I’m a Chicago Teacher and I Want You to Challenge Me, Not Honk for Me

I am a teacher.  I care about my students and work really hard.  I have spent my entire 14-year career working in urban schools, and wouldn’t change it for anything.  Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, allow me to share some of my unpopular opinions.

Here’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, in light of the recent Chicago teachers strike.   Was it really necessary to #PutItInWriting and mandate that every single Chicago public school have a full-time nurse on staff?  Maybe. Maybe not.

Wait, can I say that out loud?  I can almost hear you thinking, “What a-hole is going to come right out and say that the most vulnerable among us don’t deserve access to healthcare?!?”  I still remember fondly the kindly woman who used to give me band-aids during elementary school. Nurses are angels! Don’t mess with the nurses! 

Allow me to explain.

Why Should CTU Get to Tell Schools How To Spend Their Money?

I recently had a conversation with my school nurse friend who splits time among multiple campuses.  This friend finds the idea that every single school needs a full-time nurse laughable. Sometimes, my nurse friend gets so bored during the school day they volunteer to take on additional non-nursing responsibilities that are completely outside of their job description just to stay occupied.  The work they do at each school is undoubtedly important, yet even they don’t think that it amounts to a full-time job.   

At the end of last school year, for a variety of reasons, my own charter school had a lot of work to do in order to build community and restore parent trust (We unionized and are part of the CTU, but have a separate contract from CPS teachers).  As such, we decided to hire a Family Engagement Coordinator, who is AMAZING!  Home-school communication has improved. Every week we have well-attended events, family breakfasts, and parent workshops. She supports our attendance efforts and connects families with supports to help them overcome obstacles that can make coming to school challenging.  She screens volunteers and then gets them started working directly with students to support their academic growth. And we might never have been able to hire her had we been told that there was money available, but only if we spent it in a particular way pre-determined by the Chicago Teachers Union.

The point of sharing these examples is not to say nurses don’t matter, or matter any less than other school employees.  I would never say that based on conversations with ONE nurse friend and my experience at ONE Chicago school. Are there schools in Chicago that will absolutely benefit from funding to have a full-time nurse on staff, particularly larger schools and schools in communities with limited access to health services?   


Had I been in charge, I would have prioritized those schools, but let others decide what made most sense for their own communities.  I am confident they could have found meaningful ways to spend that money in a way that would positively impact their students, whether or not that also meant adding dues-paying union members to their payrolls indefinitely, I don’t know.  

My point is that no one person or union can possibly know what makes sense for every single unique school community.  And further, no union should use nurses, who, like teachers, hold a special place in our collective minds and hearts, to convince the public that they do.

Let’s Stop Pretending Teachers Are Angels When They’re Just Human

Over the years, I have very often found myself in disagreement with the Chicago Teachers Union.  But even I must begrudgingly admit that they are very smart and really, really good at what they do.  Throughout the contentious negotiations and eventual strike, CTU used nurses as part of an effective PR strategy to get the contract they wanted, allowing those asks to overshadow other items, very expensive and potentially less popular with the public, that they were also fighting to include. 

How do I know?  Because we teachers are used in the same way all the time!  The message I got during the strike seemed to be you’re either with us on all things, or you’re against us.  And who in their right mind is against teachers? Painting teachers as martyrs so as to shut down robust public debate and shame those who question the Union’s goals or tactics is what really gets my goat.

Everyone knows a teacher, loves a teacher, and can point to a teacher who has changed their life for the better.  I appreciate the love, really I do. But I would argue that this veneration of teachers as perfect, selfless deities fighting alone on the side of social justice against all that is evil prevents us from thinking critically, engaging in respectful debate, and ultimately doing what’s best for children.  Even though we work in schools every day and are generally a pretty selfless bunch, we do not have all the answers either. 

If the Union came right out and said, “Our mission is to fight for the best possible salary, benefits, and working conditions for our dues-paying members,”  I could respect that. Stick to the bread-and-butter issues that unions do best. Just don’t pull at peoples’ heartstrings and muddy the narrative with other issues under the guise that it’s going to make things dramatically better for all Chicago students.  

But it’s not just the very powerful union’s communications team.  Teachers need to take some responsibility for perpetuating the untouchable teacher myth too. We can care deeply about our students and our work without assuming that we’re the only ones who do.  Let’s try not to reduce the complicated issues facing our schools down to a snarky sign, or shame those who think differently than us into wondering if maybe deep down they really *are* a terrible person.  I read the comment sections. It’s intellectually lazy and any teacher should be better than that.

I sincerely hope that this new contract helps to transform all Chicago schools into examples of excellence and equity.  But the cynic in me also wonders if we’ll be doing this all over again in five years. (At least it’s not three, though…Thanks, Mayor Lightfoot!)  

When that next set of contract talks comes, fellow Chicagoans, I don’t need you to honk for me.  I need you to think critically about each new issue, examine multiple perspectives, and by all means, challenge me and all of us teachers!  I promise not to call you a child-hating sociopath. Don’t shy away from asking tough questions because you like us and are afraid of offending us.  That is what our students and our city really need. I promise- we teachers are tough, we are human, and we can handle it. Come at us, bro.

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Sara Urben

Sara Urben is a National Board Certified elementary school teacher who leads professional development with educators from around the city. She is passionate about purposeful play in the classroom, the benefits of bilingual education, and literacy as a social justice issue.