National Voices

Wednesday, Sep 12 2012 11:00 PM

ESTHER CEPEDA: Respect, not apples, for these teachers

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    Esther Cepeda

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CHICAGO -- Under normal circumstances, I'd be the first to say that going on strike is the most selfish and reckless thing teachers could do to their communities, their professions and most of all, their students.

These, however, are not normal circumstances -- and they haven't been since former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel became mayor of Chicago.

In a perfect world, a new mayor with an aspirational plan to remake a crumbling school system would keep the bluster to a minimum while bringing a new schools chief and the head of the teachers union to the planning table. With a spirit of mutual reverence, the three would create a working relationship based on trust and collaborate to make the schools better for all the stakeholders involved.

But from Day One, Emanuel decided that the silver bullet to getting Chicago Public Schools to better educate and graduate students was to lengthen the school day by 90 minutes and add five extra days of instruction to one of the shortest academic years in the country. It was a great idea -- but the mayor had no money to pay for it, no strategy for what to do with the extra time, and an open disdain for the educators who would be charged with implementing the changes.

In other words, despite the complaints of those angry that the striking teachers are disrupting family schedules, the naysayers who believe a strike was a given under the leadership of one of the most obnoxious and grating Chicago Teachers Union presidents in recent memory, and Chicagoans who believe the teachers should just be grateful they have jobs in a city with a 9.1 percent unemployment rate, the teachers were right to walk out.

It was about respect.

It was about fending off the smear attacks from education reformers who want to use relatively unproven new methods for making education more efficient and effective but who respond to legitimate concerns about fair implementation by demonizing teachers as self-interested clock-watchers who put kids' interests last.

Yes, teachers unions do, in fact, represent a fair amount of lazy or burned-out clock-watchers who went into teaching for a steady paycheck, low expectations and summers off. There are even a good number who are just plain unqualified, abusive or more focused on their benefits package than on children's academic attainment -- anyone who has taught in public schools, as I have, can attest to that.

But despite teachers unions' unflinching defense of these bad apples, they are the minority.

Chicago teachers don't accept the challenge of their city's public school classrooms to make lots of money, it's because they want to make positive changes in children's lives. And don't let the "average" $74,839 annual salary statistic fool you, these teachers are underpaid compared to their regional peers and work long hours in harsh environments few would labor at for twice that amount.

Critics say that no matter how well-meaning teachers are, they shouldn't shrink from being rigorously evaluated on their performance. I wholeheartedly agree. Yet we hardly ever hear about the fact that students who live in poverty and violence -- and Chicago seems to be the epicenter of both these days -- rarely perform as well as well-to-do peers on standardized tests even with the most talented teachers at the helm of a regular, public school classroom. And, despite the hype, charter school success in this area continues to be a mixed bag.

So yes, the teachers have legitimate beefs about unfair evaluation methods, sweatshop conditions in classrooms without air conditioning in neighborhoods where going outside isn't a safe option, and about being asked to work longer hours -- in addition to the extra hours so many already put in, even during the summer -- for no extra pay. But this is all beside the point.

The real lesson these educators are trying to demonstrate to Emanuel is that even when the president's got your back, you can't bully your way into better educational outcomes for students. You have to compromise to bring meaningful and lasting change to a bureaucracy that has historically thrived on inefficiency.

And most important: When you have to come to the bargaining table with no money and few resources, you should at least be willing to bring fistfuls of humility.

Email Esther J. Cepeda of The Washington Post Writers Group at estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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