Cameron Diaz and Other Reasons People Hate Chicago Teachers

They say there are two topics to avoid among new friends: religion and politics.  These days, I add a third—education.  Cameron Diaz’s new movie Bad Teacher isn’t going to make conversations about education easier.  Diaz plays a teacher in the profession for all the wrong reasons.  The movie isn’t getting good reviews and, this summer, neither are Chicago teachers.

I was at a birthday banquet in May and sat at a table with a family member’s friends.   After they learned I was a teacher, one woman skeptically asked me what I thought of my new boss, Jean-Claude Brizard.  “I haven’t met the guy,” I said, “but I hope his vision is beneficial for our city. And, actually, the principal is my boss.”

She responded quickly with another question: “What do you think of those dual-language programs?”  I said, “I love the one my son is in.”  I explained Namaste Charter School’s program and emphasized the value if they are run properly.  But this wasn’t a conversation.  It was an interview.  Or an inquiry.  Luckily, the mariachi started playing and we couldn’t hear ourselves anymore.  We sipped our drinks and, after dinner, I moved to another table.

When people ask teachers for our educational view, I don’t think many of them really care what we say.  Most people, like with religion, like with politics, have their minds made up about education.  It’s almost as if people listen so they can tell themselves, “I knew it.”  In many conversations, I’ve sensed the skepticism people have for teachers.  Part of the reason (to quote my wife) is everyone has been educated; therefore, everyone thinks he’s an education expert.  Many people value what teachers do, but, in many more cases, teachers do not have public support.  Even
in Bad Teacher, Diaz’s suburban Chicago character fails at getting reviewers to believe in her.

It’s probably because the comedy isn’t funny.  Diaz’s character wants a job with short hours, summers off, and no accountability.  Sadly, there are teachers who teach for exactly these reasons.  Not funny.  Those of us who do work beyond the bell, in the summer, and hold ourselves accountable don’t think that’s funny either.

Recent CPS decisions make the conversation about teachers, especially those bad ones, even less humorous.  Because of the Board’s recent decision to rescind the annual 4% raise, 25% of teachers will not get an increase.  The 75% with less than fifteen years of experience will receive a 1-5% increase.  I will not get a pay increase this year.  I’m O.K. with this.

The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) is organizing protests but I won’t be attending any.  They have some public support but I wish they would let this issue go.  The public, in general, is not supporting this fight.

A June 16 Tribune article emphasized these facts:

  • The average teacher salary in CPS today is $69,000.
  • In 2009, a teacher with 10 years of experience and a master's degree earned $74,526.  This year, that teacher earned almost $6,000 more.

This makes it too easy for the public to say, “Teachers have it good.”  Sometimes CTU President Karen Lewis cites a rise in health care costs as the reason we need the raise.  Everyone else’s costs are going up, too.  Many have lost their insurance.  The public isn’t going to jump on the bandwagon of CTU support.  “Teachers,” they’ll say, “have it really good.”

In a June 17 Chicago News Cooperative article, a CPS teacher recognized that once upon a time, “People paid us attention. It’s a joke now.”  It’s our own union’s fault.  The public cannot be engaged with the generalizations CTU regularly uses.

On WTTW’s Chicago Tonight June 15 show, Karen Lewis said, "We are still shocked that the Board would take an action that could possibly lead to a strike.”  I wasn’t shocked.  And many colleagues predicted the Board’s decision.

In a June 19 Tribune editorial, Karen Lewis wrote, “That's what drives our 30,000 members to stay at work late.”  But we know not every single union member works late.  Later, she writes, “It's what  drives us to make sure that every last student gets the help she needs.”  But we
know that not every single student is getting the help she needs.  She continues by writing, “Come what may, our teachers will always put our children first.”  But we know there are teachers who do not.  Many of us sat in front of one or work with one.  We know that unions are designed to put their members first, not the people their members serve.

Some may criticize me for being anti-union.  I believe in unions but not in the CTU’s generalized reasoning.  If the CTU accepts a Board decision, we are not going back to medieval teaching conditions and women will not be prevented from taking maternity leave—these are the consequences critics use against me.

Instead, if we accept the Board’s decision to rescind raises for 25% of us, teachers will gain more public support.  Let’s face it--central office administrators are going to make more money than lots of us.  But central office is not a pleasant or stable place to work.  I worked there two years and left.

Union leaders complain about central office salaries but they haven’t published their own salaries recently.  Lots of us are wondering, with any special allowances and benefits, how much do union leaders make?  On June 22, Lewis’s spokesperson told a Sun-Times columnist she didn’t know the president’s salary.

What the CTU needs to do is lead the conversation on performance evaluation instead of following it.  I was at a focus group meeting a few months ago and left confused.  I believe in merit pay as an option.  I just don’t understand how it will happen fairly.  CTU cannot wait and then react angrily to a merit-pay plan.  Karen Lewis’s team needs to provide realistic options that will help good teachers succeed in a merit pay system that is on its way.

A longer school day is also in the works and, possibly, home visits.  For too long, CTU has used enough resources to protect bad teachers.  I’ve seen it.  Now it’s time to lead the talks to help the good ones, not the bad teacher.

Cameron Diaz’s movie director got the title right despite the bad reviews.  If CTU does not change its focus or its generalizations, our bad reviews are going to continue.

Originally published June 24, 2011 on Ray's first blog.


Sources mentioned:
June 15, 2011 WTTW Chicago Tonight,8,80,32&pid=leKozcmVLStoRiyJP4wBEbioJW2ULgdZ 
June 16, 2011 CPS, Teachers Union Face Off over Pay Raise,0,7541144.story#tugs_story_display
June 17, 2011 Teachers Union Facing Crucial Decisions 

June 19, 2011 Editorial: When Trust Goes Out the Window 

June 22, 2011 What Is Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis'


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  • great article. extremely well written, and well researched. a breath of fresh air when it comes to journalism these days, sadly.

    clicking on this article, i instantly thought to when i was a student at cps and thought of all the reasons i hated my this was a little different than what i thought it would be, but still, great article.

  • great post and you are right. I have an assumption that a good amount of teachers don't work hard, get paid pretty well and are just excited about having the summer off and leaving work early each day. It is something to think about and i will definitely reconsider my impression of CPS teachers moving forward. thanks.

  • You make good sense even where I disagree with you. Thank you for a considerate and thoughtful contribution to the discourse.

    I wouldn't look for public support in response to forgone raises. In Wisconsin, we've been there, done that and are still getting flogged. I'm not a teacher, but the model holds.

    That is not to suggest that the board decision is a bad idea, but you should expect the politicians to take credit for any good effects and leave you the blame for any shortcomings.

  • Teacher evaluations: The principal or asst. principal sits in on a few sessions. Is this at all accurate?

    My suggestion: An unbiased observer sits in all classroom sessions. This person can be an interested parent that is volunteering.

    I know this is a potential for disaster - I hear everyone saying "that would be distracting to the students" or "this person is not qualified to observe and comment on my teaching". This could be true. But in other fields like engineering and sales, we constantly have peers and non-peers evaluating us. This observation is what is lacking in the educational arena. Given enough observation, even a layperson can deduce that "this teacher is doing a great job" or "this teacher doesn't know how to do this."

    What do you think?

  • In reply to mjkantowski:

    Thanks for commenting. This is a huge discussion. There are so many nuances to teaching that your suggestion can help start a rich discussion. I'm interested in hearing more before I can even come up with a suggestion to what I think is appropriate and fair. Thanks, Ray

  • Well-written, insightful piece. I worked in the CPS for 3 years teaching high school before I moved to the suburbs. (yea, I had my reasons) One might respond that our students "have it made" out here compared to their urban counterparts. In quite a few districts (not all), they do. Parents are involved in their child's education, and where I live, the stay-at-home parents (by choice) make up a formidable volunteer force to deliver the many "extras" our high taxes, and constant fundraisers, have helped make possible. So yes, education in most of our urban centers suffers from deep systemic problems, some of which are pointed out here. (I've never heard anyone, ever, even mention the teacher's union here) While our district seems to be better at balancing its budget than Chicago (why so many suburban districts rely on state money more than ours remains a mystery), the traditional suburban high school is cranking out graduates who, having spent a large part of their high school years doing rote work in large groups, don't read and write very well. Studies have shown that knowledge of basic history and geography have diminished; students aren't trained to develop complex thinking skills, and they have an attention span developed in front of video games, reality TV and YouTube. Yet, class sizes keep growing. Yes, Chicago's system is a mess but the problem goes deeper--we are in a widespread crisis, nationally, in public education. I teach writing in a local community college (there are very few HS teaching jobs), and I can't tell you how many students have told me they didn't learn to write in high school. My point: Even suburban high schools aren't preparing a large percentage of students for success in the Real World. Many must pick up key skills somewhere else. I guess we're lucky that some do.

  • In reply to the Sub:

    I don't know where the students at your community college come from, where they are not taught to write. My kids have been in 3 school districts. My kids were writing 70 page books by 5th grade! Don't generalize.

    Basic history and current events? Well most textbooks are chosen by the Texas system, and they have been eliminating much of those. This is not a crisis, but a plan to ensure that students don't grow up to rock the corporate boat.

  • In reply to threefromil:

    Thanks for commenting. Writing instruction is in dire need of improvement. The ACT has taken away the writing part. That sends the message that it's less important. We have lots of students who have to take remedial writing (and math) classes in college. The writing students need has to be focused on argument, evaluation, and synthesis. Narratives are helpful but they limit students' college preparation. Thanks, Ray

  • Maybe teacher evaluations need to come from a larger group of sources - supervisor observations in the classroom, outsider class observations, student achievment, parental input, peer evaluation, and perhaps even student perceptions in the later grades.

    In addition, I think those measurements should be leveled across a couple years (3?) to form a complete picture of how a given teacher is doing over time. Given that sort of information, I think we could figure out which teachers are great, good, average and poor.

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    Bravo, Mr. Salazar. It's people like you that inspire me to teach, and keep on teaching.

  • In reply to Susan Elizabeth:

    Thank you! Ray

  • Another teacher with 10 years or less in the system that knows everything and critisizes his co-workers. I hope that you are a golden apple award winner. I tauught for 35 years in the system and I can assure you. You have no idea what problems are faced in inner city schools in tough areas. Secondly ,how dare you single out Chicago as having poor teachers. People who live in glass houses should learn to not throw stones. You sound like another one of these Uno school charter teacher thats just perfect. Maybe Emmanuel is paying you guys to further this propaganda. Quite frankly ,you are a fool and if you were really worried about performance, you would be preparing yourself for school.

  • In reply to jkduszak:

    Thanks for taking the time to comment. Your post actually proves the need for an ideolgical change. You're emphasizing quantity of years vs. quality of teaching. I'm criticizing the union's logic, not all teachers. Yet you misrepresent my ideas in a generalization. I was specific about my criticisms. Being Latino does not make me an automatic UNO supporter (I'm not associated and I'm not getting paid for writing). And you're assuming I'm not preparing for the new year. I understand the emotional reaction but it's off base. Thanks, Ray

  • "But we know not every single union member works late. Later, she writes, “It's what drives us to make sure that every last student gets the help she needs.”"

    He's complaining because she is generalizing? Give me a break! All leaders generalize. No CEO's are going to get up there and say, "We are a great company.... except for the 10% employees we rate as substandard".

    The union's job is to work for it's members. If the contracts give them an edge, blame the board negotiators, they didn't do their job.

    I agree salaries across Chicago area are high in this economy. They are even higher in the suburbs, and the burbs have way less to deal with. The city has 87% poverty level, parents with little education or working long hours.

    Younger teachers, 50% of whom leave teaching in 5 years partially because of low salaries, would be very affected by any salary discussions. But I think CPS teachers are way more concerned about being arbitrarily given a bad rating by one person, a principal. How many of us have run into people with ultimate rule, that rule more on emotion than logic. Two bad ratings, and a teacher loses her job.

    Think how useful that "two ratings and you are out" will be if the administration decides to dump older teachers because they cost more.

  • In reply to threefromil:

    Thanks for commenting. CTU has to lead the performance-eval discussions if they truly want to protect teachers. We have to have a system for getting bad teachers out. Yes, as in any profession, we have bad teachers. My question for the union is what are they doing to contribute to this and how are they getting member input? Thanks, Ray

  • Thank you to all of you for taking the time to comment and continue the conversation. I appreciate the compliments and difficult discussions. We need this exchange. Ray

  • I hope I'm lucky enough to be in the position to interview you! And if I am, I won't. I'll converse with you and listen to your opinions which are intelligent, eloquent and insightful. I'm just sorry that the woman who sat next to you at the party wasn't open-minded enough to learn this for herself.

  • I love this discussion and please don't listen to the haters. You sound like an outstanding teacher and I could not agree with you more. The union needs to look forwards not backwards, It could fight for the things teachers need to succeed, and yes, implement a pay system that rewards good practices.The union could be fighting for more frequent observation and effective feedback, better training for principals, more effective principals, more common plannng time, more support for new teachers and meaningful mentoring, opportunities for peer observation. It could be fighting for meaningful career paths for teachers that reward teachers for taking on leadership roles and mentoring other teachers. It could be fighting to reward teachers for teaching in the most high needs schools, for mentoring students, for effective professional development that is actually useful . It is fighting for none of those things and that is tragic.

  • In reply to Anonymous:

    Thank you for the encouraging words. I just don't understand why the union is obsessed with old issues. They're still exaggerating the possibility of strike without really knowing (no surveys have gone out to us), they're still fighting the battle for the raise. You concisely outlined what they SHOULD be focused on. They should be focused on the new contract, which will expire this June. I just don't get it. Maybe if more of us send Karen Lewis our views to think forward, she will. Thanks, Ray.

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