As a teacher, I’m ready to strike — but there must be other, better ways

Time after time, this is our strategy to fight the inequities that our students experience.

SHARE As a teacher, I’m ready to strike — but there must be other, better ways
Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey, center right, and Vice President Stacy Davis Gates, center left, march with members of the CTU and SEIU Local 73 through the Loop on Monday.

Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey, center right, and Vice President Stacy Davis Gates, center left, march with members of the CTU and SEIU Local 73 through the Loop on Monday.

AP Photos

On Thursday, I will be striking alongside my colleagues if the Chicago Teachers Union and Chicago Public Schools are unable to agree upon a contract.

My colleagues in the union pose valid concerns regarding the inequities that our students experience.

It’s troubling that my students don’t have consistent access to social workers and nurses who could provide trauma-informed support. As their teacher, I struggle to gather, sometimes create, and allocate the resources needed to adequately serve each child in my class. I must fill in the gaps for what is not equitably provided.

However, as we gear up for another strike, I can’t help but wonder if we should rethink our approach to improving equity for our students.

On one hand, strikes have the potential to grab the public’s attention. They highlight a set of issues important to teachers that impact the quality of our students’ education. Strikes seem to create urgency around identifying problems and solidifying solutions.

On the other hand, they can also be taxing on both students and teachers — particularly on those least able to shoulder the burden. The disruption of the learning cycle disproportionately harms students with greater academic deficits and can be destabilizing for our most at-risk students.

Our newest teachers, who earn the least and are likely burdened with the most debt, must find ways to make ends meet until they receive their next paycheck. Circumstances like these put students further at risk and drive talented, young teachers out of our profession.

With so much riding on the decision to strike, I hope that our union leaders are considering these concerns as they negotiate, but honestly I don’t know if they are. When I consider the multiple styles of effective protests, I wonder why striking is the “go to” approach for our union.

Striking can’t be the only tool that we use to push for equity for our children. Time after time we utilize this strategy to get what we believe we deserve. Teachers and parents are tired of the stress induced by a culture of striking. For many of my parents it appears to be a publicity stunt.

It was frustrating to read this week that the CTU hadn’t made a comprehensive counteroffer since January. It was worse to openly ask if a counteroffer could be provided for us to read and receive no response. I wonder if they simply don’t have one or if there is another reason that they don’t want to make our demands clear to the city or their members.

The decision to strike is hard enough without being kept in the dark about the key points where the CTU and the district fundamentally disagree. It’s hard to decide if this is truly a negotiation for equity or if this is merely a power struggle between two entrenched entities.

There needs to be a true balance of power, an equitable distribution of leadership to truly make equitable decisions. 

Equity must be more than a buzzword used to make it sound like we’re doing what’s best for everyone. It can be achieved when all stakeholders actively work to level the playing field. In education, equity requires authentically incorporating the full range of teacher expertise in policy, design and decision-making. We see our students’ challenges and our education system’s shortcomings first hand, and we are brimming with strategies to make our own classrooms, schools, and district better.

As opposed to simply sharing a litany of complaints and polling teachers about our willingness to strike, I wish my union would leverage our expertise and ideas to formulate concrete solutions addressing inequity in our schools.

It’s vital that teachers be able to speak freely about our concerns for our students and our careers, so we can then come together to create realistic, student-centered, Chicago-centered solutions that can be negotiated with our district. Many of our teachers are CPS graduates who came back to work side by side with the district that made us who we are.

We must model the equity that we want to see. Our students are learning from our actions.

Yes, we want them to learn to advocate for their needs and rights. We also want them to learn the power of working together, at no one’s expense, to develop solutions. We want them to have the courage to listen to others and tackle complex problems through compromise.

We have the opportunity to both set an example for school districts across the nation and make real gains towards equity for our city. For our sake and the sake of our students, I hope that we’re up to the task.

Dominicca T. Washington has been a CPS Teacher on the South Side for six years. She is also a member of the Chicago Teachers Union.

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