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Editorial: Stand up to teachers, but don’t demonize them

Chicago teachers rally outside Wells High School Wednesday.  |  Brian Jackson~Sun Times

Chicago teachers rally outside Wells High School on Wednesday. | Brian Jackson~Sun Times

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Updated: October 15, 2012 9:25AM

Allow us today to come to the defense of the striking Chicago teachers in a way that will fully please almost nobody, certainly not the teachers.

We don’t think the teachers are greedy. We don’t think the teachers are in this just for themselves.

They want more money and greater job security. Who doesn’t? No apologies necessary.

The teachers also are demanding a long list of school improvements so they can do their jobs right. They want air conditioning and more social workers and textbooks for every student on the first day of class. The teachers say this would help students far more than another round of standardized exams that encourage teaching to the test.

These are not faked-up issues, though Mayor Rahm Emanuel all but rolled his eyes at the idea of the teachers union trying to negotiate for something so out in left field as air conditioning.

Anybody who has ever sat in a classroom without air conditioning on a brutally hot Chicago day knows this is no trivial matter.

Anybody who has ever taught a class, or been a student in a class, when a few students were bouncing off the walls, making learning impossible, knows there is a crying need for more social workers.

Anybody who has ever had to share a tattered algebra textbook with the kid at the next desk knows how important it is to have up-to-date textbooks for every student on the first day.

Most of us don’t work just for the money. Most of us also work to do a job right, to feel professional pride, to do something good with our lives. Why, then, are so many critics — writing in newspapers, blogging, standing behind a podium at City Hall — so quick to doubt the best intentions of the teachers?

The 25,000 striking members of the Chicago Teachers Union are not aliens dropped among us, selfish and dumb and duped by their union bosses. They are hardworking Chicagoans, about two to every square block in the city, who take intense pride in their profession.

What the teachers want, along with better pay and greater job security, is what they see when they look across the street to Oak Lawn or Oak Park or Lincolnwood. They want schools they can believe in and be proud of, schools where they can do their job right. They want it for themselves and for their students.

Now here’s the part the teachers won’t like: They have to call off this strike. They’ve already gained a great deal in these negotiations, as we made clear in an editorial on Wednesday. Times are tough and there is no way to pay for significantly more air-conditioners or social workers or libraries.

There are serious doubts as to whether the city can even afford the concessions it already has made.

On top of that reality is this one: If principals are going to be held accountable for the performance of their schools, they must be given freedom to hire the teachers they want. And the city must hold the line in demanding a strong teacher-evaluation system, though they still have work to do to assure teachers it is truly fair and reliable.

But we have nothing but admiration for teachers such as Claudia Pesenti, whom we met while she picketed outside Stockton School in Uptown this week. She showed us the white dress shirts she had bought at a thrift shop the night before for her first-grade students who cannot afford school uniforms.

“That’s what we do,” she said simply.

And we can’t help but wonder why Mayor Rahm Emanuel can’t express that same respect and admiration. A show of goodwill might go a long way.

Instead, when the teachers raised the problem of sweltering classrooms with no air-conditioners, the mayor all but sneered: “It’s 71 degrees. We don’t go to strike over air conditioning.”

As we said, this is an editorial sure to please almost no one. We respect the teachers and cherish the work they do, but we believe this strike is wrong. At the same time, while we stand with those who say there should be no more significant concessions, we can’t understand why they attack the teachers’ professional integrity.

We’ve all had great teachers in our lives, teachers who made us what we are today. Remember those teachers now — they’re on the picket line.

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