Sample Interview from "Open Letter to President Obama: Chicago Teachers Speak Out on Urban Education"
Tom, 11 years teaching,high poverty, west side elementary school
Do you feel urban teachers are under attack? If so, why?
Absolutely. We talk about it all the time and no one really knows when it really changed, but I was at a professional development training session recently and the speaker was saying if someone had come out first and said how hard teachers worked, what a great job teachers were doing, maybe the public would have latched onto that. Instead, it’s how bad teachers are, how ineffective, how lazy and overpaid we are with these huge pensions. They latched onto that. And, as the economy got worse, it seemed like we’re doing better than other people. You’re working. You have benefits. You have a pension. Before, when people were doing great, teachers were underpaid, so it’s flipped around a little bit. I am a career changer. I wanted to be a teacher, but I never could get a job with a degree in sociology. After many years in sales, I finally got into special education and made the switch.
What would you like the public to know about teaching in urban schools?
There are factors that they don’t know about. It’s really no one’s fault. Kids walking through drug infested areas, parents who can’t help at home with homework. I live in a nice suburb. Around here, if you give a kid a B, the parents are in there asking, “Why they didn’t get an A?” “What could we do?” Where I work, you give a kid a D, and the parents are happy. They’ll say, “Well you’ve passed.” So, its lower expectations and it’s like a gloom, almost, on what the future is. The kids don’t see the value of hard work that it pays off. They can’t see the future prize of getting an education, or even learning something. They don’t see, for most people they know, that it applied to them. The greatest thing this year for the kids was two guys coming in from this new organization. They’re trying to make a living going to schools and talking about their drug-selling careers. These two men are paralyzed and confined to wheelchairs. They were both shot dealing drugs and for 15 minutes, myself included, no one was even breathing in the gym. We had the seventh and eighth graders there as they guys were telling their stories. That seemed to have the biggest effect on the kids of any lesson.
What lessons have you learned from working with students in poverty?
I learned that the deck is sort of stacked against them. I went to Chicago grade schools and high schools and it’s just different now. It’s almost hopeless, almost hopeless. Like, you talk about kids going to college, but they don’t know anybody who did. I brag to the kids that I was the first person in my family to graduate from high school, and then to graduate from college. And I go “If you don’t know anybody, then you can be the first one. And it will really be a big deal because the most important thing is to be proud of yourself.” But they don’t really see that as almost being a reality. It’s like you are talking about something that they can’t believe will really happen to them. It is what it is. I mean, they’re not part of the American dream because they have so little. One kid asked me if that was my first car. His mom has no car. The dad’s not around. This kid who just dreams about having a few pairs of shoes, a nice collection of shoes, something simple like that, maybe 6 pairs of Nikes. I have kids who don’t have enough to eat. Since January we have had a longer day and we also have a snack now. I notice some of the kids taking extra food home for their family members. You wouldn’t think it would make much a of a difference, a little snack, that they would have that feeling to bring it home for somebody if there was extra.
What keeps you going?
I was a weird kid. I liked to read and do math well, but I was immature. I was always the smallest, less mature one and the goofy one. So I think I can help some of these kids who are less mature. One of the things about my teaching is that I take away the fear of mathematics, especially the girls. The kids are afraid of math. I kind of understand their behaviors and kind of turn them around and I feel really good about that. The goofier the kid, the better I get along with them it seems. I put the special in special education.
What do you think of CPS reforms, such as a longer day?
I had my class write an argument paper: longer day, better or not? One kid in my class wrote that it was better because he learned more. Well, somehow he heard that kids are going to learn more in a longer day, and he believed that and it actually came true. Because after Christmas, this kid, who could barely stay awake sometimes, worked harder and actually made a big improvement in his reading and math test scores. He believed that and it made him work harder. It doesn’t make any sense, but it was very effective. And, surprisingly enough, the kids didn’t complain about it that much. One kid didn’t like the longer because he said then the parents have more time to get high before the kids come home. That drug thing really affected me.
The kids didn’t really seem to mind the longer day. It did go pretty fast, and it wasn’t as bad as you thought it would be. We stayed an extra 85 minutes and did an extra 60 minutes of teaching. We had recess. I had time to do my paperwork and preparation and had my own lunch period. For the kids in that neighborhood, they like being in school. As much as they say they don’t, they really do. They are mad when there is a day off. They can’t wait to get back to school. We give them breakfast and lunch and a snack now. When we tutor them after school they get another meal, so the kids got to eat more. They had something to do all the time. The longer day worked out. We’re just mad that we’re not getting fully paid for it. No one likes getting taken advantage like that. They kind of made it at my school, that if we didn’t vote for it, they might close the school. They all came to the school for the photo op, though.
What recommendations do you have for closing the achievement gap?
My own kids had a language in their middle school. We don’t have language. We only have an art teacher for half the time. We should have some more things to make the kids feel good about themselves. More music, more art, things that the kids could do with their time, to use it more constructively. The bigger kids need gym every day. I am a smaller, middle aged guy and I could beat every kid there in basketball. All these kids think they are going to the NBA. I tell them, “I will go to your gym period and we’ll see who is going to go to the NBA.” I have a seventh grader who is convinced he is going to one year of college and then into the NBA. I beat him 11-2. I told him “I am seventy years old (I am really 60 but with gray hair) and you can’t beat a 70 year old man? You have got to go to school and learn to read and do math.” I told him that I hope he did go to the NBA because I would like some free tickets. “I am not trying to discourage your dream,” I said, “but in case you don’t make it, you have got to read and do math better.” Every year, the first thing I do is put across the board $400,000,000 and I explain how Mike Tyson had $400,000,000 and how he has no money now because he didn’t understand math. I explain how people legally stole his money from him. He was the toughest man in the world. He could beat up anybody in the world, but people cheated him legally because he didn’t understand mathematics. So if you go into the NBA or whatever else, you need to know how to take care of your money, so people can’t steal it from you.
One thing I should bring up is that we had so many tests this year. And kids like mine, the weaker students. They are always getting that put in their face, way too much. You don’t know this. You don’t know that. You are way down there. No one likes that, to the point where they are sick of it.
What about School Closings and Turnarounds?
My school is pre-K to 8th grade. And the kids really depend on those teachers. They have been there for years and years and years and they really feel good about them. They have a better chance to latch onto one or two teachers. But this turnaround thing, where they just fire everybody and start over again? I just don’t think that’s a good thing for the kids, for the relationships. And a lot of these kids, they move all the time. You have got to have people in your life.
I live in a nice suburb and, if charter schools were so great, we’d have charter schools here. People would be screaming for charter schools. It’s not happening. My daughter just graduated from the tenth ranked high school in the state. I tell people around here not to complain about their taxes because they are getting their money’s worth. To me, charter schools are like a money making venture.
As far as our school being turned around, we have the advantage of being first to agreeing on the longer day. Our principal is proactive. We have been the first on everything. We were early adopters on Common Core, using the NWEA testing, so it would look bad if they closed us down. She was ahead of the curve on everything.
Do you have a story to share?
I had a kid whose mom wanted him to get into and stay in special education because she wanted the kids to get the Social Security disability. This happened at my other school, too. So the kid threw the test. I saw him. One of the questions was ‘what does employment mean” and I saw him put the wrong answer. Later I asked him what it meant and he told me. When I asked him why he did that he said he didn’t know, but she tells him to throw it so she can get a check for what she tells him is “the rest of your life.” I watched him do it again the next year. That would never happen in the suburbs. Everyone is trying to get a higher SAT score and this kid is throwing the thing so he could get a check. That’s the same kid who told me he doesn’t like the longer day because the parents have more time to get high before the kids come home.
If you had the chance, would you choose to go into urban teaching again?
I would probably say yes, even though I know of four kids I had who are in jail. That’s very hard. One of my girls I had in seventh grade. She’s seventeen now and just did an armed robbery and she’s out on $300,000 bail, so there were obviously other things involved previously. It’s heartbreaking. That’s another shocking thing for me, I know one guy where I live who did some time for embezzlement. One guy. But every kid at my school knows someone in their family that’s in jail. I would feel bad about saying a relative of mine was in jail. They are like, “Yeah, he got four years in jail,” like it’s a common thing. And in math, I would show them the size of a jail cell on the floor. How small it is, and you have to put the bunk bed in there. One kid was surprised. He thought you could bring your big screen TV and your X-Box 360 to jail and I’m like “No, you can’t do that.” I would say 80 percent of my kids have a family member in jail. They all know somebody. When you look back at your first couple years, you think, oh man, I was really bad. But then you learn some things and I do know some stuff now.
Sample Stories from "Open Letter to Predident Obama: Chicago Teachers Speak Out on Urban Education"
“I always arrived early at my school around 6:30 every morning. As I drove into the parking lot one very cold autumn morning, I saw a girl sitting on the ground, cross-legged with her head hanging down, leaning against the front door of the school. I noticed she had on only a little halter top and a pair of shorts. There were often people who were on drugs around the parking lot that time of day, so I approached with caution. I called out when I was about 15 feet away from the door. ‘Hello, is there something I can help you with?’ The girl looked up and I recognized her as one of our former students. I said ‘”What are you doing here? Where is your coat?’ She had a very young baby in her arms that she had been leaning over to keep warm. She said ‘Ms. X. Help me. I didn't know where else to go.’"
“The night of 9/11, I got a phone call from a former student who had just arrived at an Ivy League college in the East. He said, ‘I'm here among lots of kids with family in NYC and we're all upset and I needed to know that the people I care about are safe’. That I was one of those people moved me a great deal.”
“One time I was supposed to go on a home visit we were trying to get a parent signature on an IE. And I was supposed to go with the case manager out to a home because the parents weren't able to go up to the school. At the last minute, I wasn't able to go. When the case manager came back, she had a totally shocked look on her face and I asked her what happened. She said she went to the house of this young student and knocked on the door of the address that we have on file. She was told to go on around the back. She said she assumed that maybe there was an apartment or a coach house or something around back, so she walked down the gangway and into the backyard. But there was no apartment or coach house back there, so she turned around went back to the house. She knocked on the door again and was told to go back around, that this family lived back there in that ice cream truck out in the alley. She was totally shocked, and walked back around. Sure enough, there was an old ice cream truck parked in the alley, and she could see that that there was an electric cord, running from the back of the house over to this truck. A hose was lying on the ground. This was their water supply. And this was this young student who came to school every day in uniform immaculate, white uniform shirt, hair beautifully braided, and here he and his family were living out of an ice cream truck! It just blew this young lady's mind that we had students that are in those kinds of circumstances, and even so, the student was able to come to school and immaculately dressed. His family cared so much, and worked so hard, to send him to school like that each day.”
“I will never forget a student who only missed two days of school after her father had been killed during a robbery of the grocery store he owned. She was maintaining an A-B average, and told me that her father would not want her grades to suffer because of him, which is why she returned to school so quickly. I know for a fact that I would have been incapable of coming back to school after only two days off after such a horrific event.”
“We made a valentine and this one little kid was walking out and he said ‘Thank you, teacher, for teaching me how to make this valentine for my daddy.’ It was so cute, just the way he said it. It just made my day. Out of nowhere, he was in line and he just said that.”