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Why I stand with fellow teachers

Updated: September 13, 2012 1:50PM

I am a Chicago Public School teacher. What am I fighting for at this time?

1. I am fighting for schools in which politicians do not decide what is best for the children of Chicago; but where teachers and administrators have the power to make decisions specific to the needs of the students in front of them. It is when politicians began making sweeping and all-encompassing decisions that schools began to fail. Not every school and student has the same needs as another. CPS has tied the hands of administrators trying to make improvements by limiting their funding and access to resources. Some administrators have found ways to supplement what the district provides.

2. I am fighting for schools in which resources are available before the first day of school. I have a classroom of 35 students in which 30 of their desks have seats that are cracked down the middle. The textbooks I am using are falling apart and, in some instances, older than the students I teach. I have spent thousands of dollars over the years of my own money for resources to supplement the materials I am provided. I have taught lab courses on desks and folding tables due to a lack of actual lab tables. Most schools are incapable of providing enough Internet band-width for a class of students to research current issues. Yet, schools are making the effort on their own to bring classrooms into the 21st century in terms of technology and lab classrooms by seeking grants, gifts and alumni donations.

3. I am fighting for teachers with multiple endorsements to not be shuffled like a deck of cards and moved from subject to subject just because, according to the state, they can teach it, not because that is their best subject or the one in which they have a degree. I have taught six subjects in 10 years. I have taught all the core sciences and some electives. In all that time, I have been able to teach in the area of my bachelor’s degree only three years. I am hopeful that the current subject, though not in my degree area, will be the last change for a few years.

4. I am fighting for respect on the time we give up. No one asks us about the weekends we give up with our own families to work on developing lessons, boning up on the material, grading papers, researching teaching methods, or attending school events to support students. I knew coming into teaching that I wasn’t going to be rich. However, no one but a teacher or her family knows what happens behind the scenes. I know my average work week comes to 70-plus hours.

Yet, I’m not even paid as if I am a full-time employee. Sorry to those of you who think we are off for half of June, all of July and most of August. That is the time when I catch up on journals, publications and professional development. This is unpaid time. I am paid only for my time in front of students. Conferences and workshops are paid for out-of-pocket. What I am paid over the summer months has been deferred from my regular paycheck during the school year, banked so that I will receive a regular flow of income during the off months. And no one talks about the time teachers spend before the school year begins trying to fix up their classrooms or about the volunteers who help us do so.

5. I am fighting against an evaluation system that has added days to the calendar so that students can be given more high-stakes tests to evaluate me. Yes, those extra days were added just so we can give more tests, not to provide more instruction. Kids will be tested almost 15 days of the school year, not to mention the regular course work tests they will take. I am not saying that a portion of my evaluation can’t be tied to test scores, but it does not need to be 50 percent or even 40 percent. I am saying it is what happens in the classroom on all the other days that is the measure of my performance. To see this, administrators need to be in the classrooms. To accomplish this, CPS must reduce the bureaucratic paperwork principals face so that they can visit classrooms regularly often. Teachers can be fired, regardless of tenure. Principals have always had the right to determine their staff.

6. I am fighting for a school system that does not have a revolving door of new teachers. Some say teachers with more than five years experience lose their effectiveness. It is those teachers that return to the role of being a student. We seek out sources to improve our craft and stay up to date; that costs money. CPS does not offer any form of tuition reimbursement. Why shouldn’t CPS show appreciation by having lanes that reward us for continuing our educations that allow us to become teacher leaders in our buildings? We are experiencing more teacher burn-out than ever because of all the additional demands made on us. Close to 50 percent of new teachers (5 years or less) leave the profession. We need the stability of a well-rounded workforce that has teachers at all levels of experience. This allows for collaboration and support between new and veteran teachers that ultimately benefits all students. We need a school system that supports and develops programs to help those top teachers stay.

7. I am fighting for a system in which a canned curriculum isn’t forced on schools in trouble. These scripted courses do not help improve anything. They lack creativity and understanding concerning the needs of students. These curricula enhance the negativity found in troubled schools. Such schools require investments in support and enrichment programs. They require additional teachers for more individual support for struggling students. Luckily, I am in a school in which administrators do the best they can and go above and beyond by ensuring students have access to a variety of courses, in terms of electives, languages, and Advanced Placement offerings.

8. I am fighting for smaller class sizes. How can I help 35 students struggling with a concept in 50 minutes of class time and still provide the initial instruction required? How can an art teacher inspire 50 students at a time? How can an English teacher provide feedback to all 35 students as they write an essay in class?

9. I am fighting to make certain students have the support services they deserve. Some schools do not have a nurse on site daily. Counselors have case loads of over 150 students at some schools. They cannot regularly meet with each of those students several times per year. At a time when homelessness and other social issues are on the rise, there are not enough social workers to help guide students and their families to the support services they deserve.

10. I am fighting for taxpayer dollars to go to the public schools and not be passed to private corporations. Why are millions of dollars being funneled to these private groups when my room has windows that either don’t close or open? Why can’t the money be used to help air-condition the building? In the first week of school, by 11 a.m. my classroom on the second floor was 90 degrees, though it was cooler outside.

11. I am fighting for better schools! I am fighting for respect for what I do!

I help raise Chicago’s children, not just educate them.

I’d be interested in knowing what one writer meant when he wrote “pay increases that include rewards for teachers for just being there.” I’m not just there. I live and breathe the job I took on.

Please support the teachers. But if you cannot, please remember there are better ways to express yourselves than giving teachers who are exercising their democratic rights the finger.

Katrin Machaj is a science teacher at Lane Tech College Prep High School.

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