, 'It's my way or the highway, and, 'you need to go.'"

One of society's more degrading sentiments about teachers--"those who can, do; those who can't teach"--is very prevalent, Lewis adds. "Think about how people are rewarded; the farther you are from kids, the greater your salary. And in 'our' culture, you must be smarter or better if you're making more money and that mentality is there."

Lewis argues that this disrespect of teachers is deeply ingrained in the Chicago Public Schools System.

"We have principals who have been in the classroom for less than three years and they get out because now, to stay in the classroom and to have a career in teaching, or to have a passion for teaching, you're looked down upon. You must not be any good because if you were, you would have gotten out of the classroom."

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The former King High School chemistry teacher seemed genetically predisposed to take the helm of the $28 million office and lead the fight for its 30,000 members; her parents, Martha and Geoffrey Jennings, were educators.

Lewis, a Dartmouth graduate (class of '74), didn't initially plan to become a teacher. "I flunked out of medical school, at the U of I," she says. "So my parents said, 'why don't you sub until you figure out what you're going to do?' And I started subbing until I got my education hours so that I could teach chemistry, because that's what I loved."

Today, Lewis concedes it's frustrating not knowing how many teachers will be affected by the job cuts. "It changes everyday. Wouldn't it be nice to know this? I've seen numbers as low as 1,200 to numbers as high as 2,700. That's what I'm looking at."

To make matters worse, teachers who are fired may not report it to the union. "Some are so devastated by this, some are so embarrassed by this, because again, what they want is public humiliation of teachers...'so we're going to get rid of the unsatisfactory teachers.'"

Term-limits for teachers?

But the conspiracy is even deeper than random pink slips; Lewis believes that the teaching profession, as a whole, is quietly being refigured with career time limits in place.
Lewis states: "The overall plan is to destroy teaching as a career. The plan quite frankly is for people to come in and work for five or six years, and then leave because this profession is so hard, you can't do it well for twenty or thirty years. So we should be getting in a fresh crop of young, smart people. This is what we're doing now."

A few weeks ago, Karen Lewis and her mother had dinner with other retired CPS schoolteachers. It was an occasion that simultaneously made her feel sad about the current plight of Chicago teachers, and emboldened to put up a good fight: "The one thing I can say about myself is that I'm fearless when it comes to certain things; absolutely fearless. It's easy to be fearless when you know you're doing the right thing."

What do you think the CPS system will look like in five years?