The Beautiful Struggle [Society’s Fair Contract for Educators]

Jose Vilson Jose

Karen Lewis, President, Chicago Teachers Union

My alarm played the final chorus to The Jacksons’ “Can You Feel It?”, my amp-up anthem for most mornings. The blood rushes up my feet as I wiggle off the comforter and wipe the crust out of my eye. After freshening up and turning on the TV, NBC4 News here in New York City makes clear what I felt coming all along: the Chicago teachers’ strike is on. They had done it. While feeding my eight-month old, I applauded loudly in my mind. Even after Mayor Rahm Emanuel (and Stand for Children’s Jonah Edelman) raised the threshold for striking up to 75%, the Chicago Teachers’ Union hurdled over that bar and then some.

“Thank you,” I whispered.

As I sat in the office rethinking my lessons on exponents (more on that later), I felt moved by the notion that right now, thousands of educators in the third-largest school district would band together against a common misunderstanding. For once, we had a community of educators, students, and parents who struck against an overwhelming authority … and the notion that we as a society stopped caring whether teachers got a fair contract.

By contrast, I don’t just mean fair compensation either. (Granted, New York City public school teachers have their own issues with contract negotiations that Bloomberg simply won’t budge on.)

I mean, the social contract: the idea that educators (like others who serve the public) should have the best working conditions our society can provide in order to do our jobs more effectively. In a country like ours, teachers should assure that they never have to work a second job just to make ends meet, buy their own supplies, pay for their own professional development, and get professional treatment at the same time. We shouldn’t have to worry whether we can reach 45 students when we can hire enough people to teach 25 at a time, whether they’ll get a pink slip for disagreeing out loud, or whether our whole school year’s worth depends solely on one (highly unstable, overvalued, and very limited) exam instead of what we bring to the community in our capacity.

Our children most in-need deserve the best teachers they can have in front of them. Not just a body who happened to graduate from an Ivy League university, but a teacher with equal parts intellect and empathy.

What we see in Chicago is that, once the contract to hold our job sacred is broken, we have to offer our most democratic of rebuttals: the protest. In the short term, it may mean a student may not get to finish their art project that day or learn what happens in the next chapter of To Kill a Mockingbird, but in the long term, those who protest leave a legacy for them that last longer than any lesson.

That’s the beautiful struggle. The struggle truly pulls and pushes us any which way, but we assign ourselves to it, knowing our ultimate purpose means the betterment of our profession, and, indirectly, the social good of anyone who works to survive.

As my students started their “Do Now” activity, I couldn’t think of a better call for my colleagues in The Windy City.

Jose, who think Xian Barrett and Sabrina Stevens hit it out the park, too.