Sunday, September 9, 2012

Labor Unions, child care freakouts, my special 6 year old, and me

I needed to have a serious conversation with my son. In short, I had to prepare him for the beginning of the week, during which he would walk a picket line with me, a fed up member of the Chicago Teachers Union. This conversation would not be easy for a lot of reasons.

We had just finished the first week of school. And in my house, school is a "we" kind of thing for me and Lil Buddy. I am lucky to have a great job, teaching dance and drama at a neighborhood Chicago Public School. I am blessed to not only have a job, but to teach a subject that I care deeply about and love sharing. I am further blessed to go to work somewhat side by side with Lil Buddy, who attends the very same school. This means we get to walk into school together every morning, wave to each other when we pass by in the hall, and leave together at the end of the day. On top of all of this is the fact that  I really do get to know and interact with the teachers, therapists, special ed teachers and social worker who work with him. His teachers are my colleagues and I am grateful for them.

Both of us were nervous about our individual first days of school and both of us were nervous about Kindergarten. Lil Buddy made it through, though. His biggest complaint of the week being that "lunch is soooooo short in Kindergarten!"

I was relieved that things seemed to be going smoothly. I knew he wasn't talking to his new (or old) friends yet as he adjusted to the overwhelming stimuli of school, but I felt confident that some form of social interaction would come. Maybe hopeful is a better word. I feel hopeful that social interaction will come. It will take time.

Despite my satisfaction with my job, the fact remains that as a CPS teacher, I represent a group of people, 25,000 strong, who are in contract limbo. And yes, I agree with everything that my union is fighting for. My contract, our new contract, must be fair and respectful to teachers both in words and actions. Why should we be called greedy by the media for asking for our promised 4% raise? The one that was withheld by our Mayor? A guy that I helped elect to Congress several times...........

Why shouldn't  I accumulate sick days? I already quit CPS once just so I could stay home for ten weeks with my newborn. Lucky for me, they took me back.

Why should our effectiveness be  linked to standardized test scores?

And why, please tell me, should any one of us teachers, anywhere in the country, be expected to actually "teach" 35-40 students at one time? How in the world is that effective? That's the one! Man, that is the one, that I am trying to conquer that I just cannot wrap my brain around. how do I engage, excite, reach all 30 children at once? How do I do it 5 times in one day, 5 days a week?

And our union represents a group of people highly disenchanted with our Board's take on school "reform." How on earth does closing a school and wiping it clean of employees spell reform? And what about the new school in its place? Can it accept all the children in the neighborhood or just a select few? Where do the others go? How do they get there? Where do the special kids go? The ones with Autism Spectrum Disorder, among other things? Is there a place for them at this wonderful new school? And if not, then where do I send my son?

So I thought about all this as I dragged Lil Buddy to union meetings during my first 2 weeks of work.

"Why did everyone keep saying 'Oh My God,'?" he asked. "what do they mean?"

I didn't have an answer. I struggled to figure out how I would prepare him to walk the picket line with me. I wanted him there, of course. I also really had no other place for him to go. I already pay for Sweet Potata's daycare whether she's there or not. So at least that was a no brainer. well, a costly one. The 2 year old can go to daycare. But that would have to be it as I prepared to walk away from my income.

And then there was the matter of Lil Buddy himself. I knew that his friends (children of my colleagues) would be there. But could they entertain each other the ENTIRE TIME? Would he last? My Lil Buddy, with his own unique level of tolerance for talking to grown ups and enduring schedule free events. Would there be enough bubbles, drawing, video games, DVDs, chasing, jumping, sparkling, donuts to last the entire time? I didn't know.......

On Friday I stayed until 4:30 to finish up my lesson plans for the week. Lil Buddy begrudgingly entertained himself in my classroom as I hunched over a computer. I took my copy of click, clack, moo home with me with a genius plan to read the book and discuss labor struggles on a snuggly bed. I imagined it would go something like this:

"You see, mommy is the cow with the typewriter, well, a friend of that cow, but a cow. Farmer Brown is the Board of Education. Mommy just wants a warm blanket because she is cold. It's about fairness."

"Oh, I see."

But we never cracked open Click Clack Moo. Instead, during a quiet resting/snacking moment at the park, I decided to broach the subject. Lil Buddy was exhausted from trying to catch butterflies with his net ("where are they, mommy?"). 

"Hey, Lil B. I have to talk to you about something."

"What is it?"

"There might not be school on Monday."

"really? is it a another holiday like thanksgiving?"

"No, LB, it's not a holiday. The thing is, we have to be in a parade and carry signs."

"Me, too?"

"Yes, but it's going to be kind of a long parade. You see, Mommy's job, well, all of us, who are teachers, we are not being treated fairly by, well, by the people we work for."

"You mean our school?"

"No, not our school, the people who run our school from downtown. They don't want to , well, they are not being fair. " And here is where I thought about health care and wages and school reform and class size and services for children just like Lil Buddy.

But I didn't talk about any of that. Cause I knew he wouldn't get it.

"That's not nice!" he exclaimed.

"Well, it's not fair," I corrected, "and we are going to have a parade on Monday to ask for fairness."


"and I need you to come with me. your buddies will be there. And you can have a donut in the morning."

"Donuts? Really?"

"Yes, really. as a treat. Only on Monday."

"cause there's no school!"

"Maybe, maybe there's no school."

"And I'll be in the parade."

"Yes. And the  parade is called a strike."

And that's sort of how things went. Simple, and awkward. I thought afterwards about IEP language: restate the directions, give extra time for questions and answers, give the child preferential seating. No, it wasn't perfect in that regard, either, but maybe it came from that place.

Tomorrow, Lil Buddy will come with me to school, where we will parade together, for fairness. We'll just have to see how it all goes, I guess. We'll wear red shirts and eat donuts, and maybe, just maybe, his amazing encyclopedic mind will tuck this memory away forever.


  1. Been thinking about you. Hope you all get the fairness you all are entitled to. Little Buddy in a parade!

  2. Wow, MK. Thank you for a wonderful essay where you captured so much - your demands, no rights as a teacher who cares about her work, the concerns of a mother with daycare needs and special education needs, and most of all how to explain this to LB. It grosses me out that education and the needs of our children are paid such lip service by so many in government. It's outrageous that these things are held in such low esteem, while CEOs and executives get bonuses of 6 figures. I don't begrudge them their money, as a certain politicians minions would suggest, but why do the rest of us have to crawl all over each other to get the crumbs?