Chicago Public School Teacher Speaks

If Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel loses his re-election campaign, it will be a shocking political judgement by the people about neoliberal economic policy. Rahm’s vision of Chicago represents elite consensus about what the post-industrial city economy is supposed to look like: a gilded crust of finance over a massive service industry, privatized, monetized, and sleek. It’s a hallucination out of messianic 1990s business literature– of urban Americans abandoning their manufacturing jobs en masse to become software programmers. Rahm props up this Clinton-era facade of the “New Economy.”

The legacy of Chicago is “Old Economy.” Old fashioned economic institutions built the city’s wealth– public infrastructure, heavy industry, raw materials, factories, and public employment. Even in “post-work” 21st century Chicago, dusty curiosities like pensions and unions dominate the mayoral debates.

Rahm is the candidate of the lifeless glass skyscrapers downtown; his opponent, Chuy (“Chewie”) Garcia, by contrast, is running as compassionate advocate of the little people. Although its rare (once a generation?) a populist of common stock (i.e., the charismatic Chuy, a man who fund-raises at poetry readings) should get so near to real power, the election is really Rahm’s to lose.

And if Rahm gets the axe, it will be due in large part to the politicization of the city’s public school teachers. The mayor’s meddlesome education policy stuck a thumb in the eye of Chicago Teacher’s Union, which led a successful strike in 2012. That year Emanuel closed 50 Chicago elementary schools in the name of efficiency, mostly in poor minority neighborhoods. This act has come to symbolize the mayor’s corrupt priorities (and, for his supporters, his bravery to act impolitic).

Chicago public school teachers work directly with some of the city’s most vulnerable and delightful people: children. They must look into the human faces that carry the burdens of the city’s worst problems: ceaseless gun violence, lack of economic opportunity, racial segregation, abuse of dehumanizing drugs. Maybe Chicago teachers do not know the wisest public policy for the city, but they do know their communities where they teach.

What is the deal with Chicago public schools? What is happening in these neighborhoods that Rahm supposedly knows so little about? For answers, I spoke with a friend who teaches 3rd grade full-time at a Chicago public school. She has a class of 24 students on the city’s west side, in one of the city’s most dangerous and direly poor neighborhoods, a Chicagoland epicenter of heroin.

We sat together in the center of a field and for many hours she told me heart-breaking tales of school, community, and bureaucracy. She grimly concedes that many of her kids are destined for trouble– that most won’t ever make it out of the neighborhood, that some will never get to grow up. Her tales of neglect, abuse, and malnourishment establish a tone of moral urgency, of what city politics mean for some people. When we parted I said a benediction over this good person, who by compassion, intelligence and humor shoulders the weight put upon her.

Here’s one Chicago public school teacher’s frank perspective on Chicago’s schools, children, and mayor –


So how did it begin?

When I first started, I got hired the first week of school as an art teacher. It was only part-time, I started the third day of school. I got to school the first day, the principle literally handed me a sheet of paper and said, “Here’s your schedule, your first class is in 15 minutes.”

I was like, “OK, well, where is this room?” He pointed me to the stairs.

“I don’t really have anything. Do you have any paper I could use?”

He took me downstairs and was like, “Here’s some paper. What else do you need?” I had no fucking clue.

I went in there, and these girls got in a fight the first day. These kids were fourth graders. This one girl had on a cute little jumper. She did the assignment and handed it in, and I was like “That girl seems nice.” Then the girl starts beating the shit out of this other girl, on the ground wailing on her. The other girl’s hair was wrapped around the leg of a chair. I was trying to get it out, and she was like, “Get off me, bitch! Don’t touch me!” I opened the door and looked outside like, is there a security guard? I had no idea what to do. It was my first day.

In October, my principal called me and asked if I wanted to work full-time teaching 3rd graders. I student-taught middle school and thought, those are really little kids. She said, “You’ll start Monday.” And this was Wednesday. I did it and it was crazy.

You were working as a full-time teacher of all subjects in a classroom all day?

Straight on third grade. Everything. There were two third grade teachers that were really full, they got to pick who they got rid of and give me. So I had the misfit kids– the worst kids. For some of the kids I was their third teacher that year. It sucked.

I thought I was doing well, but at the end year of the principal calls me in and laid me off. She was like, “I have to give you these papers today.”

Basically it’s all a budget game. “We don’t know what the school budget will be for next year, because our budget depends on this algorithm of testing, surveys, and all this weird shit.” They don’t get their budget until a certain time, so there’s this cut-off date where they have to lay off everyone for the next year to balance their budget out. Then they can re-hire them later.

She laid me off and told me she would hire me back. But I couldn’t re-apply for my job until right before school started again. So all summer according to Chicago Public School I was not hired. They re-hire you the week before school starts.

The other 3rd grade teacher I work with, he said the principal did this to him his first four years.

Do you feel like you have to be a therapist to your kids?

Oh, I have to. I’m like everything for them.

This girl came in last year she’s like “My hand hurts.” I was like “Your hand is broken.” I called her mom and was like, “I think her hand is broken.” She’s like, “Yeah, she keeps saying it hurts. It’s fine.” I sent her to the clinic, they said she needs to go to the hospital. I called up her mom, she’s like “I’m not taking her.”

That girl was so fucked up. It’s always the kids you can’t stand that you love the most. She was a pain in the ass but she was also being raised by her brother and sister who are in middle school. I feel so bad for her.

We have a school psychologist. She comes in one and half days a week. She has four different schools she’s going to. So she sees like five students, and that’s spreading her thin. That’s for a whole school, pre-K to 8th grade.

So there are no school psychologists. And that’s what they need. It would solve so many problems. The reason these kids can’t learn is they have so much other shit going on, and they don’t know how to deal with their emotions. They don’t know how to do normal human things. They don’t know how to take care of themselves because no one has ever taught them.

They get angry so fast. They have PTSD, basically. Because a lot of them have experienced such trauma, they have a lot of stuff that they need to work out. It doesn’t happen at home– their parents aren’t going to take them to a doctor. They need that in the schools. If these kids could be more emotionally stable and have supports like that, everything would work more smoothly.

In the suburbs, you read about, a kid kills themself or something and they bring in all these psychologists and have all these supports. That doesn’t happen here. People get killed all the time and all this traumatic shit is going on all the time, and no one ever talks to the kids about it.

There are shootings all the time. That’s why we don’t have recess. In the fall it was happening a lot on our block. Like in the middle of the day. So crazy. These kids are experiencing that all the time.

When I was student teaching a 6th grade class [on the South side], we read an article about Chicago gun violence together. The teacher asked the kids, “How many of you have seen someone shoot someone?” Every single kid raised their hand.

We had the kids write personal narratives about it. This one kid wrote “My mom said we were going to go to Chuck E. Cheese. We stopped at the gas station and while we were at the gas station we saw this guy, and he started looking at us, and started shooting. I got down under the seat. They shot my brother and we had to take my brother to the hospital. Then we went back to the house, and then my mom said we couldn’t go to Chuck E. Cheese anymore.” That was the most important part of the story– that he couldn’t go to Chuck E. Cheese anymore.

Do you know most of your kids’ parents?

Some of them. Some of them I can never get a hold of.

Most of the parents don’t care. I had such bad kids last year and I could never get a hold of any of their parents. They always have phones that are disconnected, different phone numbers, there’s always some aunt or someone else. I have a phone list in my classroom of the kids’ phone numbers, and it has so many annotations and changed numbers. You can’t get a hold of anyone.

I had a kid last year that came in the morning, by 8:30 he was throwing up. I tried to get a hold of someone all day. He just sat in the back of the classroom throwing up. They know the kids are sick and they send them to school anyway, because they have shit to do.

What do you feel like you’re teaching the kids?

I have no idea. I wonder that all the time. I feel like I teach them less of the things I should teach them, and more about character building. I’m definitely teaching them a lot about sarcasm, which I think is good. We talk about how to deal with things and social skills. Stuff you would think is common sense is not common sense to them.

I had a mom come in last year, beat on her kid in front of the class, and turn around point to all the other kids and say “This is what your parents should be doing to you.” It happens all the time. Some of the kids turned around and faced the wall while she was doing it. They’re used to it, it’s totally normal. The security guards beat on the kids. Even when they’re having fun, they play fight and beat the shit out of each other.

The parents teach their kids, if someone messes you, beat them up. That’s what they’re told to do. I always tell parents, that’s OK if that’s your rule at home but not in the classroom.

It’s a really aggressive culture, and that’s what they’re used to. So it takes a long time for them to understand that that’s not how you have to deal with all problems. I try to get that through to them— that there’s better ways to deal with things than fighting. The kids think I’m so weird.

They get angry so fast, because that’s how everyone around them is. I liken to being in a constant state of fight or flight. You try to tell them some simple thing like “Don’t get distracted, you need to work on this math problem” and they’re like “I hate this” and freak out.

You don’t know what happened to them or what they’re dealing with. And then you find out their dad got arrested last night– the cops came over in the middle of the night, woke everyone up and took their dad away. Or their mom is in an abusive relationship.

You have to try to keep it in perspective. It’s irritating when these kids are angry all the time, but there’s stuff the kids aren’t dealing with, that their parents don’t think about or care about. I think about this kind of stuff, like, “Are you OK?”

The other third grade teacher is more militant. She would give the kids a hard time last year for not having their uniform on. I’m like, “They’re 8 years old, who cares if their shirt is tucked in.”

She visited this kid’s house earlier this year, and called me really upset. This kid was never coming to school, so one day she walked him home. She took him home and realized his dad had been in jail for years and years, his mom abandoned them, they live with their grandma who’s 80-something years old and can’t really take care of them. The kid was responsible for bringing himself to school. The house was disgusting, and she was crying.

I can’t be mad at them for being late to school. Some kids do bring themselves to school. I had a kid that would come in an hour and a half late. But the fact that he would come in at all is something, because no one is there to make sure he comes to school. What do you do when you’re eight and you’re in charge of bringing yourself to school?

How’s the all that testing going?

We started the big testing. We’re basically testing from now [March 21st] until the end of the year– taking standardized tests. I’m not even kidding. It’s so fucked up.

This week we did it Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, for hours. This is insane testing, it’s the new Common Core test, the PARCC test. We have two weeks of testing, then one week, then spring break, then we have one week, then the second part of the PARCC test, which is two more weeks of testing. That overlaps with the NWEA testing, which takes forever. Then it’s the end of the year.

I can’t teach anything for the rest of the year. I’ve just been teaching them how to take the test for the past two months, because the test is so fucked up. This test is hard for kids whose parents have been reading to them since the womb. They’re not going to do well.

So what do the tests count for?

The NWEA gives them a score, and that score follows them forever. Everything goes by growth. They’re supposed to get a certain amount of growth on the NWEA, and that determines everything. That determines our school budget and if they pass 3rd grade or not. At CPS, you can only fail 3rd grade, 6th grade and 8th grade. 3rd grade is the first grade you can fail. So a lot kids fail. They skate by, they get to 3rd grade, it’s a benchmark. Some kids need to fail. Some kids it will benefit.

What’s up with the new test? Someone was like “We need a new test!”?

It’s all about money. Bill Gates is partially behind it. Pearson Education is a huge money-making thing.

Some states have Common Core standards. Illinois was one of the first to adopt it. The standards themselves make sense but the testing of them is fucked up, because it’s not based on testing but on “how can we make money.” Everyone wants to make money.

[Chicago Mayor] Rahm [Emanuel] really wants charter schools – because public education, who’s making money on that? What a waste, right? He wants more charters. They closed all those schools and opened charter schools in the same neighborhoods.

They get government money and don’t have to take any of these tests. A lot of them have weird philosophies, because they can kick kids out. We can’t kick kids out. We get a lot of kids that get kicked out of charter schools. The teachers aren’t part of the union, can be fired for whatever, and get paid less.

The principal’s role in all this is to navigate the bureaucracy on behalf of the school, so the school can stay open and keep its budget?

My principal is so involved. She wants to play the game. She basically told us to cheat on the test. We’re supposed to cover our posters; she’s said, use something see-through. She wants to look good.

At the beginning of the year I was frustrated about it. They have a range, a number where they’re supposed to be. They have to beat that score. It’s also tied to me and my evaluation, the NWEA scores. So some of these kids, because they cheated on the test last year, are at a sixth grade level. So if I don’t cheat, the number will go down and it will reflect badly on me. But that’s fine, and I’m going to have to take that hit. They’re going to get fucked somewhere along the line. My kids have these inflated scores.

It’s all quantitative, none of it’s qualitative. It’s all numbers and statistics. It’s not about learning, it’s not about students, it’s not about knowledge. It’s about numbers and proving things quantitatively. That’s all it is. You’re not a good teacher unless you can show this number of growth– how well this student did. I can’t be like, this student wrote this essay, you wanna read it? They’re like “No! Put a fucking number on it and tell me the number!” That’s all they want.

They’re trying to solve the problem of lazy teachers by trying to take teachers out of the equation. They don’t even need me– all they’re doing is taking tests all day. What am I even here for? They want us to use all these computer programs so the kids are just on the computer.

Sometimes I do feel like everything I’m doing is pointless. All that matters is these fucking numbers, and there’s no way the kids can do it [improve their scores]. And I don’t think that what’s important, so my ideals are out of line with what’s required.

They’re not testing them on the skills I’m teaching them, they’re testing them on “Can you read this fancy English question?” Which they can’t read. These kids don’t know the difference between “in” and “and” and neither do their parents. Some of their parents have a fifth grade education. They’re not around this. They throw out all these words, like “Decipher the experiences of …”

Rahm doesn’t give a fuck about it. His kids go to U of C lab school. He’s so out of touch with what public school even is in Chicago. He does not care about the neighborhoods, and that’s where the city is. The city is not downtown. He’s so out of touch with that, and he doesn’t care. He cares about the facade of the city that people see in other cities. Like making Chicago look good to people that live in New York or Louisiana or whatever. He doesn’t even know how to care about it.

One of the first things he did was close the city mental health clinics and cut the library hours. Who attacks the library? What kind of monster is like,”Let’s take care of the library– giving away books for free!” Literally anyone would be better than him.


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