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Teachers deserve to be heard

Updated: October 20, 2012 6:27AM

The Chicago Teachers Union strike is over but the fight for the future of public education in America may just be hitting its stride.

The seven-day strike by the CTU aroused national passions over the place of public employee unions in our weakened economy and the resulting contract will allow Mayor Rahm Emanuel to move forward with his concept of school reform.

Yet in the end, I hope the strike accomplished what CTU President Karen Lewis told the press in her post-game analysis, that “the people who are actually working in the schools need to be heard.”

Teachers need to be heard as Chicago Public Schools and other school districts move forward with plans for school closings, for adding charter schools and for shaping longer school days.

They need to be heard because they are the MVPs of our schools, along with the principals who manage them. And when the mayor comes up for air, he needs to find a way to start working with teachers through their elected union leaders, not just with the teachers who he likes.

The voices of classroom teachers should at least match if not trump the think-tankers and the tinkerers backed by wealthy donors — most of them perhaps very well-intentioned — pushing their own agendas for reshaping our schools.

An entire school reform movement is chewing up and spitting out our traditional education system, much of it based on the notion that “bad teachers” are the root of the problem holding back poor children — overlooking the lack of investment in every other aspect of the educational process.

Unfortunately, we could not hear the teachers as they debated ending the strike at the union’s House of Delegates meeting while afternoon turned to evening Tuesday at the Operating Engineers Union meeting hall.

I was with the media horde kept at bay outside the building located in a very Chicago setting: an aging warehouse district on the banks of the Chicago River just at the west edge of Chinatown.

As we waited, a cold front pushed across the city, and the sky turned gray. And my first thought was: This feels like a good day to be back in school.

We had no way of knowing at the time but inside the overwhelming majority of teachers were thinking pretty much the same.

Then suddenly, the doors to the union hall opened and red T-shirted union members began pouring out as if the final bell of the school day had rung, only their message was the opposite.

Back to school, they said.

Some smiled. Some cheered. Some gave the press dirty looks. (No more teachers’ dirty looks?)

“You were a little tough on us yesterday,” said a guy in his car with a megaphone left over from the picket line, looking at me. “But that’s understandable.”

I hope it was understood by at least some of them. My beef with the teachers wasn’t over the strike but for speeding past the warning sign on Sunday that said: Road Stops Here.

Teachers are going to need every little bit of community goodwill they can muster for the continuing fight ahead, and those two extra days on the picket line after the deal was ripe did not help them.

But all’s well that ends well. And if many walked away on both sides of the dispute a little happy and a little dissatisfied, that’s how it’s supposed to work.

Unlike the mayor who had a not-so-short speech prepared to tout the new contract, Lewis had no opening remarks before she took questions from reporters.

She and her team were notably restrained. There was no spiking of the ball in the end zone. I sensed more relief than exultation.

Many a teacher on the way out the door said they were most excited by the prospect of getting back into the classroom Wednesday to see their students.

A relieved city will be happy to have them there.

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