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‘I have nowhere to teach this fall’

MartPalamore his Chicago Public School classroom.

Martin Palamore in his Chicago Public School classroom.

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Updated: September 6, 2012 6:09AM

After being at war for 18 months, the Chicago Board of Education and the Chicago Teacher’s Union have reached an interim contract agreement that is being billed as a victory for students and teachers. Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s signature reform effort — the longer school day — has been kept intact, while the union rallied around the creation of nearly 500 teaching positions for the next year.

That’s a victory for those 500 teachers, but for it to be a victory for students, too, we need to focus on one priority that has so far been ignored: retaining not just more teachers, but Chicago’s best teachers.

I have proven my effectiveness as a teacher in just a few short years, but I have nowhere to teach this fall.

Since I was a child I dreamed about standing in front of the classroom and being a teacher. At first, I’ll admit I just wanted to be the one “in charge” in an environment that dominated most of my early life. However, as I got older, my reasons for wanting to teach changed. After observing many of my fellow African-American students struggle to adjust to the academic and social rigors of college, and then reading Jonathan Kozol’s The Shame of the Nation, I realized that far too many students of color graduate from high school ill-equipped for college.

I knew that I had to dedicate my career to changing this situation.

In the two years that I have taught for the Chicago Public Schools as a probationary teacher, I have committed myself to making history come alive for my students. In our unit on the Civil War, my students wrote narratives about slavery, where they played the roles of slaves and slave masters, and together produced a book of those stories. At my last school, my students struggled with reading and writing. With literacy-focused instruction, almost 80 percent showed above-average growth on their Explore exams, a crucial measurement of college readiness. I have also been dedicated to my union, as a delegate and one of many advocating for student-centered reforms across the district.

So why can’t I just teach? This summer is the third time I am forced to look for a teaching job after being displaced from a school (because of an enrollment drop and program changes). Three times, I have built relationships with students and families and had a powerful impact on my students’ learning — and then learned that I lost my position because I had fewer years of teaching experience than others in my building.

It’s no surprise that I am reluctantly considering leaving the profession.

Last week, TNTP, a nonprofit focused on teacher effectiveness, published a report titled “The Irreplaceables: Understanding the Real Retention Crisis in America’s Urban Schools.” The report highlights the importance of retaining the most effective teachers — and demonstrates that school systems across the country have policies that actively drive us away. According to the report, “top teachers seem to be shortchanged at every turn [with] policies at the state and local level . . . that fail to protect them in the event of layoffs.”

As in other districts across the country, great teachers in Chicago are being lost.

There are several steps that both CPS and the CTU can take to ensure that every classroom has an effective and qualified educator. Chicago should train, incentivize and hold principals accountable for building schools that inspire the best teachers to keep teaching. The creation of the REACH Students evaluation system will aid in this endeavor. And I hope that with the enactment of Illinois’ new education reform law, the layoff process will do a better job of taking into account teacher performance and ensuring that students get the best teachers the system has to offer.

I love teaching. My fondest memory of the past year was of a student named Darius, who was a struggling and reluctant writer. I promised Darius and his mother that by the end of the year he would write an essay that he was proud of. It took all year, but his essay on the devalued Deutsche mark after World War I and its connection to Hitler’s rise was impressive. Darius finished the school year with an improved confidence in his writing and took the opportunity to share his success with his peers and other teachers. I hope I can be part of that kind of change again this year. That would be a victory for students and for this hopeful teacher.

Martin Palamore is a middle and high school social studies teacher in Chicago Public Schools. He is a member of the Teach Plus Network.

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