Monday's Town Hall Show: Produced by, Directed by, and Starring Rahm Emanuel

Monday's Town Hall Show: Produced by, Directed by, and Starring Rahm Emanuel

I was literally behind the camera at tonight’s education town hall meeting.

Last Thursday, I got an e-mail from the CPS Office of Communications inviting me to tonight’s event (thanks to this blog).  I know they invited two other teacher bloggers, but I don’t know if they were there.

Disappointingly, I didn’t get a chance to shake hands with the mayor.  When I saw him, my reaction was, “Wow.  We’re the same height.”

The event started at 6:30 p.m. and ended at 7:15 p.m.  The whole town hall was super managed, super protected, super promotion.  While I value the mayor’s attempt to engage with the public, I question the value of these virtual town hall meetings.  It felt like interacting with the currency exchange teller who works behind a thick, bullet-proof shield.  I see the teller.  I hear the teller.  Behind the few inches of glass that separate us, the teller gives me some attention.  Then, the teller needs me to move on.

Here’s what the mayor said early in the town hall meeting:

“It is easy to get isolated in the mayor’s office.  My job is to continue to make sure I hear the voices of the people, their optimism, what’s troubling them.  Do they have a solution to a problem I can carry into the office and make it happen?  This is a way to make sure I stay in touch so the public feels they have a chance to have that conversation.  And the technology becomes the tool, in this case, of empowering the public.”

This town hall was designed to make us “feel” the mayor is conversing with us but, in reality, he was protecting and promoting himself.

The body guard and promoter?  The host.

WVON’s Matt McGill hosted the Facebook town hall meeting from Westinghouse College Prep’s television studio.

The first question McGill asked was whether Mayor Emanuel would modify the full-day plan so that the parents who say their kids don’t want or need a longer school day can opt out.  The mayor provided an answer that lasted about two and a half minutes.  Essentially he said no.

A few years ago, I interviewed Senator Miguel Del Valle for Chicago Public Radio and–man, can he talk!  I learned that politicians talk quickly during live interviews.  Politicians, I realized, benefit from having time run out.  Therefore, they leave almost no opportunities to get in a challenging question.

But tonight, every now and then, the mayor left a few seconds of silence where the host could have jumped in.  This was only a forty-five minute “meeting.”  McGill should have pushed the mayor on his one-size-fits-all approach.  Some parents want their kids in other activities besides school.  McGill should have asked, “How do you respond to critics who say the longer day prevents students from fully participating in extra-curricular activities like sports and clubs?”  He didn’t.  McGill sat passively.

At another point, the host asked about the need for more parent involvement.  The mayor talked about tracking data from report-card pick-up days, for example.  It took the mayor over two and a half minutes to say this.  McGill should have pushed the mayor and asked, “How does a city hold parents accountable?  How exactly does that happen?  Do they get a write-up if they don’t go?”  He didn’t ask.

About thirty minutes into the town hall, the issue of teacher evaluation came up.  McGill said that lots of union teachers want to be evaluated fairly and say, “Bring it on.”

Hold up, McGill!  I am a union teacher who wants to be evaluated fairly–but I want a say in and I want to know what the “it” is.  I believe in quality of work over quantity of years.  I want the due process for removing ineffective teachers to be simplified.  We need an evaluation that goes beyond the current checklist.  However, neither CPS nor the Chicago Teachers’ Union has provided concrete solutions that make me say, “Bring it on.”

Jessica, the student host, asked a question lots of people want the answer to: “Why did you select AUSL to lead six turnaround schools?”

The mayor mentioned the success at Johnson, Dulles, Howe, Bethune.  But he didn’t mention Orr–that’s a high school AUSL is still struggling to turn around.  Last year, I wrote about why I decided to leave my position at an AUSL high school in a blog post titled, “This School Year, Don’t Teach Like a Champion.”  McGill should have questioned AUSL’s contracts, considering David Vitale–an AUSL board member–is on CPS’s board.  He didn’t.

The comment that most revealed McGill’s bias was his opening comment about the mayor earning his position the old-fashioned way.  I thought, “Inheritance?”  McGill made a reference to Emanuel’s “feet on the ground, going to almost every neighborhood in the city.”  Flattery will get us nowhere.

What most disturbed me, however, was how the mayor kept complimenting Jessica, the student host, and the other Westinghouse students for their work.  It was condescending.  On and on the mayor spoke about meeting Jessica’s dedicated mother and grandmother and how Jessica’s brother went to another good high school.  There was no way the students were going to challenge the mayor after all of those compliments.  They deserved the credit but they also deserved to be treated like professionals.  The flattery made the whole town hall feel like the students were playing “Let’s pretend we have a T.V. show.”

The mayor would not have complimented any news anchor like that.  The students deserved to be treated as equals, not as little boys and little girls playing an imaginary game.

At the end of the town hall, I had lots of questions to ask the mayor.  I tried.  I knew I had one chance, so I decided I would ask how he envisions a longer school year and summer programs if many schools do not have sufficient air conditioning.  I’ve been on the top floor in an old building on hot September and June days without A/C or a fan and a full classroom.  It sucks.

“He’s leaving right after this,” the mayor’s staff member told me.  I didn’t get a chance to ask.  But maybe the mayor will continue to use technology as a tool and post his response here.

If you watched the town hall, what’s your view?  If you didn’t, what education question would you have asked the mayor?

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  • Correction: I checked AUSL's Web site and David Vitale no longer appears on their list of board members.

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