Karen Lewis with student

Rest in Power, Karen Lewis

Across Chicago, thousands of teachers, students, parents and community people are taking a moment to remember Karen Lewis, the powerful former president of the Chicago Teachers Union. She left us far too soon, at 67.

Plenty of other Chicagoans are remembering Karen Lewis today for her fiery spirit and ability to inspire thousands, eventually millions of teachers. I too will never forget her willingness to challenge former Mayor Rahm Emanuel, nor her steadfast dedication to young people and their teachers.

But, to tell you a story fewer people have heard, I would like to take a moment to reach back in time and remember the Karen Jennings of 2001. She taught chemistry at Lane Tech. Encouraged by her colleagues, she fought the burnout of dealing with CASE exams (how many readers remember them?) by accepting a very different challenge: the intensive National Board Certification for teachers.

Here’s what she told me about her takeaways.

“National Board showed me that…learning cannot be determined by those little bubble-in tests,” she said. Instead, Jennings learned how to develop open-ended assessment tools that force students to explain their reasoning.

At first, Jennings’ teenaged students did not appreciate her new methods. “When they ask, ‘Why does this happen?’ I say, ‘What do you think?’ The kids always look at me like, ‘Why aren’t you giving us the answer? Just tell me what’s on the test, and I’ll do it.’”

Despite the grumbling, many of those students are coming back for more. About 50 have enrolled in Jennings’ environmental science class—an elective new to the schedule this fall. Topics will range from air quality to toxic waste to forensic chemistry. The class will be “totally inquiry-based,” and students will study academic research and do hands-on experiments. “I’m totally basing it on the stuff I learned from National Board,” she said.

Long after leaving the classroom, she remained a steadfast supporter of National Board Certification and its ability to push teachers to new levels of excellence.

Always Passionate, Always Curious

Years later, in 2017, I had the opportunity to sit down with Lewis for an extended conversation. What struck me from our time together was her ability to hold steadfastly to her own beliefs while looking for every opportunity to engage with people who didn’t see things her way. She thought hard and strategically about how to connect with teachers who didn’t see eye-to-eye with every item on the social-justice agenda that she and other members of the Caucus of Rank and File Educators worked hard to enact. For example, she was thinking about how to talk with her members about policing well before George Floyd’s murder brought it to the forefront of the local and national consciousness last summer.

It’s rare to encounter people who can hold their beliefs strongly while staying curious about the beliefs of others in the best of times. In the current moment, when political polarization has taken such deep root, remembering Karen Lewis’s ability to pull no punches and yet stay curious about her opponents could be a worthy lasting legacy of hers for all of us to follow.

Photo credit: Photo courtesy Catalyst Chicago archive.

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Maureen Kelleher

Chicago Unheard blog manager Maureen Kelleher also serves as a senior writer and editor at brightbeam, a nonprofit network of education activists demanding a better education and brighter future for every child. Before joining the brightbeam team, she spent a decade as a reporter, blogger and policy analyst. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. A former high school English teacher, she is also the proud mom of a middle-schooler. Find her on Twitter at @KelleherMaureen.

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