the least that I can do

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We are now heading into Day 6 of the Chicago Teachers Union Strike, and I am tired.

Being on strike has been exhausting on just about every level. It’s physically exhausting to be on the picket line from 6:30 am – 10:30 am, then go to a rally/march in the afternoon. It’s mentally exhausting to not know when we’ll be back in school and if/when we’ll make up the lost days, and to think through all the contingency plans for where to start once we get back into the classroom (and into email and Google Drive, where my teaching life lives). And it’s emotionally exhausting to see the city’s responses to the union’s bargaining team, to hear all of the excuses, and especially to read the letter that the mayor sent to the union on Monday.

And yet, to be on strike is in one sense the least that I can do as an educator for the students of Chicago. The strike makes all of us take a stand on the issues that are being raised, and I stand with the CTU. The union is fighting for the common good. We are asking for a nurse in every school. A librarian in every school. Staffing at clinician-to-student ratios as recommended by the appropriate national organizations. A student-to-counselor ratio and limiting ‘non-counseling duties’ so that the counselors can actually do their jobs. More teacher-directed prep time so that we can actually do our jobs. And the bargaining team is making progress on these issues. It just took a teachers’ strike for the city to move.

I’ll be honest, my school has been doing just fine. I’ve spent all 7 years of my teaching career at a selective enrollment high school in Chicago, which in many ways puts me in a bubble and makes it easy to ignore what’s going on in the rest of the city. At our school’s Back-to-School night in September, a parent asked if our teachers would also be on strike if the union went on strike (also a sign of how confusing the high school system is in Chicago). Earlier in October, our CTU staff had a joint “walk in” with the SEIU workers at our school, and one of the students on the school newspaper stopped me to ask how the contract negotiations, the (at the time, potential) strike would affect our teachers and our students. The Wednesday before the strike, during the last period of the day, one of my students commented “yeah, but this strike won’t affect us that much”. And this confusion about how the contract negotiations would affect our school is understandable- we often don’t feel the effects of district-wide issues in the same ways that other schools do. When the CPS budget crisis happened a few years ago, our parent group was able to fundraise $250,000+ to cover the shortfall. Our science department budget has always been able to cover the supplies I need for labs, and I have never had to put together a Donors Choose project to fund the activities I want to do in the classroom.  We already have a full time librarian, a nurse in the school every day, 6 counselors for our approximately 2000 students (note: still a higher student-to-counselor ratio than what’s recommended by the American School Counselor Association). 

I have to remember that all of this makes us the lucky ones. And it’s absurd when I think about how this makes our school lucky, because these are things that students in other school districts take for granted. 

There are clear systemic issues affecting the youth in our city. Even in our privileged school, we have students dealing with homelessness and trauma, we see the effects of systemic racism and injustice. I have conflicting feelings about the very existence of selective enrollment high schools – I love where I work, but I also want all students in the city to have well-resourced educational experiences that doesn’t depend on how well they do on high-stakes standardized tests. But, as one of my colleagues said to our staff yesterday morning on the picket line, systemic problems require systemic solutions, and our teachers’ contract is one place to start.

I believe that education is a right, not just for the privileged. I still have individual work to do – I could have done a better job of talking about the strike with my students before it happened, I could do a better job of finding places within the science curriculum where we can discuss issues of injustice and inequity. I am tired, as are many of my colleagues. Being on strike takes “teacher tired” to a whole new level. I would rather be back in my classroom, thinking about electron configuration and periodic trends. But this strike is a time for me to literally put my money where my mouth is. So as long as it takes to get the wins our students and communities need, I will be out on the picket line. It is, after all, the least that I can do.

(semi) current events and current questions

There’s been a lot going on in the media around race lately. And I’m still trying to process what it means for me personally and what it means for me as an educator of urban students. This post might seem a little belated, but better late than never, right? Last fall, I started thinking more deeply about race, gender, and education, particularly as I am an Asian-American female science teacher. I found it interesting that this past year, none of my students brought up Laquon McDonald, the Pulse Nightclub shootings, or any of the other incidents that were in the media in my classes (or at least, in my hearing). I wonder if any of them would have talked about Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, the Dallas shooting, or the Baton Rouge shooting. I wonder how to better create a space where students can both do science and talk about how they’re being affected by current events. I wonder how to help students see that science and current events are not mutually exclusive, that science and their identities are not mutually exclusive. I wonder how to acknowledge the ways that, historically, their identities might have been devalued in science classrooms and science as a field of study.

How do I talk about any of these all-too-common current events in my classroom when we’re usually just focused on particle pictures and stoichiometric calculations? How do I get myself out of the mindset of “but there’s so much stuff we have to cover!”? I feel like silence is consent, and I do not consent to a world where the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter is necessary, where there has to be constant explanation for why it’s #BlackLivesMatter and not #AllLivesMatter. I do not consent to a world where recent violence events are not only possible but happen regularly. But I also don’t know how to speak out in an authentic way and I am so used to being silent.

How can I be respectful of my students and their identities (which run the entire gamut in terms of race, sexuality, socioeconomic status, and political views- and not necessarily in the intersections you might expect)? I find this even more challenging because of my own identity as an Asian American who is only just learning about the racial history of Asians in America, who is only just learning about the nuances of the relationships between Asians, Black, and White (and I don’t quite know where to start with the relationships between Asian and Latin@). I found the paper by Claire Jean Kim on “The Racial Triangulation of Asian Americans” to be particularly helpful in aligning my personal experience within the broader context of the racial history of Asians in America, but I still don’t know how to talk about it with others, let alone with high school students who are also still figuring themselves out. I struggle with getting past the “don’t rock the boat” mentality that my parents implicitly passed down to me. I struggle with articulating where Asians fit into the American context without trivializing my experience or the experiences of other peoples of color. I struggle with contextualizing my experiences compared to other Asian American groups or sub-groups, because just because we’re all Asian Americans does not mean we have had similar experiences.

How do I help students see past the stereotypes of each other and also of me? I recognize that as an Asian person teaching chemistry and physics, I may be implicitly reinforcing “model minority” stereotypes. In a diverse classroom full of students labeled “high achieving”, it is so much easier to “just focus on the content”, but a part of me feels like this is a cop-out. Even saying “I don’t know what to do” feels like a cop-out. But really- where do I start?

The question that I seem to keep coming back to is this: Just because things are mostly ok for me, does that mean that the status quo is acceptable? And I’m not saying that I’ve never experienced racism- if I think about it deeply, I can identify instances of subtle racism specific to Asian Americans (“Where are you from? No really, where are you from?”) But I’m starting to recognize how silence is complicity with broader racist structures, even if I myself do not want to be considered a racist. How do I push back against the status quo- in my life, in my classroom?

I’m doing a lot of reading this summer. A friend pointed me toward a crowd-sourced Google Doc on Resources for non-Black Asians on Anti-Blackness and I’ve only dented the surface of those links (the paper by Kim I linked above is from this resource doc). I’m reading Christopher Emdin’s book For White Folk Who Teach in the Hood. I’m listening to (reading? following?) #educolor posts on Facebook and Twitter to learn from those who are doing good work with actual students. And I’m spending a lot of time just thinking, processing. Trying to find ways to authentically acknowledge students in my classroom, not just copy-paste someone else’s methods. And, in the fall, I hope to listen to my students as well. I hope to make it clear to them that I’m still learning, but that I want to learn from them and with them.

on strike

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Today, the Chicago Teachers Union is on strike. A one-day unfair labor practice strike, with the goal to bring attention and awareness to the funding issue. Lots of rallies are going on around the city in coordination with other groups and unions. I spent two hours this morning on a picket line, walking up and down the street in front of our school.

It’s strange. I’m home now, and if this were any other day, I’d be using this time to get ahead on lesson planning, grade some late assignments, etc. Because I never stop working at 3:15 pm. I’m at school from at least 6:45 – 4:30 pm, often coming earlier and staying later. I work on weekends. I worked last Friday while I was at the mechanic waiting for my car’s oil change to be finished, even though it was a furlough day and I certainly wasn’t being paid. (I might have small issues with work/life balance- but teaching takes so much time.) But I’m not working today because I stand with the CTU, and I believe in public education.

I’m striking today, even though I personally feel conflicted about the timing and the issues that we’re striking for and whether this strike will really accomplish anything. (Does Gov. Rauner care? Will this convince him to put through a budget that funds public education?) It was also a confusing mess of communication from the union- first, the union was calling for a strike when CPS said they would pull pension payments on April 1. Then, it switched to a “day of action” after CPS backed down on the pension thing (for now). Which then turned into a “work stoppage”, which was then changed back to a “one day strike”, all within a very short time frame. But the House of Delegates voted for a strike, so here I am, not working.

My thoughts on all of this are also influenced by the recent news about the Supreme Court’s 4-4 split on Friedrichs vs. CTA. The Atlantic article that I linked mentions (at the very end) how states that have gotten rid of agency fee laws have seen declines in union membership, such as in Wisconsin and Michigan. And Illinois does have agency fee laws, which is why I joined the union in the first place- if they are getting my money (and bargaining on my behalf), I might as well have a vote in what they do. I was never very pro-union before I started teaching (I don’t know that I had any real views on unions at all), and I’m not 100% pro-union now. But I see the purpose and power of the union, and in a city that gives the public very little control over public education (the school board is appointed by the mayor, not sure how much control/power the local school councils actually have, they certainly have no real control over the amount of funding the school receives), the teacher’s union is the one very big voice that can advocate for teachers and students. And in a large, diverse but still somewhat segregated city, I can’t imagine what kind of a hot mess the schools would be without the union. When I think about the school systems in Wisconsin and Michigan- well, that’s not a road I want to see Illinois go down.

I was talking about the strike day with some friends over the weekend, and someone (who I don’t know very well and isn’t a teacher) said, somewhat flippantly, “oh, you guys should just get out of CPS”. I think my response kind of took him by surprise, because I was offended to be told to just leave the city. The implication is “it’s not your problem”, and that kind of thinking is what got us here in the first place. I don’t really fault teachers for leaving CPS, because it’s a messy school district to work for. There are a lot of problems in CPS, and there are no easy answers. But to just tell teachers to leave a failing school district is not a solution. There is no easy solution, because fairly funding schools is a hard issue to discuss. “Fair” does not always mean “equal”, but that’s easier to see if you’re the one with fewer resources. If you have plenty of resources, why would you give that up and risk having not enough resources for the sake of others? If one school can get by on the per-student budget given by the district, why can’t they all? (Never mind the fact that the funding deficits are often made up by parent organizations and facility rentals.) I work at a nice school, and I certainly don’t want to give that up. But I recognize the issues and the disparities, and I’m uncomfortable with the disparities. So I stand with the union, because the problems at other schools are my problem, because they’re the problems of my city.

I’d like to have a careful conversation about this, acknowledging both the difficulties and realities of the situation, but it’s hard. I’m often left with more questions than answers with these kinds of issues. So instead of working, I’m finally reading Diane Ravitch’s “The Death and Life of the Great American School System“, which has been sitting on my bookshelf for the past three years. It seems like an appropriate book for today.

the stakes for public education

In Chicago, public schools started the strike authorization vote today. It’s stretched out over 3 days because the union wants to make sure all members actually vote (abstaining counts as a “no” vote).  We would need 75% of the overall membership to vote “yes” to authorize a strike, but even so, a strike couldn’t start until March at the earliest. (And honestly, every day pushes this timeline back a bit, because as far as I’m aware, we still haven’t started the “fact finding” stage of the process.)

Before I got into teaching, I didn’t think much about teacher’s strikes. As a student, I missed the days of constant teacher’s strikes. (The 2012 teacher’s strike was the first Chicago teacher’s strike in 25 years. I went to school in the suburbs but still don’t remember any actual strikes.) But 2012 was also the year that I was student teaching, and I remember being conflicted about whether or not to picket with the teachers at my assigned school. I ended up not going to any of the strike rallies, etc., because honestly I wasn’t comfortable with it. And right now, there’s a part of me that’s still not personally comfortable with the idea of a teacher’s strike, the idea of being out on a picket line. But I believe in public education, and right now it feels like there’s a lot at stake.

Just working in a Chicago Public School has been an eye-opening experience for me. I grew up in the suburbs, went to a very white, very male, small engineering school in Indiana for college, then went to an Ivy for grad school. There’s always been a lot of privilege around me, although I never personally felt that privileged. But you only really know what you live and see, and I only saw the nice, clean, touristy parts of the Chicago. And I can’t say that I see a lot of my city even now, because I work in a very nice school that CPS can point to and say “look at all the great things we do!” and therefore has reason to keep well-resourced. My student population is also not really reflective of the city of Chicago, and we have a very active parents’ group that fundraises and has filled in the gaps when the school district cuts funding. Our “Friends of” organization is one of the top 10 fundraisers in the city. But nevertheless, working in urban education, I see the disparities in education, and it bothers me. And I see the disparities in how public funds are being used, and I wonder why those in charge make conscious decisions to not fund schools.

I have realized, starting with the work I did at UIC for my Master’s in Education and continuing with the issues I see arising in CPS, that teaching is an inherently political act. I do not consider myself a political person, but I realize that education really is something that can equalize and change the status quo. But education can also easily be used to keep the status quo intact. And honestly? I don’t exactly teach my students how to challenge the status quo with chemistry. But I want them to learn how to think critically and realize that they are, in fact, capable human beings. I’m sure those in power know what education can do for the otherwise poor and disenfranchised. Why else would the mayor and members of the Chicago School Board not send their children to CPS schools? They have no incentive to fix the problems in our school system because it doesn’t affect them directly. And they may actually have an incentive to not fix the public school system because that gives their own children an edge up. Given a choice, I think most parents will do “what’s best for their students”, resulting in segregation and inequality (more eloquently put by Jose Vilson).

And so, even though my job personally is not really at risk, even though my school has been fine despite all the budget cuts, etc. (overall; this isn’t to say that we haven’t felt the effects of CPS policies, but I am fully away that because of the school that I’m at, my job has been more secure and the daily issues I deal with less of a problem than many of my colleagues in the CTU), I voted yes to a strike.

Sure, I’d like a raise. I’d like to have a secure pension. (Although in all honesty, with the state of Illinois being the hot financial mess that it is, I’m not counting on a pension at all- but the older teachers who have put in sweat, blood, and tears into this job deserve what was promised. I haven’t heard anything at all about cutting the CPD’s pension fund.) And I’d like to not have to worry about my healthcare. But really, I would like as a city and as a nation for us to wake up to the disparity that exists, in education and everywhere else. To understand that there is so much more holding some people down than others, and that a solid education can counteract some of that. (By no means all of the problems can be solved via education. But it’s a step. And cutting public education is like kicking someone who’s already down.) And I would like the powers that be to realize that education cannot be run like a business (Who is the consumer? What are you selling? Why are you selling what you’re selling? Who is paying for what you’re selling? Who decides whether the product is “good”?) but rather should be a basic human right. And I’d like the city of Chicago to understand that there’s more than raises and pension and healthcare on the table. Keeping class sizes manageable (I say I have classes of 28-30 students, which seems fine to me, and my non-teachers friends are shocked), having classroom aides and support staff for students (nurses, counselors, psychiatrists). Reducing the amount of testing that our students are put through. Making the evaluation process both manageable and meaningful. Things that really are in the best interest of children who are supposed to be learning. Things that many suburban and private schools take for granted (I am sure that the University of Chicago Lab School has all of these things and many more “amenities”).

I don’t want a strike. None of the teachers I have talked to are actually looking forward to a strike. And I admit I dislike some of the antagonistic language put out by the teacher’s union, because I personally do almost everything I can to avoid conflict. But as much as I would like to just stay in my classroom and teach and wish that other people would leave me alone, I believe in public education and I believe we owe more to the students of this city than they’re getting. And honestly, although both the CTU and the school board claim that everything they do is “for the children”, I’m more inclined to believe that of the CTU. So I hope that we don’t get to the point of an actual walkout, I hope that the school board and the teacher’s union can actually come to an agreement before it gets to that point, I hope that the state of Illinois can find a reasonable solution to the financial mess that we are in (which is not the fault of the teachers, yet they continually ask us to bear the financial brunt of the problem). But if it comes down to it, I vote yes to public education and all that it stands for.