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Op-Ed Wed Aug 12 2015

I am a Dictator: A Chicago Public Schools Teacher Responds to Rauner & Claypool

By Dave Stieber

Recently Governor Rauner said, "...the Chicago Teachers Union shouldn't have dictatorial powers, in effect and causing the financial duress that Chicago Public Schools are facing right now."

This statement from Rauner comes just a few days after Forrest Claypool, our newest CEO, said that teachers need to have "shared sacrifice" by taking a 7 percent pay cut.

The shared sacrifice Claypool speaks of means that my wife (also a CPS teacher) and I would lose about $11,000 in combined income for this year alone.

I could go on and on about how Claypool is just another puppet of Rahm, in a long line of puppets appointed by the mayor, or how Chicagoans demand an elected school board (remember Chicago is the only district in the entire state without an elected school board). But since Rauner thinks a union run by 40,000 teachers is a dictatorship and Claypool says teachers need to sacrifice, I will share my stories, so that maybe, just maybe, they both (along with Rahm) will realize what it means to really sacrifice.

Two weeks ago I found out that a student who attended and graduated from my high school was shot and killed. I did not know this student well, as I had never taught him, but what I have found is that his death has triggered many other emotions and memories that I have suppressed.

There is a study that found that people who live in violent areas (like many parts of Chicago) show sign of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) similar to soldiers returning from combat. My father was in combat in Vietnam and for the first 23 years of my life he never once talked to me about Vietnam. It was one night that he decided to watch a fictional movie about Vietnam that it all came back to him. I can see how he has days where his mind is consumed by traumatic experiences he had. He has been able to cope and now is working to prevent people, students especially from going into the military.

I have worked in CPS for nine years now and have had students share tragic stories of losing their friends and loved ones to violence. I have seen how certain events can trigger their traumatic memories.

I never thought that a teacher (myself) could have this happen too.

When I found out that a student from my school -- who had just graduated -- was killed, I was deeply saddened for his family, for everyone who knew him, and that our city continues to let young people die.

However, I have found that now, nearly two weeks after his death, I have been thinking nearly every day of the first student I ever knew who was killed.

Nearly five years ago a young man named Trevell was shot and killed. I taught Trevell as a freshman in high school. He was an outgoing, intelligent and confident young man, but it was clear that he had some difficulties outside of school. As he continued through high school into his senior year, he had made many positive decisions to steer his life in the right direction and had got himself into college. I received a phone call on a cold January Saturday morning from my assistant principal saying that Trevell had been shot. I still remember that day that I found out about his death and also what it was like to go into school that Monday and cry with students and staff and share stories of Trevell.

The following school year I was teaching my senior Urban Studies class. I had taught many of the students in this class when they were freshman. There was one student Deonte who as a freshman I never thought would still be at our school, let alone close to graduating, for how involved he seemed to be with life on the streets. As a freshman in my class, Deonte would typically be focused on anything and everything as long as it was not academic. But amazingly Deonte had turned it around and now, as a senior, had become one of the most liked students by staff and students. He had dramatically improved his grades and gotten accepted into many colleges. But one day in late May, just a few weeks before graduation, he was not in class. When I asked where he was, another student whispered to me that he had been arrested. I didn't believe it, because it seemed to me that he had put that part of his life way behind him. It wasn't until I saw a mug shot of him wearing his school shirt and read his charge that I finally accepted it. He was one of my favorite students. I still think of him often.

Then about two years ago my wife and I experienced a miscarriage 17 weeks into our second pregnancy. My students all knew my wife was pregnant, and while I was out of school grieving the loss, I dreaded having to come back to school to see 150 students who knew that my wife was no longer pregnant. My students were amazing and helped me grieve. My students were actually much better than even some of the adults who knew we had experienced that loss.

I share these stories because my "shared sacrifice" is that every time a student dies I think of these things. I don't even realize that I am thinking of these things at first, because I usually just get angry or frustrated and don't know why.

There are days that I wonder, like many teachers in Chicago, why do I still stay here? Why do I stay in a system that is run by the mayor with an appointed school board that clearly has no clue what it's doing. Why do I stay in a system that has a new CEO every one to two years? Why do I stay in a system that allows its schools to be funded at often $10,000 less per student than schools in the suburbs?

Every answer to all of those questions is because of the students. The students are the reason why 40,000 teachers in Chicago don't just pack up and move out of the city. We love our students. We love to guide, mentor, coach, counsel, teach, listen, and laugh with and at them.

So Mr. Claypool, we teachers have "skin in the game." My personal stories are sadly not unique; we teachers have and continue to make sacrifices every day by being a teacher in Chicago.

Mr. Rauner you want to blame us, teachers, for the fiscal crises of our city? How about thanking us for doing what we do every day. Thank us today, thank us tomorrow, and continue thanking us for your entire four years as governor, because you will never know what we do for the students of this city.

And after you thank us, give us power over our schools. Give us an elected school board. Give us counselors and therapists. Give our students the schools that they deserve.

Yes, giving more to the schools costs money, but let's be clear, there are money and revenue options out there. You are just choosing to use bogus rhetoric instead of hearing and acting on the revenue options available.

The stress that I and the rest of Chicago's teachers go through every day of the year to educate the children of this city that we love is not easy, but we do it because we know that our students matter. It is time for the politicians to do the same.


David Stieber is a father, husband, CPS teacher of History. Dave is passionately committed to promoting and improving urban public education, while simultaneously improving the lives of his students. He earned his masters in Urban Education Policy Studies from the University of Illinois at Chicago. You can follow Dave on Twitter at @D_Stieber.

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Kirstie / August 12, 2015 2:29 PM

Thank you for this very heartfelt and well expressed sentiment. I've been a CPS OT now for 14 years and what is happening in our city is heartbreaking. The banks and the rich never have to pay their share. We have a air and water show polluting our city instead of well funded classrooms. We need a city run for every citizen, not just the rich, white, able bodied ones. It's such a travesty what has been allowed to occur to public education without accountability for how the billionaires play with tax dollars. This is a travesty that will drastically effect the future. And, in fact, when you look at the overall nihilism at play, it is clear the politicians at play simply don't imagine a future that involves our students at all.

Jan patterson / August 13, 2015 8:21 AM

Thank you for this beautiful article. Even though I retired three years ago there are still children who haunt me-
Unless you Have taught in the Chicago public schools you can't understand the struggle with CPS or the relationships that develop between the teachers and the students.

CPS Parent / August 13, 2015 9:04 AM

There is no question that teachers experience heartbreaking as well as dangerous situations in many CPS schools. The compassion and commitment that I see in many of my children's teachers is helping to shape a promising future. The comments from the Governor are not directed at you personally, they are directed at your union, the CTU and the past unsustainable deals made with politicians that your union funds. That is the difficulty I have as a taxpayer and parent. I cherish the good teachers my children have and they work hard . They also feel they are fairly compensated.

With all due respect, in your example, your combined income is about $157,000. While the loss of take home income is a hit for you and your spouse, it is going toward your pension. You will see this money again, many times over. It is not a pay cut and really should have never been agreed to by Mayor Daley. The history of union's and Illinois is undeniably intertwined and has caused the potential fiscal collapse of the state. When I look at it through this perspective, the CTU can be characterized as a dictatorship. At the same time, the teachers that work hard in difficult situations should receive compensation or "combat pay" and teachers who are the best of the best should receive bonus or get paid more than their peers. Both of which your union rejects.

The conflict is between the union and the budget collapse caused by past politicians. It is not between individual teachers and the their love for students. We need to get past emotions and get to solutions or there will be even less money and more poverty as families move from Illinois.

Debbie / August 19, 2015 12:43 AM

I teach in Waukegan...believe me, I can relate to your comments (well, we do have an elected school board). Firmer students of mine have been arrested, sent to prison for long terms, killed, and been killed. It's horrible! But I stay in my school hoping it will make a difference for one child. Incidentally, our teachers make about 20% less than CPS teachers!

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