Unless something drastic happens in the days ahead, on Sept. 10 for the first time in 25 years, Chicago teachers will strike. Following a summer of disagreements over a longer school day with no additional compensation, over 400,000 Chicago Public School students will again be out on the streets even while Chicago lags behind already low national averages for time spent in school. If you couldn’t already tell, I’m not a huge fan of this strike–not that there is such a thing as a “fan” of the strike, any more than someone who is pro-choice is a “fan” of abortions. You could say that I am anti-strike. That said, because I don’t teach at a CPS school and, unlike many of my fellow corps members, don’t pay dues to the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), and I will continue to teach as usual next week, take my thoughts with a grain of salt. I also have been teaching for a grand total of 1 week, so… also keep that in mind.
Those of you who know me know that I already harbor a healthy dose of ambivalence about unions. A dyed-in-the-wool economics major, on a theoretical level I know that unions create inefficiency in the workplace, inflate benefits, and force industries to reward seniority over merit. I think this tends to be especially true in education.
Personally, I don’t understand the feeling of outrage CTU teachers feel at adding an extra hour to the school day when the extra time, for them, means more prep periods, more arts and enrichment classes for their students, and less stress over cramming an overwhelming amount of material into 6 hours. More so, however, I puzzle because at this point, I am working 14 hour days. The fact that my “personal time” wholly consists of the 7 hours a night that I sleep. I try not to dwell on this because I know this is what I signed up for. At the core, I believe that teachers can’t really escape the fact that they don’t work 9-5 jobs and that their work is a 24-7 obligation. So why the fuss about an extra hour when the total is zero sum?
Side note: This does, however, raise the point that teachers are disgustingly undervalued as far as compensation goes. Arguably, what teachers create is talent and potential. Every entrepreneur, inventor, or public servant somewhere down the line has a teacher to thank for their success. If teachers were actually compensated for the value they create in this country, they would probably be among the highest paid professionals in America. Well known facts aside, the way to make that happen is not to walk out on students only one week after you start investing them in school.
I do believe that my personal feelings on the strike and unions in general are significantly less important than the very real challenges that my friends and roommates now face. After a summer of having “student centered” drilled into our heads, the idea of sacrificing instructional time seems almost sacrilegious. The only experience I have with this perverse sensation occurred this summer on our “heat day.” During the summer, I was waking up at 5:30 am, working my butt off to plan airtight lessons, and killing myself trying to get my 6th grade students to write a solid persuasive essay in no more than five instructional periods, or about 2.5 hours. I was exhausted. If anyone could have used a day off at this point, it was every single TFA corps member. And yet, what was my initial reaction when I heard that school was cancelled on a Friday? OUTRAGE.
Many corps members have spent the last month after the end of Institute planning, planning, planning. Trying to make 1.5 years of growth into 180 days. Depending how long this strike lasts, it could cut out a significant amount of this already limited amount of time. That’s the primary, logistical challenge.
On a larger level, 300 (mostly) recent college grads are now entering a profession for which they are already underprepared, only to be pulled into a fight they did not create much less fully understand. They face an incomprehensible moral dilemma–to picket or not to picket. I have difficulty imagining what I would do if I was forced to choose between abstaining from a fight that I know nothing about, and on a theoretical level really don’t really agree with, and the necessary relationships I need to maintain between myself and fellow educators. Most people that I’ve talked to are taking the picket route. They feel that the maintenence of these relationships is of primary importance, and the cost is minimal.
Me? I can’t say what I would do. I don’t know what it would be like to be disliked and disparraged by my co-workers, but I imagine it would feel a lot like middle school, oddly enough. It would definitely be true that psychological damage would not be the only thing on the chopping block.
The question stands: What professional obligations (real or perceived) are worth sacrificing your personal principles, or, to a lesser degree, fighting for something you don’t understand?