Thursday, October 20, 2011

A Little Respect

Janet and her mother, Rebecca, taught a combined 70+ years in this nation’s urban public schools. When my mother-in-law started her full-time career in Brooklyn, she was netting out about what she was paying the sitter to take care of my brother-in-law. Janet began in 1973 as a day-to-day substitute, making $40 a day. We would wait for the phone to ring in the early a.m., find out if the school was within driving range (I worked in Skokie back then), then rush to get her to the assignment on time. Teaching back then was an honored and respected profession.
Teacher's Certificate, 1974

Both were lucky to retire at opportune times. By the late-1960s, the New York City Public Schools were in disarray, as the Ocean Hill-Brownsville crisis caused teachers’ strikes tinged with anti-Semitism – ironic in that there were Jewish quotas when Rebecca started three decades before. She retired in June 1973 and started collecting her pension. The city’s well-documented financial crisis began shortly thereafter, and subsequent teacher pension plans were not nearly as good. My in-laws moved to Florida one year later; with my father-in-law’s more modest pension and a lower cost of living, they lived a nice but hardly opulent retirement before each passed away in their late 80s. Thank you, Albert Shanker.

Janet heeded Rebecca’s advice: earn an advanced degree, become a specialist and get out of a 30+ children classroom. Her first master’s degree was in reading. Even as a specialist, she would spend hours outside the classroom grading papers, devising lesson plans and making progress reports (punching holes in Chicago Public Schools-provided forms with an official CPS paper punch). So much for the so-called “short day” for teachers. The CPS, in its inimical wisdom, did away with reading specialists a few years later, so Janet then earned a master’s in special education. Until her final year, when a new principal didn’t want the reputation as an easy grader, she received Superior ratings every year. Her service at the last school was long enough for her to teach two generations of students.

Janet's Classroom

In Janet’s case, full pension benefits kicked in at 34.5 years of service, paying 75 percent of the average salary for the last four years of service. She considered teaching longer, in order to get a higher pension (replacing a low earlier year with a higher last one for calculation purposes) and keep far superior insurance coverage. Janet opted to retire on time, but the prospect of working for what would have amounted to a full-time job at a 25 percent salary was only a minor consideration. She was tired of the ancillary day-to-day crap that made the education of children a third or maybe fourth priority in the CPS and the continuing disrespect shown to her profession.

Janet's Classroom

Teaching, like many service professions today, makes its reason-for-being almost secondary. For example, the top priorities for public relations agencies are new business development and agency profitability; serving clients comes somewhere after these. Tough luck if you’re good at what you do; the higher you get in the organization the less important it becomes. As for the argument that poor teachers are protected, I’ve seen plenty of poor PR practitioners kept on for any number of reasons.

In the CPS, the priorities are roughly the following:

  1. Satisfying various mandates like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, most notably the emphasis on test scores.
  2. Protecting your turf from incursions by fellow teachers (in Janet’s case keeping classroom teachers from dumping their kids on her without authorization) and principals’ dictates.
  3. Following CPS regulations on filing reports and the like.
  4. Educating children to become thinking, functioning members of society.
I’ve always maintained that Janet had three jobs: babysitter (simply keeping order), instructor (getting the children to become those thinking, functioning members of society) and socializer (teaching society’s mores in the absence of sorely lacking parental guidance). One would think you could get rich doing that. I’ve also challenged any number of people – directly and through correspondence – to try teaching in an urban public school and see what it entails. The badmouthing of teachers would drop significantly, although it may make no difference in Chicago because of continuing efforts to expand charter schools that hire non-certified teachers, pay them below-union wages and benefits, and don’t offer tenure. Thus comes my call for respect.

The current dust-up here is appalling for several reasons, the primary being the almost total lack of respect for CPS teachers by Mayor Emanuel and the new superintendent, Jean-Claude Brizard, along with their hand-picked school board. At first, they stated insufficient funds let the CPS out of paying a 4 percent raise. They then started beating the drums for a longer school day. Rather than meeting with the teachers to determine how best to implement programs uniform across the system for the 2012-2013 term, Rahmbo and The Blizzard began offering 2 percent raises and various other incentives to schools that would vote to abrogate their contract and opt for a longer day, either immediately or in January. Where, may I ask, is that money going to come from?

Luckily, most of the teachers wouldn’t bite – somebody with a son working for the mayor tried to tell me it was a success – and only a handful of schools took up the offer. This is due in great part to the leadership of CTU President Karen Lewis, the only black woman in the class of 1974 at Dartmouth College. Unlike the last CTU head, who basically served as Arne Duncan’s lap dog and found English to be more like a second language, Lewis is a strong and articulate leader facing a deck neatly stacked against the union by the mayor, the superintendent, the board and their cheerleaders at the Tribune. To twist a Seinfeld line, “Who wouldn’t love a longer school day?” The CTU is on board but, as a friend pointed out, Rahm has a sense of entitlement about this issue. It’s his way or the fucking highway, which is pretty much how he put it to Lewis during one of their chats. She sternly but politely came back at him, knowing the bully wasn’t going to get his way.

So here’s my advice, Rahm. Show some respect to the hard-working teachers and invite the best minds (plus Brizard) to sit down and map out a strategy for next year’s term. Given that student performances have shown little improvement during the last twenty years, despite the hype from Duncan and Paul Vallas, what’s the harm in waiting another ten months? But don’t ask Janet; she’s neither ready to forgive nor forget your attitude toward her and her colleagues. Common courtesy, you know, doesn’t cost one cent, and maybe you can contribute to restoring teaching to an honored and respected profession.

NOTE: After the threat of losing a lawsuit over unfair labor practices, the board agreed to halt its efforts to institute a longer school day during the 2011-2012 term in return for the CTU dropping its suit. Both sides will be meeting on how to implement a longer school day for the 2012-2013 term.