On a recent afternoon, I spent two hours listening to eight public school teachers talk about their work. All but one of them teaches in Chicago. One of them teaches in a public charter school. They agreed to be quoted as long as I didn’t reveal their names. In a free-wheeling discussion that was mostly unprompted, they covered everything from testing and professional development to social promotions, teachers unions and choice. They praised administrators with “the heart of a teacher,” and lamented those who are “all business.” One teacher went even further, saying, “My administrators are so fabulous the union came down to find out why they haven’t heard from us.” Another teacher said that high test scores gave her school “bragging rights.” Another agreed that we need testing “to know where my kids fall, but excessive testing is a bad thing.” Still others put little stock in testing and laughed at the absence of security during tests. One said the answers to some math questions—like geometrical formulas—were often posted on the classroom wall where the students were taking the exams. And, because testing is part of her evaluation, one teacher said that it makes her focus on the kids who are near proficiency at the expense of the ones who are way behind. As she put it, “I will give more of my time to the kids who will help me keep my job.”
Several mentioned that more and more Black families are moving out of Chicago because of the violence. One teacher said 17 students in her school were shot last year. Another estimated that 75 percent of the students in her school had some kind of trauma in their lives that makes learning a challenge. Another teacher added, “I am an excellent educator but I’m not enough. These kids need a psychologist, social worker, mentor, parent.” She said her school shares one counselor with another school. One of the teachers began her career with a class of 34 sixth-graders. The suburban teacher, who had previously worked at Chicago Public Schools (CPS), said that in her school system a class size of 28 would be an immediate “grievance.” She took a $10,000 pay cut to teach in the suburbs because she was “very dissatisfied with the climate and culture of the (urban) school.”
Today, she feels more like a “teacher” than a “band-aid.” Several mentioned anti-teacher “propaganda.” One said, “I have never met a lazy teacher.” She was among several career-changers who transitioned into teaching from other fields. “I don’t have time to be lazy,” she said. One of them started her career at a charter school where, at the end of the year, she was one of only three teachers who
wasn’t fired. She left on her own to work in a traditional CPS setting in order to have greater job security. “Charter schools have the potential to be awesome,” she said, but added, “I’ve worked at good and not-good charter schools. I’ve seen good, bad and ugly.”
[pullquote position="left"]Several said that parents today are not as responsible as parents in the past. Back then, “Kids showed up and knew their colors, names, letters.” Shaking her head sadly, she said, “That heritage has not been passed down. Drugs, all those complexities. What happened?” “Some of these parents don’t believe their kids can do anything wrong,” said one. Another teacher said that kids today are “smarter” because of technology. She shared a story of an 18-month-old with an iPad. Several also pointed out that more and more kids are in preschool today so they show up in kindergarten ready to learn. “Kindergarten used to be about napping. Not anymore,” she said. In response, however, a high school teacher asked her elementary school colleague why so many students show up in high school several years behind. “What happens between kindergarten and ninth grade?” she asked. Still another said that she is mostly a life coach, not a teacher, and wondered out loud if she could actually handle a classroom full of kids who are on grade level. “I don’t know if I can hang,” she admitted. Most of them are indifferent to the political debates surrounding education. As one teacher put it, “The city and state going to do what they do—they’ve been politicking forever. But the teachers are on the front lines. We’re the ones who are gonna make the difference.” Amen!
Peter Cunningham is the founder of Education Post and serves on its board. He served as Assistant Secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration’s first term. Prior to that he worked with Arne Duncan when he was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter is affiliated with