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Teacher on CPS : like a ‘marriage going through a rough patch’

Curie High School teacher KatrinNichols poses for photograph outside school 4959 S. Archer Ave. Wednesday June 6 2012 Chicago. |

Curie High School teacher Katrina Nichols poses for a photograph outside the school, 4959 S. Archer Ave., Wednesday, June 6, 2012, in Chicago. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

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Updated: July 8, 2012 6:48PM

Katrina Nichols just wants to teach.

“I love the kids. I love opening their eyes to new ideas,” the veteran math teacher said. “I love for them to see what they’re capable of and walk out of my class with a little hope.”

But on Wednesday, students in her class at Curie High School had questions about something other than algebra.

“Kids weren’t focused on math. They’re asking, ‘Are you going on strike?’ When is it going to happen?” said Nichols, who has taught at the Southwest Side high school for 21 years. “Now, I have to have a conversation about that. That’s not right.”

Before school started, Chicago Public School teachers had started the process of voting on whether to authorize a strike of the nation’s third-largest school district on a date that would have to be set by the union’s House of Delegates. And before the end of the day Wednesday, Chicago schools chief Jean-Claude Brizard issued a letter to parents criticizing the union for calling a strike authorization vote at this point in the process.

For Nichols, who also teaches special education, the lingering contract standoff feels like being in a “marriage going through a rough patch.”

And she’s worried how it all will affect her students.

“All this is in the back of their minds. They’re already thinking about summer and now they think they’re not coming back in September,” said Nichols, 42. “It’s very unfortunate. … I wish all this strike talk would go away. I wish they would understand that we’re here for the children.”

The contract standoff centers on the district’s offer to only guarantee a 2-percent pay raise over five years. Pay increases in the last three years of the deal would be based on a new “differentiated” pay scale that won’t be discussed until January. It’s an offer teachers union bosses call “insulting” — especially after school leaders appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel eliminated the 4 percent pay hike teachers were due this year while moving forward with what the CTU calls a longer, “harder” day next school year, with a more rigorous curriculum and tougher new teacher evaluations.

But, really, there are a lot of issues that could lead to the first teachers’ strike since 1987. Teachers say they are tired of being bullied and berated — locally and nationally. They are weary of an increasing fixation on student test results and efforts to tie their pay to them. Others complain that plans for a longer school day are vague.

All those things — along with her own worry about being able to pay for her son’s first year at DePaul University in the fall — weighed on Nichols’ conscience when she cast her vote in favor of strike authorization.

“I’m not concerned that a strike would cause kids to lose learning time. That can all be made up. My kid’s tuition can be made up,” she said. “I’m scared more about what might happen if a contract doesn’t include a format where I can do my job without teaching to a test for my job. For me, if a strike means kids get a better education in the long run, it’s worth it.”

Thousands of teachers showed up early or stayed late to cast ballots Wednesday. One ballot was even delivered to a teacher getting medical treatment at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.

Under a new state law, at least 75 percent of the union’s 25,500 members must authorize a strike. Teachers who fail to vote would be counted as a “no.”

CTU President Karen Lewis predicted there was “no question’’ the union would prevail. She hopes to use the strike vote as leverage to negotiate a new contract deal before year-round schools start in mid-August.

Not all teachers were so sure.

“I think a lot of people are undecided,’’ said an award-winning teacher who asked to remain anonymous. “I need to understand why we are doing this. And right now, I’m not totally clear. ... I don’t want to snap and say, ‘Oh, yes.’ I just want to think it through. I want to make sure I make a thoughtful decision.’’

Whatever the outcome, CPS officials have already set the stage to challenge the vote by asking the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board to preserve all documents associated with the strike authorization vote, which will last at least through Friday.

It appears the voting process will get even more contentious.

On Wednesday, the teachers union filed a complaint with the state Educational Labor Relations Board alleging the school board engaged in “coercing, threatening and otherwise attempting to dissuade” teachers from participating in the vote.

At Curie and possibly other schools across the city, teachers interrupted their lessons to deliver Brizard’s letter — written in English, Polish, Spanish and Chinese — that students were told to take home to their parents. Brizard criticized the union for pushing the strike vote before a “fact-finder” report was issued in mid-July.

He wrote that strike authorization vote at this time “causes disruptions in our children’s classrooms that are currently in session” and sends “the wrong message to our children.”

Nichols said the vote gives teachers a chance to send a message of their own to CPS.

“I want the union to avoid a strike as much as possible, but it seems like they don’t take what we say seriously or they’re not listening to what we say” she said. “Maybe this one thing will get them to listen.”

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