09/20/2012 10:51 am ET Updated Nov 20, 2012

Whose Schools? Our Schools!

Let me begin with a confession: I am a school dropout. In spite of having a BA and an MA, I dropped out of teaching, not once, but twice in my career. The first time I dropped out was just after graduating with a degree (and teaching certificate) in English and a minor in Education. During my sole job interview, the Superintendent (of an East Coast urban district which recently failed spectacularly) told me he didn't "want any fancy college ideas." Since I went to college to get fancy ideas, a.k.a "an education," I opted for an alternative paid internship working at a museum with inner city kids.

After almost 20 years successfully working as an educator in museums and school residency programs, I returned to classroom teaching. My team, along with our principal and superintendent, used a school-within-a-school model to create a program which decreased drop out and truancy rates, increased test scores on standardized tests by two grade levels on average along with increasing parent participation, and which incorporated the arts, computer aided design and math and science in an integrated curriculum. Like many teachers, I only lasted five years.

Why did I drop out again? Because of politics. The same kind of bottom line politics behind Mayor Rahm Emmanuel's, the Chicago School Board and their backers handling of the Chicago Teacher Union's positions on school change. In my case, ironically, the union at my school (which represented me as well) was a huge part of the problem. They opposed our innovations, claiming they were designed to violate negotiated teacher hours, but in the hallways and the school bathrooms, you could hear the sad, disgusting actual reason for their opposition -- they really didn't care if our kids succeeded, and they refused to believe that we could make a difference in spite of twice a year testing, statistical analysis and just plain facts.

In the 10 years since I dropped out, teacher unions have changed. The reason the CPS strike went into a second week is because the union leadership and the representatives wanted the time to share the multi-page, three-year contract with the teachers directly. In the old days, teachers would have been told how to vote. Today, they are part of the process. This is one of several facts that the mayor and the school board seem unaware of or unwilling to accept. The teachers want (and deserve) to be part of the decision making.

As a drop out, I have huge admiration for any teacher, young or old, experienced or novice who hangs in there. This is the only profession where you are directly responsible for not only the academic success, but also the emotional care and support of students. You must have the ability to tell when a student is just having a bad day and when they are seriously capable of causing harm to themselves or others, and for communicating with parents, administrators and yes, the public, about your work while simultaneously figuring out a way to make sure every child has a pencil (or in high school access to a computer), every child has something to eat, and every child has your full attention.

This is the only profession where everyone -- from the bankers to mortgage brokers and financial analysts who led our country to the brink of ruin (and still receive salaries and pensions), to the editorial boards of the nation's largest newspapers -- think they know enough about the job to weigh in. Almost across the board, people misrepresent the hours teachers actually spend doing their job (there is not a teacher in the country who only works eight months a year, but this canard has been repeated over and over again); scoffing at the median salary for teachers who, in order to earn that salary, have gone for advanced degrees, spent years in the classroom and taken continuing ed classes during their so called vacations; and sneering at the request that evaluation be based on what a teacher can actually do instead of a number on a test taken at a single point in time by a student who may have had a family member shot the night before, who may have an undiagnosed learning disability, and/or who may have shown up in that teacher's classroom halfway through the year.

During the CTU teacher rally I attended last week with my daughter-in-law who teaches on the South Side, teachers chanted, "Whose schools? Our schools!" They are "our schools;" everyone who pays taxes in the city (and the state) helps to fund them; every child in a CPS school is a future citizen of the city; and every teacher deserves the respect of a decent evaluation system, reasonable class sizes and pay equivalent to that of other professionals.