Chicago Public Schools teachers and students need more than love

This week, LA Times Columnist Steve Lopez wrote a profile about a California AP Calculus teacher.  One first-generation Latino student, a son of working-class parents, became one of twelve students worldwide to earn a perfect score on the test.  All of this teacher’s students “passed” the exam with a score of 3 or higher.

Lopez described how Anthony Yom, who started teaching eleven years ago, established a strong relationship with students by calling “their homes in the evening if they needed extra help, and, on his own time, tutoring on weekends and during vacations. He still does.”

Teaching low-income students, engaging them with challenging material, building their academic capacity will always be difficult work.  Yom and his students deserve all of the accolades for their work and achievements.

But the ending of Lopez’s profile bothered me.

“Yom says he keeps getting asked if there’s some secret recipe for getting students to perform at their highest potential.

‘This may sound corny, but you really have to love them,’ Yom says. ‘You build this trust, and at that point, whatever you ask them to do, they’ll go the extra mile. The recipe is love.’”

Journalistic pieces like this about teachers reinforce the misconception that good teachers should be self-sacrificing people.  It’s this mentality that allows Chicago Public Schools leaders to push questionable contract offers in front of the Chicago Teachers Union bargaining team with the expectation that they’ll accept them.

The main issue now in contract negotiations seems to be that Chicago Public Schools leaders want 1500 teachers and 750 support staff to retire but do not guarantee that these positions will be re-staffed by new hires. This would equal about a 10% decrease in personnel.  With 517 district-run schools, this could mean about 4.4 lost positions at each school.

This might not seem like a big loss, but the ramifications are huge.  This would naturally mean class sizes increase—especially in elementary schools.  Support staff that help students with special needs could be cut.  Security positions could decrease—even one less security guard on a team of five people in a school of 1,000 students is a huge loss.

Many high schools with this number of students usually only have only one dean of students.  Losing 4.4 positions in a school carries consequences that negetatively affect students.  This, of course, assumes the staff loss would happen equally in each school. Nothing ever happens equally.

The financial crisis we’re in was not created by teachers.  Past city and district leaders mismanaged the district’s finances so that district leaders this week had to borrow $725 million through a bond sale with extremely high interest.

Now, city and district leaders expect teachers to do “their part” by taking a 7% pay cut to pay our own pension and accept a 10% reduction in personnel.  This is in addition to getting paid for only 6 hours and 15 minutes a day but being required to work for 7 hours and 11 minutes a day thanks to the last contract we got in 2012—with a two-week strike.

These expectations don’t take into account the additional unpaid hours at home and on weekends many good teachers devote to planning and grading.  Yes, we get summers off–but without extended pay.  Since our 2012 contract, we no longer have the option to spread out our 9-month salary over 12 months.

Many teachers love the work we do with our students but hate so much of the meticulous paperwork and politics that dominate our jobs.  In order to truly succeed as teachers, we already sacrifice our personal time.  In my 20th year, teaching has gotten harder.  But it’s not the students that make it hard.  Working with young people is the best part.  The difficult part is that, continuously, teachers are expected to do more with less.

The LA Times teacher profile piece encourages the mindset that good teachers enjoy working non-stop, sacrificing themselves for the ultimate student success.  Lopez’s piece encourages people to think, “We need more teachers like that.”

More importantly, Lopez’s profile misguides readers into thinking that “love is the recipe” to succeed with students.  It’s not.

As Anthony Yom discussed in the interview, to be an effective teacher, “he cracked the books, late into the night, to prepare for his new challenge” of teaching AP Calculus.  Yom also found an experienced mentor.

Good teaching is hard work.  And good teachers, as Steve Lopez wrote, work “in virtual obscurity.”  Because good teaching remains hidden, non-educators continue to believe that 21st century teaching continues to be nothing more than sitting students in rows, directing them to open workbooks, reprimanding them for talking, and grading worksheet after work sheet, or displaying dioramas made at home.

Oh, there are some teachers who still do that, who punch in with the first bell and punch out with the last.  As in all professions, we have some people who should be doing something else.

But many—many—of the colleagues I’ve worked with at six different Chicago schools believe, like Anthony Yom, that students can and should succeed.

But we should not be expected to carry out our responsibilities with the least amount of human or instructional resources possible to save the city from a financial mess we did not create.

Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool did not do less with more.

A Chicago Tribune story explained how he brought in past colleagues and political supporters as consultants to guide his decision making (or to make the decisions for him).  One consultant group hired by Claypool made $72,500 in three months.  Plenty of newer high-school teachers make much less than that for working with over 120 students each year.

In LA’s Lincoln High School, the reason students “love” Anthony Yom so much appears to be that he cares about the quality of his teaching.  This is how teachers earn respect and how they show they care about students.  We, as good teachers, work to ensure that our students experience the most meaningful academic experience each day.

So I disagree with Yom.  Love is not the recipe; instead, a dedication to high-quality instruction is.  Solid, professional teacher-student relationships follow as a result.

And guess what?  Sometimes there are students who do not love or even like us as teachers or as people.  And, honestly, sometimes there are students we do not like.  Still, we have to do our job and help them learn.

What I wish would come through in the Chicago Teachers Union explosive rhetoric is the idea that in order for our students to succeed, our district, our city cannot expect teachers to continue to sacrifice our personal finances or our personal lives simply because people expect good teachers to function around the clock, on weekends, on holidays, during vacations with less resources in order to do “their part.”

People say, “We need more good teachers.”  Well–then our district needs to make it worth it for good teachers to stay.

Good teachers put students first.

Good teachers also protect their right to a full day’s pay for a full day’s work with a full set of resources so students can succeed.

Good teachers love what we do.

But we hate it when people believe they know what we should do with less.

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