Karen Lewis and Other Reasons People Hate CPS Teachers

Karen Lewis and Other Reasons People Hate CPS Teachers

One of my first blog posts here is titled "Cameron Diaz and Other Reasons People Hate Chicago Teachers."  After seeing the video where the Chicago Teachers' Union President makes questionable comments during a keynote speech, I reworded the title for this post.

Humor can entertain, challenge, and unite.  But Karen Lewis ended up turning many people against her--and CPS teachers--because she failed to be funny.

We know satire is the humor that connects all three parts of the rhetorical triangle: speaker, subject, and audience.  This is why we can joke about sensitive topics such as race and gender with close friends.  But we still have to be careful.  Some jokes will always be offensive.

Sarcasm, on the other hand, is the humor that damages relationships because the rhetorical triangle does not connect.  In the case of Karen Lewis's speech at a recent social justice conference, the the line between speaker and subject did not connect.  Now that more people have seen the video, fewer are laughing and the disconnect with the audience is growing each day.

Because comedy happens in 3s, I'll offer three examples of why Lewis's humor was sarcasm--not satire.

Lewis made fun of Arne Duncan's lisp: "Ethucation ith the thivil righths movement of our time."   Maybe the lisp could have been funny.  Maybe.  But Lewis's attempt at humor failed because of what she said with the lisp.  Education IS a civil rights movement of our time.  To devalue this devalues the hard work that educators--that classroom teachers--are doing to improve educational opportunities to under-served youth.  And, yes, the fact that an African American is devaluing a civil rights movement makes this joke more inappropriate.

A comic who does use speech pattens effectively--and humorously--is Margaret Cho.  This Asian American comic jokes about the ridiculous messages her mother leaves on the answering machine: "Don't marry a white man!"  There's probably some exaggeration there, but the verbal comment is complemented by the extreme facial expressions of a disapproving Asian mother.

Cho emphasizes the stereotypes in her mother's views and facial expressions to make us reconsider our perspective of race relations.  When Cho jokes, what is said and how it's said combine to make us laugh and think.  Lewis's unfunny mockery, however, is an insensitive personal attack combined with a serious statement.  Not funny.

In another statement, Lewis makes fun of her own weight by saying she is too fat to go to jail.  Self-deprecation has been used successfully, hilariously by Chris Rock--especially when he makes fun of the fact that he spent $15,000 to get veneers on his messed up teeth.   Self-deprecation is most effectively used by people who hold a higher status economically, socially, or culturally than the audience.  Chris Rock is a millionaire.  He is a world-recognized political comic.  Karen Lewis is not superior to the audience of educators at that conference.

She is the union president but if she's not re-elected, she'll probably become a classroom teacher again.  The union also makes it a point to emphasize everyone's "rank-and-file" status.  We're supposed to consider her one of us.  Her poor attempt at self-deprecation actually made her sound arrogant,  as if she were not too fat but to important, too valuable, too powerful to go to jail.  She came off as untouchable.

Finally, Karen Lewis jokes that her husband wants to beat up people who say mean things about her.  John Leguizamo has gotten a great deal of criticism by some of his family members because he pokes fun at them in his comedy concerts.  His father was especially upset about one joke, I remember Leguizamo saying in an interview.  To make his family situations humorous, Leguizamo must exaggerate what they do.  Lewis's ineffective attempt to make us chuckle at her husband's comment does not sound like an exaggeration.  It came off as a matter-of-fact statement.   Not funny.

At the Chicago Tribune event in September where I expressed my concerns about the CTU to Karen Lewis, she slipped in other failed attempts to be funny.  She flaunted the fact that her public education taught her French.  She call Brizard a liar in French.  She snapped her fingers at him at one point.  From what we hear on the audio recording, not everyone in the audience laughed.

Lewis needs to leave the comedy to the professionals.  Just like she does not want business people to mess with education, she should not mess with comedy.  She needs to be a  professional CTU president that focuses on leading policy conversations--not on using playground put downs.

Now she must devote hours and hours and CTU resources (paid for by our union dues) to fix this situation instead of leading the conversation about the new contract.

She wanted the self-deprecation to lighten the mood at the conference.  But education reform is serious matter to many of us.  What she ended up doing is making Chicago Public Schools teachers look bad.


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    I found her comments or attempt at humor to be in poor taste and completely off topic. Her bahavior can be interpreted as someone with poor leadership skills (Who will argue that?) and ultimately can be a reflection on her ability to teach. Her re-election is not likely, now with the comments she made that are now public what parent would feel comfortable having their child in the same classroom as her knowing that she publicly made jokes about a persons lisp. Can she honestly tell a child not to pick on another child when she herself does this behavior.
    -My .02

    Great write up Ray and excellent observation

  • My main reaction to this post is that it might be relevant if she were auditioning for the guest personality of Geoff Peterson, but I thought Larry King and Lauren Graham did a better job. Anyway, one can think about the irony of her being a robot skeleton, although there may be a point with respect to his repetitive use of "balls."

    However, I commented on District 299 about her lack of effectiveness if she is attempting to sway the taxpayers in the teachers' favor. In that regard, trying to be an effective Don Rickles is, as I indicated, not helpful.

  • Ray, I honestly don't see the point of this post. You compare Karen Lewis' jokes to those of famous comedians. I don't get it. If you watch the entire 35 minute speech, available here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AUGgJ14mL8o&feature=feedlik -- you'd see that this was an extremely substantive talk about organizational change and education reform. She peppered her talk with a few jokes and as you stated, she is no comedian. She followed the first rule of public speaking -- know your audience. She was asked to give an informal talk to a group of public education advocates. For some context, please read this letter http://www.ctunet.com/blog/statement-from-the-northwest-teaching-for-justice-conference-regarding-president-lewis-speech .

    When I saw the edited video circulating from the Andrew Breitbart website, I was also initially stunned. I felt that as a teacher, those comments did not reflect how I felt. I held back on reacting on blogs and with my colleagues because I wanted to think this through. I watched the entire piece and I realized that she was using some very personal examples to get her message across. Sure, I personally would not have relayed the same anecdotes are her, but they made sense in context.

    Had Arne Duncan attended a public school in the 1980s, he would have had access to case managers, speech pathologists, social workers, and psychologists. There were wraparound services. Instead, his family paid for a private school education. These schools do not provide those wraparound services because they don't want anything less than "perfect children." I remember having Catholic school friends take a bus to my school to get speech therapy. Private schools "externalize" costs of these services by sending kids off to public schools for them.

    And now, Clinicians -- people who staff these services are being cut. Schools share psychologists and social workers with 2-3 other schools. Mr. Breitbart, et al had the opportunity to use Ms. Lewis' videos to highlight these challenges in public schools. Instead, they decided to put out a sensationalistic piece to pit the public against teachers.

    I guess that Mayor Emanuel has an opportunity to "externalize" some of his union-busting costs to the GOP and their henchmen. It's sad that all of this energy and money is not being used to fully staff schools.

    Ray, I'm a little disappointed that someone who is in the trenches like yourself isn't using your column as an opportunity to show the inequities in the education system. You have the power and a way with words that could really help lift us all up.

  • Thanks to both of you for taking the time to post. The reality is that her humor is offensive. The only context I would see those comments being appropriate is among a group of very, very close friends after a many, many drinks. Even then, I'm not so sure.

    Lewis still devalued education reform as a civil rights issue. She needs to understand the difference between satire and sarcasm so she can use humor to unite. She failed with this speech.

    And, she knew she was the keynote speaker. She should have anticipated a recording.

    Bottom line, lots of people are shocked by her poor choice of humor. Honestly, I don't want her representing me. As a union member, she does.

    Please read my other blog posts here and google my NPR commentaries. You'll see that I am all about progressive education reform. Please read the one titled "Don't Teach Like a Champion" especially.

    I hope some of those posts do lift us up. We have too much work to do to be distracted by Lewis's mistake.

  • "We have too much work to do to be distracted by Lewis's mistake."

    Then why are you rehashing this 4-day old story and not doing the "other work?"

  • Not rehashing at all. Just presenting my perspective. The story is still a lively topic. I Googled her name and all kinds of stuff still pops up. Did you read the Don't Teach Like a Champ essay? The Cameron Diaz one and You Speak So Well will also give you bigger sense of my views. There's also the essay about a solution to the longer school day.

    Karen Lewis messed up. She's recognized it. Lots and lots of people are recognizing it, too. It's a topic that is going to linger.

    If it had been a good speech, the other parts of the speech would have overshadowed this bad comments. They haven't yet and I don't think they will.

    Thanks for continuing the conversation.

  • Re: "If it had been a good speech, the other parts of the speech would have overshadowed this bad comments. They haven't yet and I don't think they will."

    How could the other parts be overshadowed if 30+ minutes of the speech was edited out?

  • This is where her PR team failed her. What they should have done is emphasized the good comments she made.

    The full video has to be floating around in on the Internet. There was no significant buzz about this speech until the bad jokes hit the Web.

    If the speech were impressive, memorable, that would have (or her team should have) highlighted it. She messed up. Big time. I wonder if this will cause her a re-election.

  • In reply to Ray Salazar:

    OK, so watch the video and tell us your honest opinion of the substance of her speech. Why should you just rely on whether or not enough "buzz" came out about the piece? Shouldn't you watch it yourself and form your own opinion? I mean, the film "Bad Teacher" got a lot of "buzz" and in a previous post, you don't seem to think highly of that film.

  • I have heard Lewis speak on numerous occasions. I sat in the first row the Tribune event in September. I've never been impressed or moved to action. For 17 years, I've had to hunt down information from and about the CTU. It's time the union reach out to me as a member. They didn't. I'll try to watch the video.

    Bad Teacher was a bad movie. They could have done so many hilarious things--especially because she's a middle school teacher. Pre-teens can provide multiple opportunities for satire--not sarcasm. And they really could have come up with original criticisms of teachers. I had high expectations. It was a bad movie.

    I believe in progressive reform. But Lewis's comments pushed us back. The sooner we accept that, the sooner we can move forward.

  • I'm late to this party and an outsider to boot - so grain of salt be damned, you can take my comments with a whole shaker if you wish.

    I think you've missed the forest for the trees, Ray. I listened to the full speech, and humor is the least of her problems. I keep getting lost in her stories and tangents. What's the point of this speech? It seems to me she went the long way 'round the barn, kept walking at the last corner and never did make it to the door.

    A union needs a leader who can focus and bring the membership into focus. The message I received was that things weren't very good before, they're tough for her now and teachers should expect things to be tough for them if they take on this social justice fight.

    After 35 minutes, I'm confused and a little intimidated. I doubt that's the result she was seeking. She should stop storytelling and focus on the importance of winning rather than the expected difficulty of the struggle.

  • In reply to amook2:

    Thanks for posting. This reaffirms what I've been asking for a long time but especially the couple of years: What is the CTU uniting around? We just don't have a clear purpose or vision. We get messages about the threats and challenges we face as Chicago Public Schools teachers but few clear, viable solutions. I agree with you.

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