What a Strike Can’t Solve

Don’t get offended…yet. I am a former CPS teacher and student, and tend to look beyond what is often statistically reported (or glossed over), or politically correct. When I was an elementary CPS student along with my siblings, our parents literally stood over us to ensure our homework was done in a timely fashion and neat. I can still vividly recall my mother tearing up my assignment twice because she said,”No teacher is going to read that mess.” My parents did not come up to school to check up on us; to do so was to invoke sympathy from fellow classmates, because we knew we were in for it. My father read to us from his blue back speller. My paternal grandmother gave us tongue twisters so we could enunciate properly.

One teacher did call my mother in my high school English class. That was the last phone call ever placed by a teacher. It wasn’t that I feared the teacher; it was my mother that I was concerned about. She ruled with an iron fist, and you know, I didn’t turn out so bad after all. My parents talked to us at the dinner table about the day’s events; I had four other siblings, and one sibling took forever to tell us about her day. This was routine. Assignments were discussed; classroom behavior and post-high school expectations were also regularly discussed.

I had to lay the groundwork to support my perspective, because to tie a student’s ultimate academic success to a test score and then hold teachers solely accountable is purely ridiculous. Apparently, someone forgot about the study commissioned by the U.S. Office of Education spear headed by James Coleman in 1966, known as the “Coleman Report.” An oversimplification of one of the summary points of the study is this: a mother’s socioeconomic level is the best predictor of her child’s success.

Confused? Try this. If a mother is college-educated with a promising career, her child has a better chance of being successful academically and socially. If a mother has not completed high school and is on welfare, chances are overwhelming that her children will do the same. Have you ever taught students who you knew came to school hungry and unkempt? I have, and it is heartbreaking. Have you ever seen students who returned back from Christmas break several pounds lighter because they weren’t able to eat regularly at school? I have, and I have to try not to get depressed thinking about it.

This data is used in schools and prisons to better estimate attrition (school) rates and prison entry and re-entry rates. After all, we in society know that if students are not encouraged and shown what good success looks like, they naturally default to what’s quick, slick, and makes society sick (yes, it’s original). When you have people that don’t have a full understanding of how this data can impact pedagogical, policy and economic issues, it becomes a blaming game.

I almost sneer at college-readiness standards, not because every child shouldn’t go, but because every child does not have a college-readiness mindset. Sometimes it happens at 18; sometimes at 38. To hold teachers responsible for everyone’s mindset is cruel. If we are to truly enable our students to succeed, we have to stop addressing our challenges at the level of the leaves, and get to the root, and that is, we have to help parents and their communities.

We have to help people break the mindset that is holding them in poverty and low achievement. We have to offer alternatives to a mediocre existence of low expectations and “victimism.” That is where schools can help, but not with 38 other students in a class. Not with districts threatening to fire you on a whim. Who wants to go home after work (remember, it’s a never-ending job), knowing when testing comes in the spring, you might not have a job next year?

The culture of education and the role we all play has to change, and a strike can’t change that. However, discussions about why this strike is essential to the very core of our profession is a good start. The rest of the country is watching. I am really optimistic that this CPS strike will bring this and other issues to the forefront. As I have stated in previous writings, massive teacher firings is not effective school reform.

I owe my academic achievements first to God, then my parents, because they were my first teachers, and finally to all the teachers who saw talent in me that I didn’t realize I had. That’s what good teachers do. We sometimes see things that others don’t, and we inspire when others don’t quite understand what is on the inside of us.

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