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Education Thu Jan 12 2012

The CPS Grind on Teachers

Recently, in Chicagoland, a story hit the papers about a teacher committing suicide. She wrote in her suicide note that the major reason for this drastic act was work-related. According to her colleagues, this woman took her own life because of the bullying and fear she experienced at her school.

As I discussed this event with a friend who is a current CPS teacher, he mentioned that in the comments section of the article many non-educators were shocked and horrified at this tragic happening but were also quick to assume that the woman must have been "soft" or had some kind of underlying mental health problem. But, he quipped, when many CPS teachers heard about the incident, they just shook their heads and said, "Yeah, I can see that happening."

Truth is, so could I. When I think back to my measly one year of teaching at a horribly-run CPS elementary school, I can very easily imagine that scenario unfolding with a number of my colleagues and yes, even with myself.

Did you all catch that? Suicide is not considered shocking in the realm of teaching in CPS.

And I don't think the general public understands the toll that years of working in an increasinlgly horrible environment coupled with the latest wave of teacher-bashing actually takes on the people who do the hard work of education.

Let me try and paint you a picture:

Imagine you've had one of the worst weeks of your life. You haven't slept in months, you have money troubles building, your relationships are failing, you feel unheard and unappreciated at home and at work, you worry daily about your future and whether or not you will have a job next year or even next week, and the idea of getting up to go to work the next day is practically unbearable. You need a moment to catch your breath, a moment to clear the clutter of worry, failure and fear from your clouded mind. But you don't get it. There is too much to get done. And all the while, you think, if I don't get it done, I am failing these kids. I have no choice but to keep pushing.

Now add onto that a vindictive, power-hungry boss who would fire you as soon as look at you, and colleagues at work who are themselves so tired, afraid and overwhelmed that they are one bad day from breakdown.

And then there are your students. God you love them. But some of them have problems you simply do not know how to fix. Or, even with the interventions you know to do through experience and training, you also know it will take all of your mental energy to implement them. You don't have that kind of energy left. Some of your kids are currently homeless and show up to school unbathed and with dirty clothes. Others have developed significant behavior problems and despite your best efforts, they continue to fight, curse, and act out in class. Some of them are so embarrassed they can't read that they throw books off their desks and rip up their hand-outs. You know deep down that most of the difficulties your children face are beyond your control. But still, most days you come home and cry because of the guilt and helplessness.

You also know that your job is on the line if you don't get these kids to perform on some silly test. You know the tests are a joke, that they do not capture the intelligence, wit, humor and spark that live within your students. But still they hang there, always lurking in the shadows. Time is slowly marching until the day you must administer the dreaded test and seal your fate.

Now imagine turning on your TV or flipping through the Tribune or Sun-Times to see yet another story loudly proclaiming that the problem with America's schools is, well, you. "More teachers must be fired!" they scream. "Teachers are the ones failing the kids, we need to hold them accountable!" "Teachers are lazy and need to work longer, harder, for less pay!" "Teacher pensions are destroying our economy!" (Whoa, did I miss the part where newspapers yelled at the people who caused the financial crisis that is slashing education budgets around the country? Are the mortgage brokers, big banks and financial industries getting demeaned every five seconds? How about the corporations not paying their fair share of taxes which help schools? And don't forget the politicians and their horrible education policies. Surely no one reading the news is believing this baloney, are they?) And every time you hear the insults or name-calling you think to yourself, "Well what the heck are any of you doing to help these kids..." The unfairness of it all burns.

Now stretch that one terrible week into nine months. Welcome to CPS.

Of course, the great irony is that as the powers that be complain about "quality" teachers they create teaching environments where it becomes impossible to be great. Teachers at my old school started to look liked the walking dead as the stress and fear accumulated. The increased "accountability" robbed us all of the very qualities which would make us great teachers: our passion, kindness, drive, energy, camaraderie and humor.

And then there are people, like our lovely mayor, who seem to enjoy kicking you while you're down. Rahm would have us believe that something like extending the school day is so easy. Oh, that smurk on his face as he seems to say "How dare you expect to be paid for your extra time!" And "Sure, you've been working this whole year close to breakdown, barely scraping by, without any resources and with abnormally large class sizes, but I'm sure you can come up with 90 extra minutes of activities for your kids. Oh, and if you really cared, you'd do this willingly and for free. And stop asking for paper to make copies or books for them to read, you greedy teachers. And no, we are not going to fix your school building, give you the resources you say you need, or help you in any way, shape, or form. You suck, your school sucks, and we are just biding our time until we can shut the whole thing down."


Now, maybe not every school and every teacher has as bad a time as that, but I know I did. And I know too many other teachers out there who are experiencing that same fear, intimidation, and stress. Teaching under these unacceptable conditions has become the rule, not the exception. I recently came across a blog post which described something called "compassion fatigue" which is "a combination of physical, emotional, and spiritual depletion associated with caring for patients in significant emotional pain and physical distress." The author goes on to say:

Like nurses, teachers confronting these pathologies [such as abuse, abandonment and alienation] are forced to perform triage. But teachers still have to somehow find the time and energy afterward to teach the subject matter they were hired to do. The debilitating effects on them are cumulative. It's little wonder, therefore, that teachers in inner-city schools have a higher rate of absenteeism and turnover than their colleagues in the suburbs. It's also not at all surprising that teachers who are faced with the challenge often find themselves drawing away from their students. The same sadness and despair that nurses report also affect teachers.

Now, if you've been paying attention to the education reform debate at all in recent years, you will know that this is the place in the story where the corporate reformers of the nation, you know, the Michelle Rhees, Bill Gates, Arne Duncans, and yes, Rahm Emanuels, would jump in and say something ridiculous like "no excuses" or "poverty is not destiny." They will fill your ear with talk of "the soft bigotry of low expectations" while completely ignoring the hard bigotry of poverty, racism and crippling income inequality. Their ignorance of the reality of life for students and teachers alike in the inner cities is frankly, criminal.

No more I say.

This post is for all my teacher colleagues out there. It's time for us to fight back. It's time to take back our profession. Teachers, use your natural inclination to educate and start teaching your friends and families about the hard realities of our profession. And don't be afraid to sing our praises. What we do is good work and it needs to be protected and cherished.

And while you're at it, don't forget to teach as many people as possible about the true nature of corporate reform and how it's left behind entire neighborhoods. Let people know about the ridiculous goals of No Child Left Beind and the evils behind high-stakes testing. Tell the truth about charters, that they are not, in fact, miracles. Speak up about the reality of Teach for America -- how placing untrained novices in classrooms with the hardest to educate students is unjust and wrong. Make people start to at least question the hype!

More than anything, make the act of teacher-bashing unacceptable. We know that when we are overwhelmed, upset, fatigued, demoralized and stressed out beyond our limits, we will be no good for our students. Remember, fighting for teachers is fighting for students.

So fight for the kinds of teaching environments which benefit kids. Fight for workplaces where teachers do not flee, breakdown, or God forbid take their own lives. Fight for a steady and strong group of committed professionals who actually stick around long enough to bring the slow change that is needed in our schools. Fight for the respect we deserve. Fight for the autonomy to make decisions on curriculum, implementation, and assessment that help the kids sitting in front of us. Fight for equity in resources so we have the tools to acutally do the difficult job of teaching. Fight for the mental health that we need to be the excellent educators kids deserve.

By fighting, we can beat back some of the hopelessness and exhaustion. We need to stop blaming ourselves, alone and guilty, and instead get angry at the forces that are hurting us and the important work we do. And all you non-educators out there need to get angry right alongside us. So sing along with me:

Katie Osgood is a special education teacher at a Psychiatric Hospital in Chicago. Before that, she taught in a Chicago Public School and in Japan.
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jimbo108 / January 12, 2012 7:25 PM

I believe that the teachers should be aware that this mayor and the previous mayor are the not friends of the teachers. The trouble is obvious when the mayor(s) brings in an outside-the-system person who is 1. not an educator, or 2. under the mayor's thumb, or 3. takes an antogonistic stand against the teachers who are trying to serve the students.

The trouble is that politicians do not understand the envionment in the classroom, nor, apparently, do they care, outside of what they can do to benefit their own political status. Teachers who do not unite against this unwanted meddling will face the destruction of their profession and, as a result, an increasing failure of the schools to help the next generations of kids.

Teachers should encourage parents to get involved in being vocal advocates for the efforts of the teachers. The only thing that scares a politician is bad press. As soon as the parents allied with teachers push back against political meddling, conditions may improve. If not, politicians, we've seen, are expert at the persuasive art of spin and manipulation to turn public opinion against teachers.

The mayor is highly motivated to see teachers fail: He would like to break up the teachers union. If he is successful against all unions, he would be free to amass great power with no threat to becoming a dictator. These fellows have big egos.

The very first thing this mayor did was to pick a fight with the teachers union, claiming that the CPS day was somewhat deficient and that he was going to "improve" the situation by forcing a longer day. Never mind that there was no research behind this whim. By and large, it was horrifying to watch him sway public opinion who--scared of many social conditions such as the economy and poverty--became adverse to unions. Basically, he was able to paint teachers as the enemy to kids and to society. I have no words to describe the depths of depravity this mayor would stoop to in order to achieve his self-interests. One thing I believe for sure is this push to demonize educators, close schools in minority and poverty-stricken neighborhoods is a major disturbance to the environment of the children and creates more challenges to their lives, not less.

Teacher / January 12, 2012 10:49 PM

This is spot on...I have felt like this since 2010 when huberman started firing all of my friends. It took years to build those collaborative relationships This year in particular I have been really depressed. I can't explain even to my family why I have to take risks and deliberately disobey my bosses in order to teach kids. Thanks for writing this

MelS / January 13, 2012 12:28 PM

Thank you. So accurate. I'm going to share with my students (who are teachers getting their Master's degrees). I find myself teaching as much about self-care, vicarious trauma, and compassion fatigue as I do the material at hand.

Former CPS teacher / January 13, 2012 2:29 PM

I left CPS because of a principal who physically harassed and bullied staff members and community members. She also chose not to provide the required services to students. This problem is epidemic, and it needs to be fixed. Why are principals not held more accountable to what is happening at their schools? Why do the politicians and media never discuss the principal's role in providing a quality education? It is time that the public knows exactly what is occurring in our school system.

Chaya Rubenstein / January 13, 2012 10:16 PM

Thank you. I was so worried that this story was not getting out, after reading it only in the Chicago Tribune.
(And--imagine that!--this newspaper that consistently engages in teacher bashing!) I have forwarded your post to Diane Ravitch--
this is worthy of national attention. Enough is enough.

Rosita Chatonda / January 14, 2012 3:07 PM

Great Job Katie,
Stay on the case. We need all hands on deck! We are are war with this system. Let's educate!

Carol Hudson / January 14, 2012 10:00 PM

Yes, I happy to know that the new is getting out about the way principal are bulling there teacher. Yes, why don't they hold the principal more accountable for their action. In stead of saying " there the principal they can do whatever they want", as long as there a system that rubberstamp the lies and false accusation made aganist teacher.

erin / January 15, 2012 2:51 PM

Thank you for putting this in words and getting this "out there".

phil / January 16, 2012 12:40 AM

As a first year special education teacher, I work in an autism classroom. Everyday, I go home feeling emotionally drained to the point of depression. I have spent my entire adult life working towards becoming a public education teacher, and even I question if I can last the year. This entry is so appreciated.

Peggy Robertson / January 16, 2012 10:59 AM

This is excellent! Join us to Occupy the DOE in DC from March 30th to April 2nd. It's time to get loud. You are so right Katie - it is TIME to fight back!!!

Busedteach / January 16, 2012 11:38 AM

This could have been written by any teacher in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. Didn't really realize that it was happening everywhere else. Now what are we as teachers going to do about it???????

RealTeacher43 / January 16, 2012 4:03 PM

The message put out by the government and the media is so strong, so relentless and so repetitive that people have blindly accepted it as fact. I've heard people repeat these negative talking points word for word as though they invented the thought themselves (which they probably believe). I hope more people wake up. I hope it's not too late.

Emily / January 16, 2012 7:07 PM

I quit teaching for good as of June 2009 to become a stay at home mom when I got married and moved out of state, but I was a special education teacher for many years. A few years before I left the profession, I taught for a year at John J. Pershing West Magnet School. Cheryl Watkins was principal at the time, and she may still be there. She was nothing but a bully. During the school year I was dating a guy who was physically assulting me and hurt me so badly on one occasion that I was taken to UIC Hospital's Emergency Room after 911 was called for help. Just after this, Cheryl Watkins was less than understanding and very heartless. I also was undergoing treatment for biplolar disorder, anxiety disorder, and panic I missed many days of work. Part of my treatment was a 1 week long inpatient treatment, which helped me a lot. Upon returning from this, I decided one day to stay a little later than usual after school to do some spring cleaning in my classroom. Cheryl Watkins had given my classroom some bike helmets back in the fall when school started, and she said she planned to get my students scooters. (Cheryl Watkins never got scooters). The box was oversized and since I was cleaning out the room, I decided to put them in Cheryl Watkin's office as I passed it on my way out of the building. When I clocked out near her office door, I placed the box of helmets in her office and then said good night to the security guard. I let the guard know I put the helmets in their box in Cheryl Watkins office. I then walked downstairs and out the rear door to my car. As soon as I got in my car, I drove home for the night. The following morning I went to work and found out that I was being accused of STEALING the box of children's bike helmets! At the time I was a single (unmarried) woman with NO CHILDREN. I had not taken the helmets, I had left them in Cheryl's office! I told Cheryl Watkins that I told the security guard that I put the helmets in the box in her office and to ask him since he was there. Instead the security guard lied and said he saw me leaving with the box of helmets and he attempted to ask why I was taking them as I took them with me in my car. I know Cheryl Watkins made up the story about the security guard. I even asked him privately if he had told her that I stole them, and he said that he did not tell her that. With the help of a lawyer provided by the teachers' union, we had a hearing. It was held at Pershing West Magnet, and the outcome was that Cheryl decided to fire me...I had a handful of hours that day to clear out my classroom! I had to call my parents to come into the city from the suburbs from work that day. They helped me empty my room, and I never went back to John J. Pershing West Magnet School again. Cheryl Watkins bullied me much of the year in looking back. I had so much going on in my personal life and my mental health was at its lowest point ever in my entire life while I worked there. Cheryl Watkins does not deserve to lead teachers and students. She is selfish and does not act like the Christian she portrays herself as. There is a reason that lady is childless and single in her personal life!

Jen / January 16, 2012 8:31 PM

Please correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't George W. Bush put the NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND Act into motion even after it failed miserably in Texas before he became president? Another thing not mentioned in this post is that the government and DOE keeps adding more paperwork, standards, and tests to administer to their students AND expects them to do everything else that they USED to do! Teachers are overworked and underpaid and belittled for the wonderful job they do helping us raise our children to be educated and ready to enter the adult world in a mature fashion. Thank you for all of the wonderful work you do as teachers! :o)

Mich / January 17, 2012 12:32 AM

So sad and yeah I see how a vindictive boss and a beyond difficult job can push someone who is already fragile right over the edge. Our school recently let a wonderful teacher go because he was short 2 credits for upper grade teaching. Get this - the class he took that was unaccredited is NOW ACCREDITED and could have been accepted by the principal based on that - she chose not to. Someone who had rapport and the ability to work with some of our most troubled students is now gone.
We add to that known and documented cramming - that is placing all children with special needs in one classroom that HQ just says "oh well" about - I don't understand how we can continue to blame one segment for all the issues of what is clearly not simply a systemic, but a societal problem at large.
There are certainly bad teachers out there - but there are people everywhere who are bad at their jobs and keep them - you know - the ones we joke about "knowing where the bodies are buried". In our current sojourn we've had two great, three ok/good and one truly bad teacher. But I also wonder how we keep piling on new rules, new responsibilities and then new blame if the juggled balls start to drop at all? And former CPS teacher has it right that principals are allowed to run their places like fiefdoms, especially if they have non-probationary schools - and that is often NOT to the good of the whole.

MC / January 17, 2012 5:02 PM

When poor-performing schools have a spotlight on them, teachers are given most of the blame. What many don't realize that if we want to keep our jobs, we must work as a result of the directives of the administration.
Additionally, not every student in a low- socioeconomic area is going to get into that lovely new charter or selective enrollment school. Traditional neighborhood schools are left with the under-performing students, and yet are expected to make the most gains with the least amount of resources and poor working conditions ALL THE TIME.
To those government officials who think we should work more, yet get paid less, I say come and work in my position for just one week. One week. Then let's see what kind of tune you will be singing about us.
Thanks for the article, Katie. For the rest of us in the trenches: talk is great, but action is better. Let's make sure we use action to protect our livelihood.

Ann / January 17, 2012 5:55 PM

Thank you for writing this!! I taught in CPS for 7 years, and the first 2 were in one of the toughest neighborhoods in Chicago. I became so depressed I needed to take medication. I have been a stay-at-home mom for the last 5 yrs, but still get SO ANGRY when I hear about all the teacher bashing and what the politicians keep trying to impose. Through your article, I feel as if my experience (along with many others') has finally been heard.

Leslie / January 19, 2012 6:54 AM

Thank You! You have put into words what I try to explain to my friends and family about the toxicity of working in CPS. They ask, "why do you stay?" Of course it is for the children who without the dedication of good teachers and and counselors would be in far worse shape.

Luis / January 19, 2012 10:47 PM

Fight back!

KT / January 20, 2012 12:19 PM

If you want to know the real truth about the state of Chicago Public schools, just go to and look at how many teachers are asking for basic school supplies, like copy paper, classroom chairs, and books. It is clear that Chicago schools administrators have failed to provide any kind of decent teaching environment in most schools. Reading the projects, seeing what is missing from education, is the best lesson in how we fail our teachers - and our children.

Monica / January 21, 2012 5:39 PM

As a non-educator, I'm immensely grateful for this article. Education is the most important challenge the country faces. But we, the general public, are at a loss about what's going on, about why we're failing. We all know that no one can start thinking about school when their basic needs - of safety, subsistence, and love - are not being met. We also know that some of the students' problems are disruptive to the rest. What we can't understand is why, now that the problems are well identified, we can't take the next step and come together on a solution. Well, obstructionist, petty leadership is clearly the answer to my question! Thank you for being a credible source.

Lenore Lopez / January 21, 2012 11:41 PM

I have the idea that every great teacher, the one that is admired and respected by the students, parents and their colleagues, run against the current incumbent in their district. They would have the name recognition, credibility and intelligence to make informed decisions for our students.

Guadalajara / January 22, 2012 7:25 PM

I taught in CPS for 3 years. I taught in 3 tough schools in 3 years. After leaving, I seriously think I had mild Posttraumatic Stress (PTS) disorder. The wikipedia site on PTS says these are some symptoms (all of which I felt to a degree):

C: Persistent avoidance and emotional numbing

This involves a sufficient level of:

-avoidance of stimuli associated with the trauma, such as certain thoughts or feelings, or talking about the event(s);
-avoidance of behaviors, places, or people that might lead to distressing memories;
-inability to recall major parts of the trauma(s), or decreased involvement in significant life activities;
-decreased capacity (down to complete inability) to feel certain feelings;
-an expectation that one's future will be somehow constrained in ways not normal to other people.

I still all but refuse to talk about working in CPS except with other CPS teachers.

Lisa / January 25, 2012 12:12 PM

I was a passionate teacher and a very successful teacher. However, the test training, canned curricula, nepotism/favoritism, disrespect towards highly educated and experienced teachers, vilification in the media, current political climate and bullying of teachers by powerbrokers, and the cost it took ME to provide a quality learning experience for my students was just not worth it any longer. I resigned. I miss teaching, but will NEVER return and do not recommend it for others. The children are ultimately the losers in CPS>

Stacy / January 27, 2012 7:29 PM

My 3 year old son started attending CPS, sept. 2011, because he has special needs. He was in a class with 14 typically developing kids, 6 special needs kids, 2 teachers and 2 aids. We are pulling him out and sending him to private school. The special education teacher is so unhappy/defensive that it is jarring. This is a classroom for 3 & 4 year olds. Its sad to see so much negativity around children. This needs to change and money is not the answer. Teachers make good money. Plus, if they work 20 years, they will get a great pension, unlike the rest of America. If teachers are being bullied then it needs to stop because that attitude trickles down to the students and parents. Teachers need to be allowed to do what's in the best interest of the children and they should not be afraid to talk to parents. The teachers in my son's room are good teachers, but their is something weird happening. We are lucky that we can send him somewhere else.

Kaspar Kasparian / February 2, 2012 3:26 PM

I'm a retired public school teacher who taught regular and special education classes in urban and suburban schools. You said it, Katie! All is painfully true.

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