The Washington Post

Chicago Teachers Strike Should Have Happened A Long Time Ago

(Scott Olson/GETTY IMAGES)

I’ve spoken at a high school in DC where the rooms were so cold in the winter that children had to wear their coats to class. Meanwhile, down the hall, others sat in sweltering rooms because the heat couldn’t be turned down. Another school I visited had a foul odor that flooded most of the building because of an overflow of sewage. A third school had buckets everywhere because each time it rained, the entire school would leak from the ceiling.

The point is, these conditions are not conducive to a healthy learning environment. And they are not conducive to a healthy teaching environment. And it’s why supporting the striking teachers in Chicago is imperative.

So, what are they fighting for? It’s basic: Fair teacher evaluation, limits in classroom size, better working conditions and keeping their health benefits.  That doesn’t sound like a ridiculous list of demands to me. They are demanding conditions that allow them to do their jobs and command authority in the classroom.

In many circles, the teachers are portrayed as greedy money hungry vultures who don’t have anything to gripe about. Pundits, and the media outlets that let them talk unchallenged, have tried all week to shift public opinion. They continuously point out that teachers in Chicago earn an average of $74,839 dollars annually, inferring that the men and women who teach our children make too much money.

But this ignores the fact that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D) is hoping to roll back an already negotiated raise. Would any worker, in the public or private sector, concede to that?

"This is not about money. It's about working conditions and class sizes that haven't changed in 35 years," said Karen Kreinik, 46, a pre-school teacher at De Diego Academy told The Nation last week. “It's absolutely shocking to me that we have a Democratic mayor who's anti-union.”

Jesse Sharkey, the union's vice president, told Reutersthat teachers were trying to reach a contract with the city.

"I do think it happens to be that the issues we're facing in Chicago are the same issues that people are facing across the country," Sharkey told the news service. "Public education has become an issue that's about people's rights and people's access to a high-quality future and so we think we're fighting for good public schools here and that's something worth fighting for."

What the backlash against the teachers tells me is that we undervalue teachers and our children’s public school education in America. We are accustomed to blaming children and teachers if the student’s test scores are not high; but so many ignore the conditions under which our children are being taught. With this in mind, I was moved by a comment made by a good friend of mine, Nikeya Young, who is a former teacher in the Chicago public schools. In a heart felt Facebook message she told me:

“These so-called "experts" who have NEVER: taught in a CPS classroom without air conditioning, [or] spent hundreds of dollars of their own money on supplies for their classroom, [or] had to make hundreds of xerox copies of materials because there were not enough books for each child (only to be told by their administrators that they're making too many copies), [or] received NO parental support WHATSOEVER (funny how these unsupportive parents have suddenly found their "voice" since they've lost their "babysitters"), [or] spent 60% of their time being a referee, therapist, nurse, and mother/father and 40% of the time teaching due to the issues that most inner-city students bring into the classroom to please stop ...need to stop commenting on things they know nothing about.”

This is the problem. We blame the teachers when the children show up unprepared. We blame the teachers when students don’t perform. The least we can do is support the teachers as they try to sort through the complicated day -to- day routine of educating the future leaders of America.

Etan Thomas is an 11-year NBA veteran and author, along with Nick Chiles, of “Fatherhood: Rising to the Ultimate Challenge,” “More Than an Athlete,” and soon to be released, “Voices of the Future.” He is also a member of President Obama’s Fatherhood Initiative. To read more, visit or follow on twitter @etanthomas36

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