Good Chicago Public Schools Teachers Need Public Support

Good Chicago Public Schools Teachers Need Public Support

At yesterday's press conference, Chicago Teachers' Union Karen Lewis said, "We live in a city that no longer trusts educators as important resources in helping our youth to develop values, skills, and the knowledge required for them to enter adult life as thinking and engaged citizens."

She's right.

Many people think teachers have it really good.  We get summers off.  We get lots of holidays.  We get winter and spring breaks.  We start and end our day when the bell rings.  This is why many people who do not teach think teachers have it good.  It's hard to argue against this.

The only way this misconception can change is if people who do not teach hear, read, and understand the perspectives of good teachers.  Like every profession, we have people who are bad at their jobs.  We have teachers who don't care.  Who belittle students.  Who hand out worksheets every day.  Who take extended vacations before winter break.  Who say, "Open the book.  Read the chapter.  Answer the questions."  We have teachers who harm students emotionally and academically.

But this number is smaller than the multitude of good teachers.  For too, too long, our profession feared defining what a good teacher is.  We shouldn't over complicate it.  We know if we have a good doctor even if we don't have a medical degree.  We know that a good teacher has to plan and prepare, create a productive learning environment, engage students in learning, and interact professionally with colleagues and families.  That's it.

But the media, CPS leaders, and even the Chicago Teachers' Union fail at convincing the public that there are more good teachers than bad ones.  This is why even good teachers find it difficult to gain support against the challenges of the longer school day and the challenges we face each day.  "You guys have it easy."  That's what many people say.

The misunderstandings about teaching may change once people who do not teach understand the new teacher-evaluation system.  Next year, CPS begins phasing out the carbon-copy checklist used for decades.  Instead, principals will use a variation of the Danielson Framework: an evaluation tool with four domains that capture a teacher's strengths and areas for development. In high schools, this will make up 90% of a teacher's evaluation.  The other 10% will come from "performance assessments."  This term is used for the culminating essay or project at the end of a series of lessons.  We need to show students grew as a result of our teaching.

I'm in.  I believe in teacher accountability and welcome the Danielson's definition of good teaching.  While the new evaluation makes it easier to understand what good teachers do, it doesn't make it easier for good teachers to do it.

I hope these real-life examples help people who do not teach understand the challenges good teachers face.  Good teachers, I hope you'll see, do not have it easy.

One domain of the evaluation system is classroom environment.  Here's what good teachers do:

2a Create an Environment of Respect and Rapport
2b Establish a Culture for Learning
2c Manage Classroom Procedures
2d Manage Student Behavior
2e Organize Physical Space

Here are some of the challenges good teachers face with classroom environment:

1. We may be working with an administrator who does not follow the CPS Student Code of Conduct.  While swearing and disrespectful behavior can result in a detention, some of our bosses don't believe in detention as a consequence.  Instead, they may offer their own type of "counseling" so students "reflect."  When principals do want to apply the Code, many times schools don't have the human resources to carry out the consequences.  To make this situation worse, the district does not devote the sufficient resources to carry out the Code efficiently or effectively.

2. In high schools, we usually share classrooms.  Imagine using a space for a major project, organizing your materials for productive work sessions, and setting up the A/V equipment for a morning meeting.  Now imagine having to leave all of that in the space while another group works there in the afternoon.  It's not easy.  I've taught in up to three classrooms at a time and had four minutes to get from one room to the next.  It's tough to manage up to five teams of people in two or three work spaces.

Another domain is planning and preparation.  Here's what good teachers do:

1a Demonstrate Knowledge of Content and Pedagogy
1b Demonstrate Knowledge of Students
1c Set Instructional Outcomes
1d Demonstrate Knowledge of Resources
1e Design Coherent Instruction
1f Design Student Assessments

Here are some challenges good teachers face with planning and preparation:

1. Sometimes, we cannot set the instructional outcomes.  When I was at an AUSL school, the literacy coach was set on developing students' recall skills.  I didn't see evidence students needed help with this.  But she told me she had to see them retell specific details from a text the day she observed.  I argued that it just didn't fit--we were on the culminating assignment that involved inference.  She wanted to see recall.  At that same school, I needed to begin the year teaching subject and verb agreement.  I was bored.  The kids were bored.  I didn't see evidence they needed this.  But that was the instructional outcome I had to address.

2. We can know what good resources are but cannot always get them.  Sometimes, we have to work with the texts in stock.  Yes, we can photocopy but we have limits.  Even though teachers violate copyright laws all the time, we can usually only make a certain number of copies each month.  As much as good teachers want to use technology, sometimes there just isn't enough of it and many times not all of it works.

The domains also include professional responsibilities.  Here's what good teachers do:

4a Reflect on Teaching
4b Maintain Accurate Records
4c Communicate with Families
4d Participate in a Professional Community
4e Grow and Developing Professionally
4f Show Professionalism

Here are some real challenges for good teachers:

1. We need to collaborate with our colleagues but there's no official accountability with each other.  We may have a colleague who says he or she accepts responsibility for doing something and then doesn't do it.  There are usually only two bosses who can address this.  But if this irresponsibility cannot compete with the other challenges the boss faces, it won't get addressed.  There's a different level of accountability for people in the corporate world.

2. We may buy in to the new Common Core Standards that encourage analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.  But we may work with colleagues who don't and won't.  We also have few professional development days to engage in conversations that help us adopt more challenging standards.  We don't have resources for entire teams to attend trainings on new standards.  Currently, a handful of people attend Network meetings and, somehow, that handful is supposed to train everyone.  We don't have days to prepare and revise a major presentation.  Sometimes we get forty-five minutes a week to collaborate.  We can't do it over lunch because, sometimes, we only have twenty minutes and one microwave.  Some elementary and middle school teachers have to eat with their students.  On some days, some teachers teach non-stop all day.

The last domain is instruction:

3a Communicate With Students
3b Use Questioning and Discussion Techniques
3c Engage Students in Learning
3d Use Assessment in Instruction
3e Demonstrate Flexibility and Responsiveness

This is just hard to do every single day.  But many good teachers achieve this every single day by working after school.  Even if we leave at 5:00 p.m. when everyone else is leaving their offices, good high-school teachers have interacted with about 150 teenagers, motivated them, reprimanded others, problem solved, assessed learning, and have a stack of essays to grade at home after dinner.  We'd like to go out for a drinks Thursday evening or even a baseball game.  But if we did, we would suffer the consequences of fatigue and slow thinking the next day.  Our students would suffer, too.  We can't usually retreat to a cubicle or run out for a cup of good coffee.  We rarely have an "easy day tomorrow."

Good teaching is difficult, demanding work.  But it happens every day in many classrooms in Chicago Public Schools.  Like many other good teachers, I ask myself, "Is this assignment good enough for my own kids?"  If it's not, I have to change it.  Many of us accept our responsibility and work on our own in the summer, during breaks, and take personal-business days to catch up on grading.

This is why the mayor cannot minimize teaching to simply extending the day or demanding results. Offering a 2% raise and merit-pay for longer hours is unrealistic.  Furthermore, the new evaluation system has to take into account the challenges good teachers face.  People who do not teach need to understand that the demands of teaching are different than when we were in school.

And this is why the Chicago Teachers' Union has to do a better job of communicating the reality of good teachers at press conferences.  Karen Lewis generalized even though not all schools held a mock strike vote.  She's asking for a 30% raise, which sounds ridiculous to people who face their own salary struggles.  She's grouping the needs of elementary, middle, and high school teachers; each group has different needs.  Even at the high-school level, the needs of good teachers at neighborhood schools are very different from those at selective-enrollment ones.  We're not all the same.

Good CPS teachers need public support to teach well.  Here's how the public can support good teachers:

  • Thoughtfully contact the Tribune at about its full, unquestioning endorsement of the mayor's education decisions
  • Read and listen skeptically to other media outlets and contact them about their unfair or incomplete education reporting.  Or compliment them on their fair coverage
  • Recognize that complex education reform is required for students to succeed in the 21st century--some solutions will work in some communities; others won't
  • Question the implementation of CPS leaders' ideas and contact CPS leaders civilly with constructive feedback
  • Question the logic of the Chicago Teachers' Union and contact Karen Lewis and her team civilly with constructive feedback at
  • Post your ideas here, on the District 299 blog, and other education blogs thoughtfully.  However, anonymous comments don't help good teachers.  We need to accept responsiblity for our views.

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  • The problem isn't really the teachers. It's the union. A public employees union is antithetical to good government. They should be eliminated. Period.

  • In reply to publiusforum:

    Thanks for responsding. A union can help protect a public employee's rights. The question is "What rights is the union fighting for?" Also, how is the union presenting its case?

    The problem is that the CTU's logic is usually generalized, exaggerated, and/or too hard to follow. This does not help non-teachers good teachers really do. And it makes it too easy for bad teachers to be protected.

    CTU is always on the defensive and makes us look like hostile public servants. In corporate terms, it comes down to a bad brand identity.

    Even if the union were eliminated, the misconceptions I mention above would still exist. People who do not teach and criticize teachers need to understand that the demands of teaching have changed significantly from when we were in school.

  • So far as the Tribune, they only listen to $ . Teachers and their supporters should boycott the Tribune altogether, cancel their subscriptions, and stop even reading them online. Stop talking about it, stop 'sharing' their stories, just stop giving them any attention at all. They offer such a bias on the news, it's difficult to rationalize reading them. There are better sources of news online . WHY would anyone continue to support a media source that has made villains of their profession and continues to insist that the State Legislature should not get involved in the business of its constituents, because CPS and Emanuel "know" what's best for the city ? The day I trust CPS / Emanuel to know what's best, that's the day you can declare me braindead.

  • In reply to 30-Yr. Vet:

    Thanks for posting, 30-year Vet. What news sources do you recommend to keep informed about education news besides the Trib? If people see there are dependable options, maybe they will stop reading the Trib.

  • I just spent 45 minutes posting a thoughtful, concise reacyion to this well-written article. Sadly, like the Board of Ed, your website designer doesn't have a clue as it was lost in the ether - keep up the good work.

  • In reply to beentheredonethat:

    Thanks for posting despite the tech trouble.

    Below is a section from Brizard's letter to teachers sent out this week:

    "As a former teacher and principal, I know how important it is to have time to collaborate with other teachers, prepare for lessons and meet with parents.  While the length of the teacher work day announced on Jan. 12 will not change, we can structure  the new schedule to provide what  teachers and their representatives tell us they need and want, namely a midday lunch break, more self-directed preparation time, more time for collaboration, and more time for professional development. The new schedule is structured to give you additional time for professional development, before-school preparation periods and additional self-directed preparation time, including (all subject to collective bargaining discussions):

    --An average of 75 minutes for professional development each week for both elementary and high school teachers
    --Nearly two additional hours of planning and professional development time each week for both elementary and high school teachers  and
    --25 minutes of self-directed prep time every morning for elementary school teachers."

    We'll see.

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    Ray, you capture my sentiments exactly, especially here: "The problem is that the CTU's logic is usually generalized, exaggerated, and/or too hard to follow. This does not help non-teachers good teachers really do. And it makes it too easy for bad teachers to be protected." Thanks for illuminating both the complexity of our work and of our positions as public-sector employees, many of whom feel trapped by the political tugs-of-war between the union and CPS, which keep our profession from professionalizing. It's all a bit akin to the absurd catfights going on in Congress of late.

  • In reply to educatorgal:

    Thanks for commenting. I agree--especially with your last sentence. It becomes this foolish game of power instead of progress.

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