Student teachers take lessons from Chicago strike

By Melissa Schill

11.9.19

A week after Chicago Public School (CPS) teachers returned to their classrooms following an 11-day strike, Wheaton College student teachers are reflecting on the gains and losses of one of the most consequential events in the history of Chicago schools.

“It was interesting to see these issues unfold first-hand, understanding the information and personally knowing the teachers who were involved,” said senior Jordan Wyatt, who works as a 4th grade student teacher at Grover Cleveland Elementary School. “Issues that had been negotiated for years were resolved in weeks.”

Over 25,000 teachers in the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) took to the streets of Chicago to advocate for changes they felt were necessary for the well-being of their students.

“Class size, nurses, psychologists and special-ed services — that was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said LeiAnna Frazier, a 3rd grade teacher at the Ogden International School on the North Side of Chicago who attends church with Wheaton students.

Many Chicago public schools do not have access to a nurse, counselor or social worker. Wyatt said that at Grover Cleveland a nurse only comes to the school once a week. “If you’re coming from a school in the suburbs that’s really shocking, but in CPS that’s pretty good.”

Following the strike, the City of Chicago tentatively approved a new five-year contract that increases funding for social workers, nurses and special education teachers. The contract also puts caps on class sizes and gives teachers a 16 percent raise.

Wyatt said that the media’s portrayal of the strike does not match her personal experiences. She feels that news outlets focus their reports on the teacher’s fight to raise their salaries, while she has seen that most of the issues leading the teachers to strike “were about the kids.”

Although the strike was successful, its length left many CPS teachers and families floundering. During the strike itself, parents were forced to find childcare.

“It was worrisome thinking about the students and families affected,” said senior Leah Schoonmaker, who student teaches 5th and 6th grade language arts at Grover Cleveland. “11 days is a long, long time to have to figure out child care plans.” Schoonmaker attended Chicago schools from elementary school through high school and hopes to use her passion for teaching special-ed in Chicago after she graduates.

Student teachers were not allowed to participate in the strike, which raised the question of how they would spend their time waiting for school to resume. School emails were locked for the 11 days, so communication between student teachers and teachers was limited.

“There were units that needed rearranging, lesson plans that needed revision and a large-scale general re-prioritizing was needed to accommodate for all the lost time,” Schoonmaker said. Per the tentative contract, students will make up five of the eleven missed days in June, a compromise that some teachers felt was unsatisfactory to compensate for all the time missed.

Though the strike lasted longer than they had hoped, the majority of teachers supported the move. In order for a strike to be authorized, 75 percent of the CTU must vote in favor of going on strike. In this case, 94 percent voted yes.

Once the strike was authorized and set in motion, attendance and participation in it became mandatory for all CPS teachers. Frazier explained that on a typical day, teachers would arrive at their respective schools at 6:30 a.m. to picket before continuing their demonstrations at city hall later.

“At our school, we’ve gotten a lot of support from the people in our neighborhood. Police officers dropped off doughnuts and coffee, and parents came to tell us they supported us,” Frazier said. “It’s been really great. Pushback has been very minimal.”

Lincoln Park High School science teacher Leah Herlocker said that even her students showed support for the strike.

“There are kids that come from an hour and a half away [to Lincoln Park High School] because their neighborhood high school isn’t somewhere they feel they can grow academically,” Herlocker said. “They were so keenly aware of how necessary the strike was and thankful [for the] awareness being brought to some of those issues.”

Wyatt said that the strike gave her a very unique perspective on teaching and public education as a student teacher.

“Coming from Wheaton, I think most students are looking for social justice and fighting for people who can’t fight for themselves,” she said. “It was really inspiring to see.”

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