Tag Archives: Chicago teachers’ strike

Post strike post script: Brizard gets the axe.

14 Oct

I said I wouldn’t write about politics for a while, but this is a juicy postscript to the strike. Jean Claude Brizard—oh, he of such profound professional failure—“resigned” this past week. You can read some of his carefully considered response here.

I’ll summarize for you. He takes no responsibility and lays no blame: the perfect political speech.

He came in with a parade of red flags. In Rochester, NY, a whopping 82 percent of the teachers’ voted no confidence in his abilities. They ran him out of town. There were two federal lawsuits. There were rumors of bullying, discrimination and bull-headed stubbornness. Sounds familiar.

Rahmbo liked this so much he brought Brizard aboard. (Who doesn’t admire autocratic arrogance and public failure?) Rahmbo wanted a yes man, a personal hatchet man, to cut and chop and rip and wrench and mangle and slice and dismember the teachers’ union. By all accounts Brizard has two modes. As a yes man for the mayor, and as an overconfident autocrat who fixates on a handful of tiny “reforms,” but can’t communicate effectively, resulting in mutual frustration all around.

Brizard was Rahmbo’s smiling assassin. He publicly said how much he cared for the teachers, and in an almost weekly email sent to Chicago’s teachers, he continued to express his concern for us. He even offered little nuggets of praise. But he worked against us from the start. He was the point man on the longer school day, refusing to slow the process down so that the extra time could be planned for and used wisely. He tried to bribe schools—illegally—to enter the longer school day voluntarily. He tried to circumvent the teachers’ union in a variety of sneaky ways. Like so many other political appointees, he expected the rank and file to take a pay cut while he made no sacrifice at all. He was opaque, often missing in action, deliberately misleading the public about basic facts. He was aloof from the contract proceedings and a champion of charter schools.

Karen Lewis says that he was brought in “to blow up the union.” Fortunately for teachers, he was ineffective at his work.

His exit an expected move; politicians (and kings) always pick an underling to take the blame for a mistake. Brizard, by all accounts, was a good soldier and did what he was told. He was a hired gun, a henchman. His mistake, it seems, was giving Rahmbo bad advice early in his job.

“He promised Rahm,” Daryl, my friend and colleague, said, “that the teachers would never strike. And Rahm believed him.”

Don’t shed any tears. His tenure as the head honcho at CPS lasted less than two years. He takes with him a year’s worth of severance pay. That’s some $250,000. In a cash-strapped public school system in an underfunded city in a struggling state. To add a little extra spice to the whole thing, Rahmbo lied about Brizard being on his way out, while already having Byrd picked as Brizard’s successor.

(For a full accounting of Rahmbo’s bungling of the whole mess, read here.)

Goodbye, Jean Claude, our sweet, toothy failure. We shall not miss you.

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Day nine of the strike and we engage in the waiting game.

18 Sep

1.

The day begins with a whimper. I nudge Simone awake as I have to take her to the picket line. She asks me to let her sleep, which never happens, then gets up and eats some oatmeal. I eat some, too, but it tastes too sweet in my mouth.

She insists on taking her purse and her bunny and her crocodile. I forget the crocodile. I also forget a diaper, just in case, and her water. I have to double park and run back up. Feeling frantic; I hate being even a minute late.

We drive to work and listen to music. Simone gets frustrated when I listen to the news, and makes her opinion known through two basic strategies. The first is to dig her feet into the back of my seat, and alternate with hard kicks to my kidneys. The second is to scream. Both are effective. Her tastes run to top forty. We hear Pitbull. We listen to Ellie Goulding. We dance to Flo Rida. We arrive at school in style.

Most of the staff is there. Liz gives an update. It’s the whole gang in the chilly sunlight and Hal takes some photos.

We discuss the upcoming vote. As a school we give Liz our proxy. Do as your conscience demands. She’s been a heroic, tireless, self-sacrificing presence in all of this, a real leader for our staff. We trust her.

Daryl brings donuts, gets a cheer. Opening that gate leads to binge eating and self-loathing. I pass.

Simone plays with Melissa’s i-phone. A fourth grader comes along and sits next to her. We don’t picket or canvas or even do much discussing. We’re engaged in the waiting game. The power is, temporarily, out of our hands. The mood isn’t negative or anxious, but it isn’t calm and happy either. It’s most akin to a stoic resolve mixed with boredom. We’ll stay the course, but don’t expect us to sing about it. Not today.

Simone plays coy. She doesn’t run around or talk much. A quiet calm alien has changed places with my child. I don’t mind.

It’s cold and getting colder. The sun offers little heat. There’s little for us to do. Daryl cranks up the music in his car. He starts with “Otis.” He flips it to Chaka Khan. It livens up the atmosphere. But the music can’t last. A neighborhood dogwalker gives one of us a funny face and he turns the car off to avoid any controversy.

We wait. We do not whistle. We don’t work, although we want to. A few students walk by. No one brought cards. A few people make signs for the return of the students. I’m itching to do some writing but with Simone I left my notebook in the car.

A colleague compliments my buddy Bill on his looks, his passion. I inform her he’s married. She pretends to be crushed, then laughs.

I wear a yard sale jacket of vaguely Mongolian design. It’s too big and offers little warmth. I only wear it to appear tough and soldierly. A hard-scrabble survivalist. A burly carry a hatchet kind of guy. Meanwhile, I’m cold.

I move from foot to foot. So do the others. Some of the staff sit under blankets. We are unsure of how to proceed. We want to be here for each other, but we’re now at the endgame. There’s no advantage to picketing when the contract is almost complete.

“Can we go home now?” Simone asks. I look around, see nothing to do but wait. Wait and worry. Stand in the cold with my soon to be three year old daughter.

We stop to get a hot chocolate on the way home. There’s a teacher in the coffee shop. He says, “It’s been strangely boring and thrilling at the same time.” I agree. We hit the same points—school closings bad, racism in the system, money being siphoned out of public education, and so on and so on—shake hands and go on our ways.

2.

I’m jittery as hell from too much coffee and I can feel my blood cells forming molasses clusters beneath my skin. Too much caffeine not enough food and the feeling runs towards the desperate. If I don’t eat in the next five minutes, I’ll die. My stomach will collapse. My clavicles will detach. My face will slide off my skull.

I eat leftover soup mixed with quinoa and avocado. It tastes good but I’m too nervous to notice. Do we return to work tomorrow or not? No one knows. The strike, independent of all the politics, is a glacier. It does not move quickly. The mechanisms for stopping it are complex. Some teachers naively thought we would be back in our classrooms after one day. I expected two and a half weeks.

A cut opens up on my finger. I never do this, but today I put the bloody knuckle to my lips. The taste is metallic and bilious in my mouth. Is that what blood tastes like, or only mine? There’s an experiment I’ll never perform. I’ll always be left wondering.

Simone goes to the park with Beth and Pearl. I write two letters to WBEZ people. I’m 100 percent right in one of the letters, 100 percent wrong in the other. I wrote Linda Lutton based on something my wife thought she heard. She heard incorrectly. I’m embarrassed, but Beth is mortified. Her shame quickly turns into a new running joke.

I wrote Steve Edwards about his artful dodges of criticism aimed at the mayor. He doesn’t respond.

I want to stay engaged. The strike has taught me that much. I have an idea to form an activist group of teachers amongst my friends from the certification program. Link up with the Occupy folks and once a month get out there and do something grand. We’ll see if this happens. I’ll write about it if I do.

Soon it’s back to fiction and the closed off ventricles of my own thoughts. This level of engagement with reality—attempting to reconstitute the day’s events in as close to real time as possible—extracts a major toll. I’ve been a spectator in my own life.

Time to get back to the root of things.

A friend of mine warned me against writing about politics. It is, he said, the end of art. I’m beginning to agree. I’ve written not a single line or idea of any kind in the last nine days, only this.

3.

Beth eats a brownie. Her new thing is to do 90 seconds exercise after eating something sweet. It’s hilarious. Last night she dropped into squats without any warning. “If you,” she said while beginning to breathe heavy, “do ninety seconds of hard exercise after working out, the body doesn’t absorb as much of the sugar.”

Knowing Beth, this will be part of her routine for years.

I’m feeling reflective. I try to move my consciousness forward in time. Will people feel like the strike was worth it in five months, a year? Will it have mattered? Is there a chance we might have changed the national tenor of the debate over public education, unions, money, fairness, equality? Were our voices heard?

The brownie still in her mouth, she starts squatting. “It’s like I haven’t eaten anything at all,” she says. “If you start with the food still in your mouth, it’s more effective. That’s my own addition.” She pauses.

“No, Linda Lutton told me on the morning shift.”

It’s mid-afternoon and the sky is a dull blue. The air is cold. The sun is absent from its post. Day nine of the strike is over. I believe it will be the last. I wish the mayor read more fiction. I wish the mayor visited more public schools. I wish the world had more empathy in it. I wish people could see through the distractions to the root of things. I wish Kurt Vonnegut’s line from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater could be tattooed into the air above our city: “There’s only one rule I know of, babies—goddammit, you’ve got to be kind.”

An open letter to WBEZ: Linda Lutton.

18 Sep

(Update. Linda and I exchanged emails and she called me out. Turns out, she was right and I was wrong. Linda did not say what I accuse her of about evaluation and student learning. In fact, she gave a measured response. The source of the mistake was my wife, who is mortified. She must have misheard, through the din of taking care of our two daughters, and then passed on that mistake to me. Beth’s rarely wrong about these sort of things, so I believed her.

I’m leaving the letter up because, A. I believe in leaving a record of one’s mistakes, even online, for discussion and so on; and B. I think the issues at play, and the criticism leveled at WBEZ in general—if not Linda Lutton specifically—are legitimate. She did a good job, though, calling attention to the biggest issue of all, school closings. It’s the best coverage WBEZ has given to the strike. And even though the labor specialist is a naive dude, the story is worth listening to. You can listen to it here.)

Hi, Linda.

Listen, you really misrepresented the teachers’ position on evaluations the other day. Your words, if I remember correctly, were “teachers don’t want to be evaluated on whether their students learn.” This is an egregious misrepresentation. We want to be evaluated and we want to do good work teaching. We want results in our students, too. More than you or people outside the field. There’s nothing worse than teaching a unit then seeing that a student or students didn’t learn what you wanted. It’s heartbreaking. What we object to is having 45 percent of our evaluation be based on standardized test scores. First, most teachers are philosophically opposed to the whole standardized testing structure. Like others, I believe that the testing is a big part of the problem. We lose weeks to various tests that COULD BE SPENT ACTUALLY TEACHING. Second, these tests are not foolproof, and many data-crunchers have come to the conclusion that the flaws in some of these tests render the results (almost) useless. Third, so much of a student’s academic success depends on factors outside the school. To ignore this fact is to transfer the problems of poverty—which besiege much of our country’s youth, and are in part perpetuated through terrible tax and economic policies—onto the school system that cannot redress decades of racism and so on in six or seven hours a day.
We believe, or the bulk of us do, that our cities, towns, villages, political bodies don’t want to spend the money and change some of the absurd policies that keep people in poverty. Instead, blame is placed almost solely on the teachers. This is misguided and wrong, and you’re contributing to the (mis)perception problem.
Your language made it seem like we are being petulant, that we just don’t want to have anyone “judge” us. We’re not children or sullen teenagers who can’t handle a little criticism. We’re professionals, dammit. We want to be evaluated. We want to do good work. We just refuse to be evaluated, to such a high degree, by a tool we don’t think works and don’t have faith in.
Ben
P.S. I changed my mind. This is an open letter after all.

Day seven of the strike and we’re still on strike.

16 Sep

The contract isn’t finished. The fight isn’t over. Tomorrow, we go back to the streets. The one-day respite has come and gone.

Day five of the strike and the world is not our oyster.

15 Sep

1.

I awake at 6:30 and feel refreshed. I eat a big bowl of oatmeal and almonds and dried cherries with Simone. I kiss my family goodbye. I pedal under subtle sunlight. I arrive at 8:05. The bulk of the staff is already present.

We remain a raggedy group. The big story is how many of our staff were in the media the night before. Kris was interviewed by ABC about tif funds. Dina was interviewed on another news channel. Robin was interviewed on ABC, too.

And I was interviewed in the Chicago Tribune. (You can read my comment here.) http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2012-09-13/news/ct-met-cps-teachers-strike-reaction-20120914_1_picket-lines-chemistry-teacher-negotiations

People recount yesterday’s march. Some Chicagoans are angry. On Wacker, yesterday, someone said to Kris, “Get back to work, you dirty piece of shit.”

“What’d you say?” I ask.

“Nothing. I just got away from him and then cried.”

Some teachers write hopeful messages to our students in wet chalk on the sidewalk. Our principal appears, says hello to everyone. One of the many children present hands him a fair contract sign. He drops it like it’s kryptonite, makes a joke about no one catching him with a camera.

The plan is to canvas the neighborhood, speak with people, hand out flyers. We get ourselves together. People munch on bagels and donuts, slurp down coffee and eat a chocolaty confection that makes me sleepy just looking at it. Four of our students walk by.

“I saw you on TV last night!” Brian[1] says.

“Me?” I ask. “You saw me?”

“Yeah, you were marching, dancing.”

I feel a shiver of embarrassment. “Was I interviewed?”

“Nope. Just singing and stuff.”

We head out in small groups. I walk with Daryl, Hannah, Abbey, Larry, Doctor O. We walk past Dominick’s, through the EL station. Larry tells me some crazy lady upbraided him yesterday morning. “She came over and yelled, ‘We don’t do this kind of shit in China! Go back to work!’”

“China?” I ask.

“What kind of nonsense is she talking?” Doctor O. asks.

2.

The media tide is turning. After being called lazy and greedy and selfish and horrible and callous—multiple pundits warned of danger to the students if we did have a strike—things are turning our way. The issues we care about—neighborhood schools, equal funding, smaller class sizes, money for arts and music education, and so on—are percolating through the various news filters. Some of the pernicious lies remain. If I hear one more report of how charter schools out-perform public schools, they absolutely do not, I’ll scream.

Paying (often) less qualified teachers less money somehow equals a better education for students. It’s madness.

3.

A big thing is the shoes. I have one pair of newish shoes that kill my ankles, and an ancient pair of good shoes that destroy my feet. I go with the feet destroyers. The feet can handle a beating better than my ankles.  I try wearing flip flops but it feels strangely inappropriate.  For all my banter, striking is serious business.

We stand in front of the west-facing tunnel. It is a beautiful day. The sun is above but there’s a chilly breeze. We speak with a few people. Almost everyone is friendly. We mill about, try to look busy. The enervation shows. We’re easily distractible. My voice echoes through the tunnel. I pretend to be God.

Hannah and Abbey and the others speak with two teenagers sitting on a metal bench. Doctor O. and Larry talk about cutting off aid to Egypt. I feel a bouncy nervousness in the balls of my sore feet.

I walk to the corner, turn right. I see two red shirts in front of the station and I amble over to say hello.

Howard past Clark is a touch dodgy. There’s gangs and dealers and unemployed dudes and the place is turning itself around, but I wouldn’t wander around here after 10. There’s tension and toughness in the ether. It really isn’t the nicest of places.

I say hello to the other two teachers. Thirty seconds of small talk and I’m wondering why I came over. We have little in common. My mind wanders to The Odyssey of all things. The conversation ends. I want to extricate myself but am not sure how. I put my hands in my pockets.

An overgrown man-child dressed all in black rides his bike within one inch of my foot. It’s a provocative move, but I don’t take the bait. He smokes a thin cigar.

A group of dudes mill about in front of a liquor store. “I’m going to knock you the fuck out!” one of them yells. I don’t turn to see if he’s speaking to me. That’s rule number one, of course. Don’t make eye contact with anything you don’t want to tangle with. I move along.

An aged dude in a flowing green button down and expensive black slacks stands by the entrance, says hello. I say hello back and he beckons me over. He has a bandage on the back of his head, he’s slurring his words. He has a hospital discharge bracelet on his wrist. “My name is Willie,” he says. “I got robbed. They clubbed me in the head. I just got out of the hospital but my brother ain’t here. Can you give me two twenty five for the El?”

I sense I’m being hustled but it’s a good con. I dig into my bag. I have the exact amount. I hand it over. He thanks me, goes into the station. I don’t have the patience to wait for him to come out.

I return to the group. “There are some street toughs over there,” I say. No one laughs at my old fashioned word.

We all walk over to Howard. Daryl looks for the guy on the bike. He isn’t around. “There’s a Jamaican bakery that way,” he says. He grew up around here. We walk, speak with a few people, smile and wave. He buys Ginger beer and beef pockets and soon we are heading back to Clark. Daryl shares the beef pockets with the others, the ginger drink with me. It’s great, but bothers my throat so I only sip a little.

The hustler with the bandage on his head stands outside the station.

“Shit,” I say. “I don’t want him to be uncomfortable. Let’s just cross the street.”

Daryl shakes his head. “He won’t be embarrassed. Come on.”

“Last time this sort of thing happened, the guy turned it into a joke. I can’t bear a second sob story.”

We walk past him and his features have hardened. He no longer looks like a victim, but more like a hawk. He’s standing by some of the street toughs. They all seem to know each other.

Two of them argue over who is more of the neighborhood. “Fuck you man, I graduated from Field,” all in black man child says. “I’m all Rogers Park.”

We head back to school. The day remains a stunner.

“I always give money,” Daryl says. “Always. I figure if someone has to get into the street to beg, then I can spare a little to help.”

This leads into a discussion on welfare and I start to get loud. I’ve become a terrible conversationalist. I’m combustible. I’m tendentious. I’m cantankerous. I raise my voice in restaurants. I bang my hand on tables. I’m some Don Rickles parody. “What’s so good about this morning?” I’ve turned into some foaming junkyard dog.  I’m having trouble controlling my temper over small things.

I’ve said it before. There’s something in this process that propels you.

4.

We’re not alone. Lake Forest teachers are now on strike. Highland Park is one week away. Other areas of Illinois are in the contract process. We hear rumors of other school systems, other public sector employees, getting behind us from all around the country.

Most everyone was friendly with me today. Others weren’t so lucky. Some were yelled at. Sheila was accosted by an old man. She tells me the story. “He yells, ‘I’m a taxpayer, go back to work!’ I said, ‘Do you want to talk to me about it?’ and then he gets on the bus,” she says. She pauses. “The next person who’s rude to me, I’m punching him in the face!”

Dina recounts how two people muttered rude things to her as they passed by. The Walgreens parking lot seems a hotbed of animus towards the teachers.

“If the strike goes on,” Stu says, “another week? I think there’s going to be a lot more anger towards us.”

“But if it lasts a month, I think we’ll have more support than we do now,” I say. “There’s peaks and valleys.”

Liz rallies us all in front of the school. She reads us the Boston Teachers Union letter. We clap and cheer.

Hal is on the roof. He takes photos of all of us and a few of me.

My self-concept is not in synch with reality. I think of myself as dignified. An ambassador type. In the photos I seem insubstantial, wispy. A pale-skinned scarecrow with wood splinter limbs and a haunted hawkish face. Something out of a horror movie. Ah, vanity, it never fully leaves you.

We plan to attend the Saturday rally tomorrow. Most everyone leaves.

I lose ten precious minutes to a conversation about the inequalities in the school system. I feign outrage but I’ve tired with the constant moral indignation.

Soon, I am biking home. My mind stays blank for most of it. It’s all physical sensations. The sound of crunching rocks, the working thigh muscles, the sun above in its blazing indifference.

5.

There’s been some misconceptions. We aren’t paid during the strike. We aren’t striking for money. We aren’t greedy vicious hateful racist pigs. We aren’t purveyors of avarice. We are not haters of children.

The strike has three major components: working conditions, public education, and the union’s right to protect its members.

The working conditions piece speaks to the nuts and bolts of our profession. This is the salary increases (we can’t negotiate our salaries ever, so some type of incremental increase is essential); the proposed new evaluation system (we already have an evaluation system in place. We refuse to be graded on the student test scores, for a variety of good if not easily explicable reasons); class sizes, and so on (which we, alone in the state of Illinois, are not allowed to strike over).

The public education piece has to do with social justice and equal access to a good education. The city has consistently underfunded public education in a variety of ways. The worst schools are in the poorest neighborhoods, almost uniformly, and these schools also have a dearth of resources. For instance, I interviewed at a job in a very destitute area and the students, at the end of the year, didn’t have enough textbooks. Their playground was a parking lot. They played football on concrete. They had a handful of working computers in the entire school. Contrast this with my first job, which had a computer lab on every floor, and a separate computer lab for every six classrooms. I bet anyone could guess which school has better test scores.

The mayor and his ilk see the problem as abstracted—just numbers on a spreadsheet—with a practical solution. Shut down failing schools, fire all the failing teachers, and let charter schools take over. This releases the mayor from accountability, and it’s cheaper, in a way. But the idea that teachers making less money, with less credentials, will provide struggling students with a better education makes no kind of sense. Yet, that is what the mayor wants to do.

And he wants to replicate this in over one hundred neighborhoods. That’s union jobs eliminated—one lady on the news called it downsizing—and that’s less money going into neighborhoods that really need more. A teacher working in Englewood should make $150,000 a year. Then the best teachers in the world would try to get that job. (And yet, Englewood schools would still have low test scores.)

Finally, the union piece. There’s been a national movement to eliminate or dis-empower public sector unions. Wisconsin and New Jersey both in the past few years saw a significant decrease in the teachers’ union’s ability to collectively bargain. Charter schools are part of the problem. They are fiercely anti-union. (One charter school fought the unionizing process for two years.)

We are fighting in part for our right to exist.

6.

I’ve been through a tornado, a house fire, the death of a dog, and three minutes of CPR for my oldest daughter. But this strike—the facets to it, the swirl of vitriol and misinformation, the heft of it, its dimensions and nooks and crannies—it’s in some sense more terrifying than the other travails. A cloud of uncertainty. If we lose, if all of this were for nothing, I don’t know. The job would feel tarnished. I would feel betrayed by my profession.

I recall some of the things I’ve said and heard the last few days.

Such as, “The U.S. has had a containment policy since Johnson. We do good work in a bad system.”

And, “We’re operating under an industrial model. Our educational system in the whole country is hopelessly outdated.”

And, “You got your handout, too. You were born white in the U.S., there’s your handout.”

And, “They demonize Karen Lewis because she’s a strong, black woman with a shrill voice who’s overweight. If she looked like Paul Ryan, the criticism would be different.”

And, “We should declare victory, and take the board’s latest proposal.” (This last one is from me, not my most courageous hour.)

7.

Hannah calls mid-afternoon. Turns out the word choad has two meanings. She actually looked it up. “And, as a teacher, I thought I would be remiss if I didn’t share them both with you. And, oh, the strike isn’t yet over. They say there’s a framework, but not an agreement.”

I hang up. I tell Beth. I go over the mistakes I’ve made due to the psychic dissonance in the atmosphere. I feel that queasy dread in my insides. The idea of this going for four or five more days fills me with profound weariness.

Simone naps. Beth goes to work out. I play with Pearl. She crawls for the first time. Only five months old. She’s some kind of advanced superhuman.

“Maybe she’ll be an Olympian when she grows up,” Beth says.

I spend too much time looking for the video of me Brian mentioned. Ah, vanity, there you are again. I never find the video. It’s just as well.

Night and I’m making dinner. Beth has our daughters at the park. The apartment is quiet. I realize I haven’t listened to a single piece of music all week. And there’s that about this process, too—it squeezes out the simple pleasures, the small joys.

Day five is over. I stumble through Jack’s nightly walk. It’s only 11 and I can’t keep my eyes open. Sleep comes quickly. I don’t remember my dreams.


[1] Not his real name, of course.