Despite a February Chicago Tribune survey that found that three in five city residents believed the Chicago Teachers Union will do a better job at improving schools than Mayor Rahm Emanuel, many teachers who participated in the April 1 strike were forced to confront a much different public narrative.
Some teachers who spoke to Austin Weekly News conceded that there exist some widely held negative perceptions of their union. Gov. Bruce Rauner called them arrogant in the wake of their decision to strike and some Chicago Public Schools and city officials believe the teachers’ decision to strike is inconsiderate of their students.
Last year, when CTU and Chicago Public Schools were locked in negotiations, the right-leaning Illinois Policy Center published an article on its website that noted the union’s consideration of a strike “shows a lack of regard for Chicago’s fiscal crisis and the growing burden taxpayers have to bear.”
The article listed the $700 million property tax increase the city just passed, the $9.5 billion teachers’ pension fund debt hole and teachers’ already “high salaries and generous pension benefits” as reasons why teachers should make more sacrifices by contributing more to their pension and health benefit funds.
“The problem with the pension debt started because, back in the day, CPS borrowed our pension money and now they have to pay it back,” countered Lisa Smith, who teaches at a school on the West Side.
“It took them so long to pay back the interest that it’s now gone up. So, they already took from us to solve the problem and now they want to take from us again. They want to take more of our pensions to pay down their debt they created because they borrowed from our pension from the get-go.”
Addressing some critics who have blasted the teachers for making the decision to strike, West Side activist Zerlina Smith, who helped plan a demonstration near the now-closed Robert Emmet Elementary School, said the strike shouldn’t overshadow much larger problems the walkout was designed to highlight.
“People want to say this strike is detrimental. It’s detrimental to students when they don’t have books in their classroom, when they don’t have libraries, when they’re not teaching kids black history,” she said.
“The teachers don’t even get Social Security. They have to live off of their pensions. They may pay less than everybody else, but they also receive less benefits.”
Connie Kelly, a middle school science teacher at Nash Elementary, said that the district has scheduled three furlough days this academic year, including one on Good Friday.
“They make us take off without paying us on those [furlough] days. Do they care about the kids on those days? What they don’t recognize is if they don’t release funding for us to educate our children, they set [those children] up for the penal system,” she said.
Shannon Miller, who teaches at Spencer Elementary Technology Academy, said that, this year teachers haven’t received the automatic pay raises based on seniority and educational attainment that they’re due each school year because contract negotiations have been stalled since last June.
Kelly and her colleagues also noted that they often pay for school supplies and other resources for their students out of pocket. They said they often work overtime without being paid. And, despite one strain of popular rhetoric put out by union opponents, “teachers pay taxes just like everybody else,” said Sebrina Thomas, a teacher who lives in Austin.
“We’re not even asking for our kids to have [the opportunities] that Rahm’s children have. That would be fair,” said Smith. “We’re just asking for a decent education for our kids, so they can have a decent future and so they can life. We’re asking for decent pay, because, believe it or not, teachers have to eat to live. And believe it or not, we have to pay taxes and mortgages.”
Smith and Kelly said that some of the negative percpetions about their profession may stem from the fact that most people aren’t in the classrooms to observe what they actually do on each day.
“They only see the surface,” said Smith. “If I was on the outside looking in, I would probably think the same thing. I know of a teacher who was in another profession and he told me, ‘I know how people could feel that way, because that’s how I used to feel.’ He said, ‘When I switched jobs I told myself I’d be a teacher because they don’t do anything except ask for raises.’ He said, ‘I learned the hard way. Now I know.’ This is a hardworking job and it wears on us physically, mentally, spiritually and financially.”