So let me first start off by saying that this is a true story. This is not the same as the other sorts of stories that I write - ones about long lost love, sad people doing terrible things, or the hopelessly romantic.
This one is editorial in nature.
But also mine.
I know that there has been a lot of people across the nation and the world talking about Chicago's teacher strike. There has been a lot of media bias, teacher slamming, and uninformed rhetoric.
Here's how I see the strike, as a family therapist who works in the south side of Chicago - in people's homes with them.
The full article is here: http://chicagoteacher1.wordpress.com/2012/09/12/dear-president-obama/
And if you want more information on the teacher's strike, written by someone on the picket lines, you can see it here: http://chicagoteacher1.wordpress.com/2012/09/11/a-union-workers-take-sticking-points-and-the-flawed-system/
I hope it is helpful, and I hope you enjoy it and share it with as many people as you can.
Thanks for reading.
On bright, beautiful sunny Chicago days I have witnessed drive-by shootings. One happened while a family and I were conducting a session in their living room. We saw the shooter pull out a gun and start firing. The mom and I dove to the floor and stayed there, flat on our stomachs, until we felt it was safe to get up. I remember every panicked breath I took while lying on the floor next to her. When we got up she told me that it wasn’t the first time that she had heard shots fired that day.
This violence is not considered in the classroom. This violence is not considered when we tell our kids to wait for the bus. This violence is not considered when a child is asked to perform on a test that will dictate whether or not a teacher keeps their job next year.
I’m not sure if anyone died that day. The mom told me on the phone that night that gunshots were going off like fireworks late into the night. That she would gather her children, that they would lay on the floor, under the beds, making sure that when the gunshots got too close that they were covered so that stray bullets wouldn’t hit them.
Chicago has lost 36 teenagers due to gun and gang violence this year in the summer months alone. Surely, these teenagers had classmates, brothers and sisters, friends and relatives who are mourning their short lives.
I remember in high school, one of my friend’s brother passed away from a long and difficult battle with cancer. I wasn’t as close to him as I am to her, but I remember that he and I worked at the same grocery store. I remember that he sat in front of me in math class. I remember seeing him when she and I would watch movies together at her house. I remember after his death how it changed the school. I remember how it changed me. It was physically difficult for me to stay in math class because there was an empty chair in front of me. It made me feel sick inside and gave me a headache. I left class and went home. I didn’t do homework that night.
I remember the announcements about his death on the school speakers in homeroom. The flood of students at his funeral – I remember getting excused from class and walking over to the church. Counseling was offered to “anyone who wanted to talk.” I’m sure that that was a hectic week for the school counselors, but, at my high school, we were fortunate enough to have four of them to help. In Chicago, there is one counselor for every 1,000 students.
1,000. That number is baffling to me. It goes against everything that I was taught in graduate school. Normally, a therapist should see about 20-25 clients in private practice. This is not because we want to work part-time. The reason for this is because if you go over that 25 client threshold, the quality of a therapist’s work decreases. We are not machines. We start to forget the names of our clients, we forget why they came in last week, what their wife’s name is – things that are important to know if we are ever supposed to build any sort of relationship based on mutual trust and respect.
Further, it’s not particularly healthy for a therapist to have over 25 cases because it becomes mentally and physically exhausting. The therapist’s stress level goes up and it even becomes difficult to remember theory because of the knots in your back. My first year as a therapist I didn’t sleep well; I worried constantly about how I was going to help. I thought of my clients, carried around their stories with me, always thinking about ways to solve problems.
Now multiply that normal 25-person caseload by 40? How is a counselor expected to do their job? How are they expected to help students cope with death, loss, and the everyday issues of being a teenager? How do they make graduation plans for each and every student? If a counselor can’t physically see every student they are assigned to, how do they know that they are there? That they exist?
Why would any counselor want to work in the public schools?
I wonder if when a student dies in Chicago, the morning announcements tell students as they did for me, “if you want to talk, a counselor is here.” If they do, I wonder how long that line is, and if a counselor ever gets the opportunity to see every student. I wonder how long that workday or week is.
I find the political rhetoric, teacher bashing, and phrase “the children are suffering” nauseating. Sure, the children are suffering. But I don’t think that it’s because of the strike. The teachers aren’t walking off of their jobs without pay because of salary. We are talking about far greater things than that – things that have gone unnoticed and unattended to for years. Requests that have been denied due to budget, students sharing books that are decades old. Bullying isn’t allowed in schools and it certainly shouldn’t be allowed in politics.
Teachers were once seen as leaders in their communities, people that you went to for help and advice. Now, it seems that no one wants to hear what a teacher is actually asking for. They are painted as irresponsible and lazy by the popular media. “Go back to work. Stop fighting this.”
I think that asking teachers to stop fighting and get back to work is asking teachers to truly turn their backs on their students and return to the norm that has failed generations before. Teachers are fighting for equality. Their job conditions are students’ learning conditions. When we ignore teachers and their needs, we are making the active choice to ignore students too.
I support this strike despite the fact that the majority of our family’s income relies on my husband’s paycheck. His salary is how we write our next mortgage and student loan checks. I know a mom who is taking care of 20 or so neighborhood kids while the strike is going on. I know a church that is opening their doors for free lunch and basketball programs for kids. We are all trying to make sure that these kids stay off of the street while the Board of Education and Chicago Public Schools work it out with the teachers. Not because we don’t want these children to learn. Not because we want to sleep in later and watch daytime television at home. No one wants this strike, but everyone who is striking is hoping that change is going to happen because of it.
I don’t know how many days or weeks we can last without my husband’s paycheck. I don’t know how many days that mom can watch 20 kids on her own. Or when the church will run out of food to feed the kids that go to their program. But I am not complaining. I will make it work. We will buy bread and make grilled cheese sandwiches for dinner and not complain. I will do this because I know that this struggle and this small sacrifice will benefit schools down the line. The schools that Chicago forgot about.
At least that’s what I’m hoping will happen.