It's a tough weekend for Chicago Public Schools teachers—and it won’t get any easier if we go on strike this Tuesday. But if we do not strike, it won’t be any easy either. Whatever happens, CPS teachers will continue to get criticized like no other teachers in any Illinois district.
The city wants teachers to pay the 7% pension contribution—which has been paid by the city since the 1980s (as a solution to another fiscal crisis when the city literally ran out of money). The union says this amounts to pay cut. CPS disagrees.
We’re also fighting for reasonable class sizes, support services for students, decreased paperwork, and better funding for our schools.
But we can only strike over pay so that’s what the conversation is all about these days. Many people label us as selfish. But we don’t teach to get jackpot pensions. According to the Sun-Times, “The average retirement age [for Chicago teachers] was 61. The average annual pension was $51,454 compared with a median household income in Chicago of $47,831.”
But educators in affluent districts who make much more than Chicago teachers do not get publicly criticized the way we do—because many people think Chicago teachers don’t do anything good.
No other teachers--especially those who make a lot more in some suburbs, even those who have recently gone on strike too--would ever be criticized the way we are.
In Chicago, among the shootings, the unstable housing situation, the rising taxes, the 21st century challenges of adolescence, the decreasing social services, Chicago teachers are still expected to do more: by the mayor, by district leaders, by editorial boards, by parents, and even by students.
The Tribune Editorial Board said teachers are "shaking down" city residents with our demands.
"Spare us your torment about how hard you work," another columnist responded to one of my blog posts defending teachers.
"I work in the private sector, and I dont' have as many days off as teachers do . . . it is time to stop your whining and realize that either you absorb the pay cuts demanded of you, or just move to another field," another reader commented.
I wonder if, with the decrease of stable working-class jobs, people have begun associating pensions with welfare.
So we see many skeptics thinking CPS teachers get too much and don't do enough.
Surprisingly, a usually skeptical Chicago Tribune journalist published an article highlighting the salary divide between CPS and other Illinois teachers—especially those in affluent districts. Outside of Chicago, Diane Rado writes:
"Teachers . . . earn more than $100,000, on average, in a handful of wealthy districts. Several dozen more suburban districts [pay] salaries in the $80,000s to the high $90,000s to educate kids who are usually not low-income and don't face such challenges as truancy and homelessness.
"Meanwhile, Chicago Public Schools teachers earn about $69,000 on average, based on 2015 statewide data, as they deal with a high-poverty student population and a host of chronic urban school issues that researchers say make for a difficult teaching environment."
Finally, we see it in print that teaching in Chicago—in any district where families struggle financially—is not easy.
Good teaching is harder anywhere socio-economic gaps exist among students. Many affluent suburban districts are starting to become more public about the struggles economic (and, therefore, racial) diversity brings.
These scoffs, the skepticism, this public criticism is strongest and loudest against Chicago teachers.
I don’t want to turn this into a teacher vs. teacher thing.
I want to challenge the assumption that teaching in Chicago is bad. That suburban districts are automatically better. That good Chicago teachers should leave the city for better opportunities. That CPS teachers should just accept what the city offers.
No, we shouldn't.
But we need to watch our teacher rhetoric, too.
So should CPS teachers get paid more?
I don’t think that's what most Chicago teachers want—at least not many of the good teachers I’ve worked with over the years.
What most CPS teachers will likely say is, “Stop taking things away.”
CPS high school teachers already work a 7 ½ school day but only get paid for 6 ¼ hours. We’ve given up enough.
Teachers did not create the pension crisis. Teachers did not divert funds to city projects for almost two decades.
The Chicago Teachers Union is getting better about communicating what we have given. But there are still many missed opportunities and sometimes too many metaphors when leaders are at the mic. And our union president is divisive. People love her or hate her.
The adoration prevents us from seeing that we have areas for improvement as professionals. I wrote about the poor examples of teacher voice during the last strike. This contributed to people’s skepticism of us.
A college-educated suburban mom whose kids did not attend CPS recently emphasized her skepticism of teachers to me: “Teachers have all those days off.” She, of course, brings no work home and gets paid for every hour she’s in the office. She's not expected to address her patient's social-emotional or economic issues as a dentist.
In working-class or low-income homes, if parents failed themselves in school or if the educational system failed them, they criticize teachers. “You’re all asking for too much, Ray,” an immigrant working-class guy told me.
People will be quick to tell us what CPS teachers should do this week. Much of this unsolicited advice will be because of the inherent bias against us. This is what happens when we teach in a city with divisive leaders on both sides of the battle.
But I’ll have one question ready for everyone who thinks they know what I, as a Chicago Public Schools teacher, should do:
“What do you think Chicago Public Schools teachers deserve?”
Their answers will reveal what they REALLY think about teachers in Chicago.
THAT’S a conversation we need to have.
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