Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Transmission From The Front: The CTU Fight For the Future

Curt Maslanka
  Chicago Teacher 

  I will say this about myself. Many colleagues and I saw this strike coming several years ago. After Obama won the presidency in 2008, the anti-teacher rhetoric in the mainstream media skyrocketed. His campaign donors and the Gates and Walton Foundations knew he would give them the green light to scarf up as much of public education as they could in the biggest land grab since the Cherokee Strip.
  Their first line of attack was to drill into the public mind the grotesque caricature of the lazy school teacher sucking off the teat of taxpayer dollars, sheltered in his/her sloth by the powerful ,corrupt teacher’s union.
  Back then, mentioning these facts in liberal circles would go over about as well as a turd in a punchbowl. People then were just not ready to hear it.
The corporate education reformers, in their supposed egalitarian campaign to purge the country of these lazy teachers and inject free market competition into the public school, armed themselves with the buzz words of “accountability” “value-added metrics” and “data driven management,” all euphemisms for their project to transform public education, flawed as it may be, into an institution ruled by the rawest, most brutal form of capitalism. To me, merit pay based on “valued added metrics” will do this: It will pit a teacher’s strong altruistic motivation against a reptilian survival instinct. Many have criticized that teacher evaluations based on standardized test score growth will lead to “teaching to the test,” a false pedagogy which strips curriculum and instruction of any creative richness. But I think it will produce far greater harm to children. 
Teachers, by nature, are very different beings from commodities traders. We have all chosen a vocation that does not yield big bonuses and stock options; financially, we are not big risk takers. The reward that motivates the teachers I know is the thank you letter from a former student, the confirmation that we have helped improve another‘s life. To chain income and job security to student test score growth will force teachers to view students as dollar signs with either a plus or a minus sign imprinted on each of their foreheads. A student who is suffering - because a parent is unemployed, because their home was foreclosed, because they have new foster parents, because they are living in a car, because they have cancer - is a student who may perform below the prescribed growth metrics and therefore becomes a liability on the teacher’s balance sheet. That is why I say value added metrics is a perversion of the aims of education in that teachers will have to make cost benefit analyses on the neediest, most disadvantaged students in their classrooms, turning vulnerable children into hot potatoes that threaten a teacher’s livelihood.
The power of the Chicago Teachers Union’s strike lies in this harsh truth about corporate education reform and Chicago teachers’ stand against the President‘s Race To The Top policies. A strike with this degree of intensely committed and motivated rank and file has not happened in a long time.
  I am still living in the immediacy of this strike and have not yet acquired the proper distance to analyze it fully or express myself without resorting to words like “overwhelming” and “awesome.” But I can say this. It has been the most human and humane experience of my life - both on the street and on the computer. It is an event in which social media has not been an isolating phenomena but an inspiring and integrating one. On September 9th, a Sunday evening, when CTU President Karen Lewis officially announced the strike, Facebook exploded in a manner I had never seen. We were naturally frightened but also ready to take this stand. We joked with each other about the impossibility of getting a good night’s sleep. At 6:30 the next morning, when the picket lines at 600 schools across the city first formed, we started posting photos of our strike lines on Facebook as if we were sharing baby pictures. This may sound corny but in all of the “liking” we did of each other’s photos and status updates, we were embracing each other in a giant group hug, producing an even greater feeling of solidarity. Then early Wednesday morning, Rebel Diaz released the hip hop anthem” Chicago Teacher” which frames urban educators as romantic folk heroes. By Friday, you heard it everywhere.
As the week went on, strikers became more creative in forging drum corps, creating ever funnier signs, and rewriting song lyrics. Parades of dancing teachers on side walks, I know, seem to mock the tragic fact that 400,000 students have been stranded at home and I know everyone was aware of that tension. But you cannot put a cap on that kind of exuberance. When 26,000 human beings set aside personal differences to converse with each other, and support each other and stand together against the Gates Foundation‘s dystopian ideals, that is power. And no amount of advertising against the union can counter this human force. I will never forget all of the conversations with strangers on street corners, all of the trains and buses crowded with teachers in route to demonstrations, and all of the glorious waving and cheering at other red-shirted comrades. Rich human interactions made possible by the strike which, for awhile at least, dropped barriers between people.
I don’t envy the persons writing the narrative of Chicago 2012 who will have to sort through the uncountable number of photos and video clips of the picket lines and downtown demonstrations. There are too many primary source documents. I know that when I replace my android phone I would like to donate it to a labor archive because in it are all the text messages of one ordinary rank and file member to other members of the Chicago Teachers Union during this extraordinary event.


  1. What an outstanding blog post, says another teacher. Great points.

  2. Outstanding post. Great points. (from another CPS teacher...)

  3. Excellent post thank you for sharing.

    A fellow teacher :)

  4. Beautiful. We were and are all caught up in the romance, and are praying that the story ends well. But let us never forget the poor children who only make the news when they are harmed. My children snuggle safe inside the brimming walls of Payton, Lane, Bell. Every single child in every single Chicago Public School deserves the same. That is what the last 10 days have reminded me: that CPS teachers know this, breathe this and should be able to be partners at the table ensuring this.
    So as we begin to wear colors other than red and settle back into American Studies, and Mythology and World Religions and Geometry and (please) Art and Music, let us never never again leave behind the least, the smallest, the most vulnerable, and the most deserving of a quality education: the kids. All of them.


    NTFT/Local 1274 IFT

  5. That Rebel Diaz thang is too cool - very moving.