Nobody likes a teacher strike. I know. I have lived through a number of them. And I may have to do it again.
My life and my background speak to the importance of education and school choice, two topics currently under discussion both in the city of Chicago and throughout our country. As an African-American woman and educator, I am a strong proponent of school choice. Here is why. My family’s journey starts in Mobile, Alabama. Like many Black families, we eventually moved to Chicago in search of better opportunities.
I know all too well about the value of a quality education and how hard we must fight for it. My parent’s commitment to my education meant me being bused from the South Side of Chicago to Lincoln Park. For me, that fight meant a long school bus ride to an unfamiliar community where I was the “other” for eight years. There were many challenges, but there I had a phenomenal education that served as the foundation for my love of learning and passion for servant leadership. All of that is to say, I have been one of the biggest benefactors of school choice, so now I am the biggest champion of it!
I also know all too well the hardships that disputes among adults in schools can cause children. As a student in the Chicago Public Schools of the 1980s, I was affected by four strikes: 1983, 1984, 1985 and 1987. In total I missed 46 days of classroom instruction. The longest strike, in 1987, lasted for 19 days.
As a student who depended on school for enrichment, affirmation, and connections, those lost days were devastating for me. As a child, these strikes separated me from a very important part of my life and from the experiences I valued. As a child, I felt helpless in the fight.
Later in my career, I had the privilege of being a teacher and principal in the same system that served me as a student. Once again, I found myself in the midst of labor unrest. In 2012, during my first year as a Chicago Public Schools principal, I experienced the 7-day teacher strike. It was especially difficult for me because it denied me the opportunity to build those important and necessary relationships with school staff at the beginning of the year.
While I knew I was not responsible for the 2012 strike, I felt frustrated that I couldn’t be part of the solution, either. And when staff and students returned, I was left to put all the broken pieces back together. Once again, even as a school leader, I had been separated from the people I wanted to affect, and I felt helpless in the fight.
Though a Strike Looms, I’m Not Helpless; I’m Fighting for My Students
Today, I am the CEO of Civitas Education Partners. Today I have the voice to fight for students and teachers like myself. My mission is to reimagine education for all of our students so they can develop thinking, problem-solving and communications skills while deepening their empathy, collaboration, passion and ability to resolve conflicts. To achieve our mission, we must maintain our low adult to student ratios (1:9) and preserve our support staffing, including full-time special education case managers, nurses, counselors, social workers and dedicated culture teams. It also means maintaining and increasing our elective and enrichment opportunities.
My passion is to ensure we have systems to support the growth of our educators. We want our educators to feel respected, valued and empowered, so they can reimagine school and prepare our 21st-century learners for the 21st-century world they will face. This means having the most qualified teachers and staff in our buildings, serving out students.
We know the tools that can make our talented educators even stronger: more competitive wages and benefits, comprehensive teacher coaching, embedded weekly professional development, common planning time and access to professional learning beyond our charter network. And we know that all of these tools come with price tags.
I wish there were an unlimited amount of funding that could help all schools across our great city. As I sit at the negotiating table, I remain deeply and genuinely committed to providing a fair and equitable contract for our teachers, while preserving the school culture and innovative staffing models that serve our students and families.
We have had more than 30 bargaining sessions and we have made some significant moves in favor of teachers and staff. What is challenging is that the union is fighting for a shorter school year, a shorter work day, less instructional minutes and an evaluation system that reduces accountability…while claiming to be fighting for a better education for students.
I am confident that this contract will be a win for our teachers and staff. No matter what happens in our current negotiations, I remain positive, empathetic, human and a leader. I’m here to protect students as best as possible from any damage they may suffer from a teacher strike. And when our negotiations are resolved, I’ll be here to pick up the pieces with teachers, staff, and families. Though I face real limitations, I’m not helpless in this fight. I’m here to fight for students.