Read: America’s teachers are furious
The current strike is now in its eighth day of negotiations, and encompasses both the CTU and the Service Employees International Union 73, which represents the classroom aides, custodians, and other workers who keep the city’s school system—serving some 361,000 students—running. Those two unions together represent about 35,000 workers, tens of thousands of whom have been picketing this week outside their schools and flooding Chicago’s downtown center. The CTU is arguing for higher pay to keep up with Chicago’s mounting cost of living, alongside a long list of other requests, including smaller class sizes, more school nurses and librarians, funding for bilingual education, and access to affordable housing for teachers and their students, an estimated 16,450 of whom are homeless.
The city contends that the teachers are asking for more than the city can afford, and Lane says she printed out and used some of CPS management’s emails as “primary-source documents” to teach labor history and illuminate both sides of the struggle. (A CPS spokesperson said the district sent out an email to families the day before the strike noting the deal that management was offering, in addition to issuing other updates about the strike; the leaders of individual schools may have sent out their own messages in some cases.) Lane also showed video clips summarizing both parties’ points of view, explained what the teachers were fighting for, and answered students’ more pressing concerns, such as whether they’d have to make up any strike-canceled days at the end of the school year. So far, CPS says they won’t.
Younger grade levels, meanwhile, don’t get quite as comprehensive an education in labor policy. But even in elementary school, Lane says the strike comes up in the classroom: Friends of hers who teach in lower grade levels told her that they spent time before the strike deadline reading aloud children’s books on labor issues.
Les Plewa, a teacher at Taft Freshman Academy, started teaching the strike in his civics classes two days before the strike deadline. Like Lane, Plewa says he wanted to present enough information to enable his students to come to their own position on the strike. The day before the strike, Plewa says, a student who doesn’t normally talk much came up to him and said he really enjoys the class, something Plewa thinks was prompted by his breaking down the strike and the issues behind it. “Sometimes the public doesn’t realize the effort teachers put in in terms of helping students understand,” he says.
Plewa also thinks it’s important to give students some perspective on “what other districts have in terms of resources—the students can’t understand what they’re missing if they don’t know about it.”
For example, Karen Zaccor, who teaches science at Uplift Community High School, in Uptown, says she brought up in a class discussion that the school hasn’t had a librarian in several years. She said that in conversations about the strike, many students were able to grasp some of the sharpest perceived injustices in the system, such as the pay discrepancies between teachers and special-education classroom aides. (In Lane’s class, sports funding and building repairs—most of her school’s campus was built in 1932—were issues that students immediately connected with.)