My normal evening routine includes laundry, filling and running the dishwasher, picking up the family room, and wiping down the kitchen. Occasionally I do this while on the phone, occasionally I do this with a glass of wine. Sometimes I do it while stomping.
Every once in a while, I look around, pick up the phone, ignore all the things that are screaming at me to get done and I chat. Sometimes I chat about my kids, or my husband, or my lack of will power. Sometimes I listen as my friends tell me about their kids, their jobs, their husbands. We complain about our weight, our energy, our age. We laugh and bitch and are thankful for each other.
Once in a while our conversations are serious - about the stress of their jobs, concerns about our parents, worries about our children. We sometimes tear up, we often laugh, we try to sympathize and empathize and be there. In the last few days many of my conversations have been about the unionized teacher strike in Chicago.
Once upon a time I worked for Chicago Public Schools. I was a "counselor", even though in real life I was a Social Worker. I was not trained to advise kids on high school choices, I was not qualified to read test scores, I had a limited knowledge base of special education, yet I was the school's case worker and counselor. I should have never been the third in command - but I was.
I worked approximately a contracted seven hour day; a 35 hour work week. Actually, that is what I got paid to do, in reality I would log 10 hours a day. I counseled students, teachers and, yes, even administrators. I advocated for the children with special needs. I edited essays, attempted to help with third grade math, ran after-school groups, ran in-school groups, broke up fights, calmed down parents, managed a specialized staff, coordinated school wide testing. I enrolled new students, ran IEP meetings, designed behavior plans, helped with the transition to high school. I dealt with angry parents, concerned parents and hungry kids.
My office had a closet full of gently used clothes for kids who had accidents or who simply had clothes that were dirty. My desk drawer housed breakfast bars, crackers and juice boxes, as many of my students were hungry before even getting to school. Daily I did crisis intervention, dealing with elementary aged children who were neglected, abused, suicidal and homicidal. I held hands, I dried tears, I encouraged.
I would do what needed to be done, and then I would come home and cry. Because I knew that even working 50+ hours a week, planning, hoping and struggling, I was simply not able to do enough. I was not able to supply text books. I was not able to provide crayons, pencils, paper or erasers. I was unable to give my teachers classroom aides, my administration extra bodies, my special need students adequate support staff.
I could draft Individualized Education Plans, but I couldn't guarantee quality evaluations or consistent implementation. I could run after-school programs but I couldn't demand participation. I could call parents and visit homes and partner with community resources, but I could never truly meet the needs of my severely isolated, extremely inner-city kids.
I consistently provided my time for free. I was off the clock by 2:45 - I often worked past six. I endlessly hit up my friends and family for donations - underwear, socks, pencils, erasers. I spent more of my own money than I care to share trying to give the kids I worked with, worked for, a fighting chance.
I was not alone. I was not an anomaly. I was not a martyr.
I was surrounded by people who dedicated their lives to bettering children. Kindergarten teachers and third grade teachers, language arts teachers and science teachers, men and women who gave more than I thought humanly possible. People who spent their evening and weekends planning for and worrying about their students. People who would spend their paychecks on supplies for their students. Some of them have left the school system, like me, to raise their children, or start a new career, or simply because they were burnt out. And some of them are still in the trenches - still planning and worrying and doing innovative things to help kids learn and grow.
They are on the picket lines this week.
Yes, they want better pay. Yes, they want smaller class sizes. Yes, they want a fair evaluation system.
But the people I know, more than anything, want an education model that works. They want to be effective. They want to help kids succeed.
I don't know if there is a right or wrong side to the strike in Chicago. I don't think there will be any winners, but I do know that the people I know striking would much rather be in the classroom making a difference.