When the teachers left the classroom, an inconvenient moment

My hometown of Chicago is all in a tizzy as public school teachers went on strike for the first time in 25 years. Growing up, I remember the teachers being on strike a lot, granted that is no comfort to the hundreds of thousands of parents scrambling today with their kids, many whom need to go to work.

In recent years it seems teachers have become public enemy number one in the minds of many, how dare they want things that those in the private sector don’t have, like good health care, pension, etc., the nerve of these damn teachers after all everyone knows they really only work part of the year and have short work days…those greedy assholes!

If only that were true! When I was a graduate student, I toyed with the idea of making a career change and going into teaching. Thankfully before I rearranged my entire professional tract and schooling, I decided to become a substitute teacher which as a degree holder was fairly easy. Yet, let me tell, you, teaching is one of the hardest jobs ever. For starters I learned in that year of subbing that teachers in many places at least in Maine and apparently back in my hometown, don’t get social security benefits when they retire. Instead they pay into the Teachers Retirement System, by paying a portion of their salary into that system, in Illinois in 2011 that was 9.4% of their salary. Now us average stiffs either have 401K’s or something (maybe nothing) but if all else fails we know we will have a meager Social Security check when we get too old to work, granted Social Security may not be around but hey, let’s believe that it will. What that means is even so-called well paid teachers aren’t taking home as much money as many of us assume and why things like raises are sort of nice. After all teachers don’t catch a break at the pump, they have to pay full price for shit just like the rest of the stiffs.

Next up, do people really think teachers only work the length of the school day? Sure school might be 8:30-2:30, but really teachers aren’t out the door at 2:31. For starters teachers get to school well before the kids arrive, many stay well after the kids have left and once you are in the grades where kids have actual homework, how do you think it gets graded? Never mind that as the old model of life in America has all but disappeared, it means when a teacher actually needs to speak with a parent, they have to call a kid’s home at 7-8pm at night. In today’s world where classroom sizes can easily reach 30+ kids that could be quite a few calls. By the way when you are teaching as I learned, you don’t exactly get to take a break when you want to, in many ways my brief experience of teaching showed me just how rough teaching conditions can be and it can be worse. In my hometown, most of the schools still don’t have air conditioning and now that seasons are reduced to hot as hell and really cold, AC would be nice.

More and more teachers are being told that their job performance will be evaluated on the basis of how well kids do on standardized testing. That might sound good on the surface, but in places like my hometown where the vast majority of kids are coming from low income families that means kids coming to school who in many instances are not ready to learn. I am not a teacher but I know at the community center I run, in our summer program, more than half the kids come to the program, hungry, irritable and frankly not ready to participate, I suspect teachers see the same thing. The best teacher in the world can’t fix all the social ills that plague kids and can affect their performance and to ask a teachers livelihood to be based on things outside of their control is insane.

Sure there are some bad teachers out there, but teaching has a high rate of burnout, most new teachers will be gone not long after starting. Shit, my one year of subbing primarily at a middle school, pretty much opened my eyes to what teachers really do.

Never mind that most teachers are not “off” during the summer, most are working someplace else to make ends meet.

While it’s easy to come up with average teachers’ salaries and determine they are high, the reality is they aren’t high enough. Not when we live in a time when schools now ask parents in many parts of the country including my own to bring in paper towels and Kleenex in addition to the paper, pencils and other stuff. While I gripe a little, the reality is I am happy to assist especially when I know not every parent can supply necessary materials and I really don’t feel my kid’s teacher should have to reach into her own pocket. It’s why when we received our property tax bill recently and saw a rather huge increase, I didn’t grumble too much.

Outside of parents, teachers have the ability to make a real difference in the life of a kid; a good teacher will lay a foundation that will live with a child forever. I am almost 40 and still remember the ones that inspired me. Too many times we and that’s a collective we treat teachers as if they are merely babysitters instead of recognizing them for what they really do.

A teacher’s strike is inconvenient, no doubt but teachers are more than overpaid babysitters, they are shaping our future and as molders of the next generation, they deserve nothing less than the best. So yeah, I stand with the teachers and hope for the sake of the kids of Chicago, this strike will be brief. That said, even in the midst of this mess, there is a valuable teaching moment for kids on the power of collective organizing but that’s a post for another time.

Whose the parent?

As a product of the Chicago Public Schools, it was with great interest that I read this story yesterday. Go ahead, take a second, and read it…ok for those that don’t, the crux is that an elementary school in Chicago decided to ban homemade lunches. Yep, kids have two choices, eat the school provided lunch (slop) or eat nothing. Wow! Now I am not one of these anti-government folks but I will say reading this piece combined with having a kid in the local schools here in Maine have started to convince me that schools are moving away from their primary function….oh, educating kids to oh say parenting kids.

Now I will fully admit that I understand why schools are slowly moving from role of educator to parent, frankly there are plenty of parents that for whatever reasons simply are not able or available to parent. I see it all the time at my community center; we have kids who attend whose parents have actually told me that we (my staff and I) are the only ones that can get their kids to behave. Say what??? Kids constantly ask me why aren’t we open 7 days a week, ummmm because we like to have a life too.

It’s bad out there, I am not a teacher but due to the nature of my work I interact with teachers and other allied professionals that work with youth and most of us have never seen the apathy that exists within most families. So it only makes sense that teachers are willing to pick up the slack and add pseudo parent to their role…got to do what ya got to do.

Now let’s talk about the school meal program, I am of two minds, no kid deserves to go hungry. Plain and simple. Ideally everyone would have access to fresh, nutritious food that does more than add dense calories but to be honest with the current way that the school food programs are administered by the United States Dept of Agriculture, that’s hard to do. My community center for the past two years has participated in the Summer Food Service Program that is offered to community partners and schools so that kids’ at risk for going hungry will have access to meals.

My first year in the program, I had such high hopes thinking I might be able to partner with local farmers to offer the kids truly good food. Well it turns out the program, sets the guidelines for what you can serve and well its no longer a secret to me why school meals often look and taste like shit. The problem is not your local schools it’s the federal government, I repeat it’s the federal government. The schools are simply doing what they can at the cheapest price. See, school meal programs are woefully underfunded. The federal reimbursement rate is like a $1.80 for breakfast and $3.15 (can’t remember the exact figure so correct me if I am wrong) for lunch. Now I know you are thinking wait, that’s plenty of money to provide good meals. No, its not. See, that is all the money schools and agencies get that participate and that figure includes salaries, I mean the folks who cook/prepare the meal want to get paid. The folks that deal with all the paperwork are also fond of getting compensated too! It includes the cost of paper goods, ever noticed that most public schools use paper products? That’s because the USDA‘s regulations are so onerous that you are pretty much pushed into using disposable products. Of course these products cost money.

So now you can see why the lunches are not nearly as tasty or nutritious as they can be, I know my first year in the program I almost went over budget getting fresh fruits and veggies by year number two I realized that canned items could easily meet the “requirement” and ensure that I not go over budget. Shitty but its all about survival.

So back to the school in Chicago, sure they probably had kids making poor nutritional decisions but the truth is in more ways than one getting all the kids to eat the school lunch makes sense. More cash coming in to actually keep the cafeteria open and if it’s like my kids school where there is a shortage of space and time, it streamlines the process. If every kid gets a Styrofoam tray of food, it beats helping little Jenny open the thermos, and eat all the food their Mom packed.

Now the thing for me is when I was a kid in the Chicago schools starting in the late 1970’s, I never ever ate the school lunch. For starters my school had no cafeteria so the school lunch was a sack lunch that always looked bad…to this day I remember the peanut butter and jelly they offered on a graham cracker thing that looked like an ice cream sandwich. Yuck. I remember going to high school and even there once I had access to a cafeteria the fare looked so bad I remember begging my Mom to give me lunch money so I could eat outside the school. I actually remember taking the $1.50 she would give me for school lunch and just going off campus to a local eatery and getting Italian bread and gravy to eat rather than eating the slop the school served…that’s how bad the school lunch was and that was a long time ago!

The thing is the school that issued this mandate is in a lower income area where the truth is, it’s a lot easier to issue such proclamations. I mean you try that at a school that is solidly middle class and above and chaos will ensue. Then again even in middle income areas the schools are slowly trying to assert more authority over the kids which I suspect is part of the reason for the rise in homeschooling. Remember back in the dark ages when the only kid you knew who was homeschooled came from a fundamentalist Christian family? Kid always seemed sad and strange…but now? Homeschooling to some degree has become mainstream and in most cases the reasons I have heard for families choosing to homeschool has a lot to do with wanting to maintain a sense of control over their own kids. Wanting to ensure that the families’ values are what help to form the kids’ identity, etc. As I battle every week with some outside force that feels further and further away from our families values I will admit homeschooling sounds very attractive.

In today’s world it seems our kids are no longer ours and as parents we must decide how we want to handle that. Today it might be something as small as insisting we spend our money to feed our kids food we don’t eat but what will it be tomorrow?