In a few short weeks, my classroom will be squirming with anxious excitement from a group of new first graders. But they aren’t the only anxious ones—after more than 20 years in Chicago schools, I fear for my students and colleagues as we begin the year without a contract and in anticipation of a possible strike. And yet, with this duress looming over our schools, I was shocked to hear that a delegation from my union, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), met with Venezuela’s government in July.
Supporting the Venezuelan government doesn’t sit well with me. Allowing the use of the CTU’s brand implies my support and the support of our entire 25,000 person membership. And while my union’s leadership claims it has not outright funded, supported or endorsed the use of our CTU brand for this trip, they also have not condemned it.
It makes me wonder: Is Venezuela more important right now than our students and our contract? Is union leadership condoning a repressive government without input from its members, and if not, why aren’t they disavowing the delegation? Shouldn't I have a say in what my union supports? And, most importantly, shouldn’t our energy and conversations be focused on students and not on this controversy?
What’s more, this small group of members identifying themselves as the CTU delegation in Venezuela has produced infighting on social media. It’s even been picked up by Breitbart, playing into the radical anti-union rhetoric and distracting all sides from ultimately doing right by our students and our profession during these critical contract negotiations.
In my two decades as an educator, I have learned the hard way what stalled negotiations and strikes do to kids and educators. Administrators take advantage of teachers. Bills go unpaid. Parents miss work. But what hurts the most is seeing the damage a disrupted education does to my first graders as their learning is interrupted. As much as I try to mask my anxiety over our contract negotiations, kids are smart and recognize when something isn’t right. And that’s not how I want to start the year with my students.
The Chicago Teachers Union must focus on what actually matters: providing our students with the education they deserve and bargaining for a fair contract. We need to keep our focus on issues like equitable school funding, a fair contract, smaller class sizes and improved outcomes for all students. We say these are our priorities, but when we make questionable ethical choices and allow ourselves to be distracted from what matters most, we do a disservice to our members and the children we serve.
So to my union leaders, I have this simple request: Prioritize our students and our profession.
Latasha Mallory is a first grade teacher at Ruggles Elementary on the south side of Chicago. She is a member and former delegate of the Chicago Teachers Union, and a member of Educators for Excellence, a teacher-led education policy organization.