Memo from Chicago: We Stood Up to the Bullies, But the Fight Isn't Over


The nine-day strike of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) ended last month with a decisive victory against Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his drive to impose the corporate school deform agenda on the public education system. Around the country, teachers, students and everyone who cares about education justice have been inspired by the showdown in Chicago.

On October 6, some 120 people attended a forum looking back on the struggle, titled, "The Revolution Will Not Be Standardized: What the CTU Strike Teaches Us About How to Fight for a Better World." Among the featured speakers at the forum was Kirstin Roberts, a preschool teacher and member of the CTU. Here, we publish her speech.

I began teaching in 2006. My first jobs were at social service agencies, contracting with Chicago Public Schools to provide preschool on the cheap. These were non-union, very low benefits, very long working hours, high staff-turnover jobs.

They were also jobs working with some of the poorest and highest-needs kids in the city--kids with HIV, foster kids, kids with histories of extreme abuse, kids with cognitive and physical impairments.

This combination--kids with the greatest needs getting the least-experienced and worst-compensated teachers--is of course, no coincidence. This is education policy in the richest country on Earth.

One of the great contributions of the Chicago Teachers Union strike of 2012 is that this realization about our public education system--and how the education deformers are transforming teaching into a short term, lower-skill, lower-wage job--is now being discussed not by a few people, but by millions.

I started working in the Chicago Public Schools in January 2010. The timing of this was significant. A month after starting my job, an article in the Chicago Tribune identified the neighborhood where my school is located as having the second-highest home foreclosure rate in the city.

The impact of this social crisis is felt in our classrooms every day--children whose families have lost their homes suffer profoundly, and they bring this suffering with them to school.

This shows up in a thousand different ways, from minor behavior problems resulting from anxiety to what can only be described as depression. At work, we refer to them as the recession babies--children born in the last five years to moms and dads who have been laid off, lost their homes and who have all the so-called "personal" problems that result from this kind of economic devastation.

Billionaire hedge fund managers or hotel heiresses take particular glee in lecturing teachers for using poverty as an "excuse" to explain away a "culture of failure" we've created through our ineptitude and selfishness. It's interesting that responsibility for the greatest economic downturn since the 1930s--a crisis created by bankers and Corporate America's insatiable greed--isn't something they're willing to embrace.

There is no cottage industry of well-funded think tanks lecturing financiers regarding the culture of failure inside investment banks. There are no politicians screaming for accountability and merit pay for CEOs.

Instead of taking responsibility and preaching sacrifice for themselves, they instead look for creative new ways to divert public funds into their private coffers--through privatization schemes like charter schools, through taxpayer-funded bailouts, through "job creation incentives" (which rightfully should be called welfare for the rich)--thus further robbing the public schools of the resources we so desperately need.

Robbing the poor to pay the rich, and then having the nerve to blame the poor and the people who teach them for the very conditions the rich created--this is education policy in the richest country on Earth. The Chicago Teachers Union strike, I believe, has made an important contribution of pushing these crimes into the public spotlight as well.


Yesterday at school, we ran out of hand soap. We took the children to the bathroom, and as they lined up to wash their hands, we realized our pump soap was running out. My heart sank because I knew that I had no more soap in my supply locker.

This is a small thing, a minor thing, but it's also a big thing. See, we aren't provided soap in the bathrooms at our school. There isn't room in the budget. We beg our parents to donate soap to us, or we buy it out of our measly supply budget, or we pay for it out of pocket. It's hard to explain, but these are the daily, petty failures that add up over time.

The message becomes so clear: You and your students aren't worth it. If nobody had soap--if there was a worldwide soap shortage--then it wouldn't hurt. But it's obvious that some people's children will always have clean hands, and so much more.

Some people's children will go to schools with seven full-time art teachers; some children will go to school with none. Some children will go to schools where student-to-teacher ratios are 9-to-1, and some children will go to kindergarten with 42 5-year-old friends and one teacher.

Some children will get world languages, social workers and counselors, iPads and music class, libraries, recreational activities, and beauty and joy. And some children simply will get tested, and tested again and again, as they sit in cold classrooms all winter and stifling classrooms during the spring and summer.

It's not hard to guess whose children get the things that make school worthwhile and enriching, and whose children don't. Again, this is education policy in the richest country on Earth. The greatest contribution of this strike is highlighting for all to see this injustice being perpetrated upon our children.

This strike alone couldn't solve this injustice, but by asserting that all children deserve what Rahm Emanuel's and Penny Pritzker's children get, we have contributed to the building of a movement that, in no small measure, will be able to mobilize the kind of power necessary to tackle these inequities.


Now I want to talk about that power.

When it became clear over the last year that members of the CTU needed to prepare ourselves to strike, I was very nervous. In the building where I work, there was plenty of built-up anger and frustration, but most often, this was expressed through anxiety, people blaming themselves--and sometimes parents and coworkers--and cynicism.

I had a hard time imagining how this could change. I didn't feel powerful, but I was certainly aware of the power of the media and politicians and billionaires who were out to get us. At our first schoolwide parent meeting last year, our principal screened the teacher-bashing propaganda film Waiting for "Superman" for our school community. Talk about feeling under siege.

So we started by wearing red on Fridays--that is, a few of us started wearing red. I have to admit that in those first several weeks, I didn't wear a union T-shirt--just a red shirt that I hoped would be seen as just a coincidental fashion choice by my principal.

But then a few more started wearing red, and we had a couple small-but-okay union meetings, and we started to talk to each other about what was happening in our school system and in our school, and we started to share articles taking on the lies of the school deformers, and we began to get prepared.

It wasn't a smooth or exactly exciting process, but a necessary one. Power--meaning our confidence to stand up for ourselves and our students--was being built, teacher by teacher, conversation by conversation, T-shirt by T-shirt.

But the real test of course, was the strike itself. Truth be told, I hit the picket lines at 6:30 a.m. on day one of the strike exhilarated, but also scared out of my mind. Would my coworkers and colleagues around the system stand strong? Would I? Most importantly, would the rest of Chicago stand with us?

About an hour into the picketing, most of my fears--as well as my hearing--were gone. The honking from the passing cars--filled with workers on their way to jobs, some of them scrambling to drop their kids off at hastily arranged child care--was deafening.

Then the homemade tamales and boxes of doughnuts began arriving from our parents. They stood with us. They stood with us because they knew we were fighting to defend the right to a decent public education for their kids. But more than that, they stood with us because we were standing up to the same bullies that had caused so much misery for so many for so long.

The outpouring of solidarity was matched by an outpouring of creativity on the picket lines and at the mass protests every afternoon. Teachers and staff who had long been stifled and forced to deliver rote lessons designed solely for test preparation began to paint and dance and sing their struggle.

Some of the teachers who had voiced the most reluctance about the strike in my building became the most vocal and outspoken chanters on the picket line. The imagination and the confidence unleashed during this strike gives us a tiny glimpse of the power of human creativity that can--and someday will--be utilized to transform our schools into places of true learning and development.

Lastly, in this discussion of power, I have to mention the last two days of the strike, when we went back to the picket line--despite looming threat of an injunction and despite the ridicule from the press--to talk and analyze and debate the tentative contract. These were not exuberant or joyous discussions, but serious and thoughtful ones that illuminated for this one-party city what real democracy in action could look like.

Without this kind of democracy and ownership of our strike and its results by the membership of this union, we would have little power. But with it, we built the sort of knowledge, collectivity and consciousness necessary for the next round of the fight.

And as we all know, round two is coming. And we must prepare and grow stronger than we were in round one because their side is also drawing lessons, planning and preparing.

Round two is shaping up to be the battle over school closures. Rumors are swirling, but one thing is certain: CPS plans more closures and turnarounds of "failing schools" than we've ever seen before. As we enter into this next fight, it's more important than ever that we don't lose sight of the significance of what we're fighting for.

On that note, let me quote from a letter the staff at my school sent home to our families when we returned from the strike:

We fought for the belief that all students can learn and deserve high quality public education. We fought for the right to safe, healthy, well-maintained school buildings. We fought for class size reduction because the number of students per teacher does make a difference. We fought to stop excessive student testing.

We fought for more social services that our students need. We fought for equal investment and funding for all schools, for equality and equity in education. We fought for an end of poverty and violence that so many of our students struggle with every day. We also know that we must continue to stay committed to the realization of these beliefs and rights.

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