A Chicago Teaching Fellow's reflection: still teaching in the Chicago Public Schools

A guest post by Dan Holder


“What’s up?” Dyl asks from DC, Fall 2010. He works for the Department of Justice.

“Still teaching,” I tell him, “but I’m thinking of applying for PhD program in History.”

“What are you up to?” Bri asks from Cornell, Winter 2011. He’s begun a PhD program in Physics at Cornell.

“Still teaching,” I reply, “but I’m checking out law schools.”

As my closest friends from the University of  Chicago Class of 2009, Brian and Dylan have maintained their intellectual identities. They read, they write. They discuss good books and bad politics.

For me, I’ve spent three years identifying myself by the things I aspire to become.

For three years, I’ve been “still teaching, but….”

A week after beginning my fourth year teaching, Dyl sends an email.

“How’d the picket lines go?” he asks, referring to the first strike by Chicago Public Schools teachers in 25 years.

I stare at the words for five minutes before realizing I can’t formulate an intellectual response.

How did the picket line go? How does an aloof, apolitical, self-proclaimed “intellectual” end up a tenured teacher in a red shirt with a picket? How do I move from reading Marx to raging against the educational reform machine?

About a week into my fourth-year as a History major, I decided to take a break. With a dusty LSAT prep book, a near-empty wallet, and plans to marry my college sweetheart upon graduation, I resolved to find a “tempareer,” a work arrangement with more prestige than a job but less commitment than a career.

Where can I get a decent-paying job for History majors that won’t look like a waste on my resume?

Anticipating my predicament, I received an email from a Teach for America recruiter titled: “Your UofC Leadership – Chat about Job Opportunity?”

After citing an award I won as a sophomore, the email explained that after teaching, leaders from TFA “then go on to use the network, experience, and our prestigious partnerships to become leaders for change in the arts & sciences, business, politics, and law.” I hadn’t been involved with the U of C’s Neighborhood Schools Program nor had I demonstrated any passing interest in urban schools. Apparently, education experience wasn’t a necessary credential.

Teaching, it began to seem, would be the perfect pit-stop on route to a truly prestigious, intellectual career.

I applied to both Teach for America and Chicago Teaching Fellows. On February 6, 2009, the afternoon before my final interview for TFA, I received an acceptance letter from Chicago Teaching Fellows.

With a wedding scheduled for July 13th and a guarantee that I would be located  with a near-fifty-grand annual salary, I accepted the offer and skipped my final interview with Teach forAmerica.

Three certification tests and two interviews later, I obtained my Initial Type 28 Alternative Special Teaching Certificate and became a teacher at Hancock High in Chicago Public Schools, only 7 or so miles west of the University of Chicago on 55th and Pulaski.

When I began teaching in September 2009, the average ACT score was 15.8 compared to a state average of 20.7. Over 90% of Hancock students were Hispanic and classified as “low-income” (as measured by free and reduced lunch status). Moreover, nearly one-third of the students were “chronic truants” who missed more than seventeen school days.

“Put me where you need me the most,” I told my principal when she asked about class preferences.

I received my schedule a few days before school began and was delighted to that I would be teaching two “Geo.” courses. Geography with Professor Conzen had been of my favorite courses as an undergrad.

“Why are you giving us these maps?” a student asked on the first day, “This is Geometry.”

Sure enough, I was teaching two geometry classes, two Algebra II, one Algebra I and an overtime web design course with no curriculum.

Though thoroughly excited to impart my U of C wisdom, I was unprepared for an abundance of questions that had nothing obvious to do with math or Socrates.

Perhaps the most frequent question was simply, “How long are you here?”

“As long as they keep me!” I would joke.

At face value, this question was inspired by the rampant teacher turnover-sometimes exceeding twenty percent- that my students experienced from year to year. (Like reality TV stars, teachers seemed to change every season).

Deeper, though, I think they wondered why I was at Hancock. Why did I want to teach them? Did I?

About three months after this existential crisis, I learned our school was on probation and a likely candidate for the “turnaround” model of school transformation. I liked this name- which reminded me of a dance move- until I found that it involved firing all staff, regardless of when they were hired or their rating, be it superior or unsatisfactory.

In these trying times, I found consolation in prayer and the Lord of the Rings:


Frodo: I wish the [perils of teaching in an urban school amidst sweeping education reform agendas led by business-informed politicians with no education experience] had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.

Gandalf: So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. There are other forces at work in this world Frodo, besides the will of evil [and misguided school reformers].”


Like Gandalf, I challenged myself to focus on what I could do with the time I had in my classroom with the kids I saw everyday. I had to get over myself, my UofC education, and figure out what mattered to my students. I had to listen and ask before I could provide answers.

“Why do you tag things?” I asked a student after catching him drawing an upside down pitchfork on a desk.

“I don’t know. It’s like ‘Haha, you bought that, you own it, but my name, my symbol, is on it.’”

“Would you tag in a park?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he replied.

“Why,” I asked him, “aren’t parks public? Don’t we all pay for them, together?”

“I guess, but not everyone uses them! They’re not for everyone.

“Well,” I said, “your school is for you! Why would you tag things in your own school?”

“You sneaky, Mr. Holder.”

My desks were clean for the rest of the year.

As I began to listen to my students and ask kids about their lives, I began to appreciate the knowledge they had, a knowledge and perspective of the city and of life that I simply hadn’t found at UofC.

I found students with problems that theories alone couldn’t address. I found students with questions no college prepares a teacher to answer: “How should I answer this drug question on this Walgreen’s application, Mr. Holder?” “Should I tell them that I have stolen from employers in the past?”

Ultimately, I found a challenging career that requires me each and every day to decipher a complex web of social/economic, emotional, and developmental needs and concerns and to distill this information to make a series of big-and-small decisions that impact student lives, directly, on a daily basis.

These days, I spend most of my time in a room with ten chairs, four yellow walls, zero windows, and 9”x9” gray, asbestos floor tiles. At times, the temperature exceeds 90 degrees.

This environment, however, seems ever more appropriate. My students are at-risk of failing, dropping out, and of not being “college-ready” by ACT standards. In this room, we are forgotten, ignored, and the odds are against. In this room without AC, we sweat together!

Nietzsche wrote, “A few hours of mountain climbing turn a villain and a saint into two rather equal creatures. Exhaustion is the shortest way to equality and fraternity.”

Reworded, it might read, “A few hours of quadratic equations in a 90-degree classroom turn a UofC nerd and a ‘challenging’ urban student into two rather equal creatures.”

I wonder at times if I would better suited to a life of intellectual research and endeavor, but what would I tell my kids? What would happen to academic camaraderie forged in our small, forgotten room?

“Don’t worry, I’ve taken a job in Washington, DC to assess the macroeconomic factors that are impacting your education and perpetuating the achievement gap between your average scores and those of white students in the state of Illinois!”

For the last two years, students in my self-contained classes have posted increases of nearly 1 point in their ACT scores. For Hancock, the average ACT score has increased from 15.8 in 2010 to a little over 17 in 2012. This was enough to move us off the probation list.

Still, I am not convinced that these scores are necessary or sufficient indicators of our success, our “transformation.”

If teachers are evaluated upon student growth, who determines how much growth is desirable? Is it appropriate to define growth along purely academic lines? What about the growth of my student who left a gang and learned to self-regulate negative, impulsive behavior?

More generally, if I am evaluated upon student growth, what incentive do I have to teach in schools where I perceive a low chance of student growth?

If a school has a historic trend of declining or neutral academic growth, why would the most qualified teachers suspend their statistical reasoning capacities and choose to work in these schools?

I’ve heard parents ask these questions, and yet the Mayor of Chicago is not a parent of Chicago Public Schools students. The appointed CEO of Chicago Public Schools is not a parent. None of the appointed members of the Board of Education (to my knowledge) have students that are currently in Chicago Public Schools.

What voice, then, do teachers or parents really have in Chicago Public Schools? Our public schools, it seems are only democratic insofar as they are controlled, directly, by one elected official whose election to office has bestowed some mystical, ultimate educational mandate for a four-year term.

As an employee in a politicized educational system, I began to realize that I don’t have the luxury of being apolitical, at around 11pm on September 9th, I learned I would be participating in the first strike in 25 years for Chicago Public Schools teachers.

On Pulaski and 55th, it smells like hot tar, waste, and a hint of donut. Standing with over fifty teachers and staff, we are equal parts passion and confusion. We are united. We are a presence on the sidewalk. And we are loud.

Is this, I wonder, how I will find my voice?

On September 11th we repeat the routine, only we march to Curie High School where we are joined by over one-hundred union comrades.

On the 12th, we march to Curie and then Kelly high school along diagonalArcher avenue, nearly one mile of teachers walking, three by three, and four by four. Students and parents wave. Garbage trucks honk their horns, police blip their sirens, and a passing train even pulls his horn. I am excited, confused, overwhelmed, powerful, and hopeful.

After the rally, a man selling water bottles gives me one for free.

At home after the march, I found time to reacquaint myself with Marx: “Strikes,” he tells me, “have regularly given rise to the invention and application of new machines,” and frequently inspire “efforts of mechanical genius react against them.”

Will our strike change educational reform, or will it inspire the invention of teaching machines- or at least machines capable of producing disposable teachers? Am I an intellectual, a worker, a machine, a communist, a socialist, or just a teacher?

At 3:06 pm on Wednesday, the 12th, I receive an email from the UChicago Magazine touting, “A doctor decodes malaria.” Perhaps next month I will receive one that reads: “A teacher decodes test for student with disability.”

I have yet to figure out how to turn my three years of teaching into marketable, sanitized bullets on a resume.

But next time a friend asks how I am, I think I will say: “I am still teaching.”


Dan Holder earned a bachelor’s in history with honors from the University of Chicago and is a special education teacher at Hancock College Prep.  Recently, he finished a master’s in teaching program at National-Louis University.

If you are a Chicago teacher who would like to submit a guest post, contact Ray (see link under blog title).

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