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What Teachers Know

Chicago’s public school instructors have one of the toughest—and most rewarding—jobs in the city. Here’s what they talk about when parents and principals aren’t listening.

Every day, parents place more than 392,000 children in the hands of Chicago Public Schools teachers. That’s greater than the population of Tampa, Florida. It’s no surprise, then, that the issues affecting CPS teachers consistently make headlines. But while advocates and policymakers have been vocal in the intense public debates about budget cuts, strikes, school closings, corruption, gang violence, and other hot-button topics, the voices of the teachers themselves are seldom heard.

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So Chicago asked 15 CPS instructors to speak, on condition of anonymity, about their jobs. They included blacks, whites, Hispanics, and Asians. Some were rookies, some veterans. Their students ranged from poor to privileged, and their schools from struggling to prestigious. Among other things, they talked about their best and worst days on the job, the bureaucracy and the rites of passage, what it’s like to see a student graduate and what it’s like to see one killed, and why it’s sometimes best to let a kid sleep in class. A term the teachers commonly used was “firehose”—a way of characterizing the relentless stream of demands from principals and parents. But the conversations also revealed enormous reservoirs of hope and optimism.

Here are these teachers’ stories, observations, and hard-won wisdom, in their own words.

Click or tap each section to see more.


I. “They were shooting out there yesterday.”
The best thing I learned about gangs was from a kid who was a third-generation gang member. He was like, “I know that it’s dangerous. Most days I don’t particularly like it. But if your father was a doctor, your mother was a doctor, your auntie and uncles were all doctors, and then you came into school and the teacher was saying, ‘Man, anyone who becomes a doctor is an idiot,’ you’re going to want to fight that teacher, because that’s your family.”
These kids have a tougher commute than most of the adults in this city. We have to remember that when they come into our class.
I think about a student I used to have, starting when he was a freshman. He was really into gangs, came in struggling but was able to get it together. By his senior year he was getting HBCUs [historically black colleges and universities] coming to talk to him: “Are you thinking about college?” He was starting to sell potato chips and stuff to help pay for his senior application fees. He got arrested two weeks before classes ended, got handcuffed in school. Supposedly it was an aggravated assault, something like that. He had a gun. I remember seeing his mug shot—he was wearing his school shirt. He’s downstate now, locked up. I think about him a lot.
With the legalization of medical marijuana, now the parents are smoking weed while bringing the kids to school. It’s 8:45, and you’re smelling this coming from the cars. Not a good way to send your kids to school—with a contact high.
We’ve had drive-bys. Since I’ve been teaching, I’ve been involved in three. One was right after school. The kids were just getting out, and a car was going down the street and started shooting. The parents started running back in the school. The kids started running into the school. There were a bunch of kids on the playground. It was a mess. The police came, and we put the school on lockdown.
My kids are always into learning about the Holocaust. Part of it is because it wasn’t only black people that had terrible stuff happen to them.
The bigger kids know gunfire. If they hear it, they’re like, “Uh, OK, we’re up out of here.” The younger kids, they may not know.
I’ve heard kindergartners say, “I don’t want to go onto the playground because they were shooting out there yesterday.”
These suburban kids who made their way through Teach for America, they’re not going to understand what it means to live at 55th and fucking Western, where, last year, three of my kids got shot. They’re not going to know how to relate to them. And there’s no way that these 22-year-olds—and nothing against 22-year-olds, because all of us were 22-year-olds at one time—know fuck about fuck. You didn’t, I didn’t, none of us did. And they’re walking into a situation where they know less than fuck. And these principals are encouraging it. Why? Because CPS is looking for ways to save money.
A lot of my CPS friends have gone either private or suburb. And they’re like, “Oh my God, these parents won’t leave us alone: ‘My kid got an 89! Why didn’t my kid get a 91? What happened?’ ” I’ve never had a parent do that to me. Me: “Your kid has a 59, they’re failing. They’re going to have to repeat the grade. Do you think you could call me back?”
Youth have to step up when they shouldn’t have to. Some students become the counselors and caregivers for the rest of us, including the teachers.
There was this bully. I taught him math for two years. He was one of those kids—just so rude, and he would harass girls. So we bring in his dad and tell him his kid got in trouble for grabbing a girl’s butt on the playground. His dad’s reaction is, “Well, at least he’s not gay.” We tell the dad the kid’s reading isn’t good, that his grades are failing. Dad says, “I never learned to read, and I’m fine.” And I see that this boy, who is normally so cocky and so defiant and so hyper, is just sitting there with his head down, staring at his lap while his dad is going on and on about how much of a beating he’s going to give him when he gets home: “The Bible says spare the rod, spoil the child.” I never called that dad again.
I have kids who just don’t get fed. You watch them eat breakfast, and you can tell they’re eating it like they haven’t eaten since noon the day before. All their food comes from school. As teachers, you figure out little tricks. Like sometimes we’ll stockpile food and dump it all in a kid’s backpack and say, “Here are your snacks for the rest of the week.”
On the South Side, metal detectors are a fact of life. We have them on the North Side, but we never use them. They’re in a closet somewhere.
I could be the most amazing teacher in the world, but if you don’t have a bedroom at home, or pencils and pens, or maybe you have teenagers or gangbangers smoking and drinking and partying in your house, or you have little babies that you have to care for when Mom goes to third shift—I can’t even tell you how much that is make-or-break.
Every year it seems like there’s somebody my students know who is killed, and these students learn how to work together to create networks to help themselves get through it. I do spoken-word poetry with them, and the things these kids will share and write and talk about—it’s amazing. They’re super-resilient.
A custodian heard I’d been having problems with this one kid. And she goes, “Leave that alone. The kid’s mom isn’t around. They’re being raised by the grandma.” The custodian had been at the school for a long time, and she lived in the neighborhood, knew the family as neighbors. I can’t tell you how much I appreciated that.
People I know from my hometown downstate will always say that CPS kids must be so different from the kids that I taught at the private school there. But they’re really not. They’re only different because I never once wondered if the kids at my private school had been fed at home or not.
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II. “We have to be the psychologist, the social worker, the nutritionist.”
When I’m talking to new teachers, my advice is, don’t get involved in after-school things—don’t join any clubs, don’t join the committees—your first two years. Don’t do anything but teach, because that’s hard enough.
You have to realize that it’s OK to look stupid. You just approach it with confidence. You don’t mind if you mess up. You don’t mind if you’re totally out of touch with their music or their dancing. You just own it and be a goofy adult. And they love it because it gives them more freedom to be goofy and more freedom to mess up. And you want that from them.
Teaching is just hard. I had so many difficult days. My first year, I would drive from Rogers Park down to North Lawndale, and it was like, Wouldn’t it be great if I just got into a small car crash so I wouldn’t have to go to work today?
What I struggle with is, executive assistants make more money than I do.
There are very few male teachers, and a lot of single female parents, and I’ve had a few of them say, “Oh, what’s your favorite pie? Sweet potato pie? OK, I’m gonna make you a sweet potato pie.” But the way they’re saying it is like, “Hey, I’m getting feelings for you because you’re really showing an interest in my kid.” That’s when you have to professionally draw the line.
The reality of being a teacher is, the first year you fucking suck.
If you’re going to teach middle schoolers, you need a good sense of humor and a very short memory. They’re trying out a new personality every other day. They’re volatile. And you just have to respect that. One day they want to be treated like adults, the next day they want to be treated like kids, the next day they don’t want you to talk to them at all.
At the hard schools, you get two types of teachers: It’s either the brand-new, bright-eyed-and-bushy-tailed, I’m-going-to-change-the-world ones who burn out after four or five years, or it’s the old and the apathetic.
Students want structure. They may moan and groan about being in school, but that’s where they want to be.
Being in CPS for this long, you see these new programs come and go every couple of years. And you start to get cynical about them. The latest one was Think Through Math. They’re all pet projects, probably from somebody’s friend’s company. They’ll say, “We have this new computer program or this new tech program. It’s going to make math really fun for your students and boost their math scores.” It typically lasts about two years, and your students’ scores are basically the same. Then they move on to something else.
The kid throwing the chair at you may be the best critical thinker in the room.
Teachers work 12 months in nine months.
Kids can only be held back in third, sixth, and eighth grade—they’re called benchmark grades. If you fail second grade, you move right on up to third. There’s no pressure on teachers to identify if you have learning issues or to actually make a judgment on that until third grade. That’s because they wouldn’t have the capacity to handle everybody who really failed. That’s messed up. By then you’ve set those students back horribly. All the research says that those early years are so critical.
There are a lot of teachers who are really nonproficient in the content. It’s almost terrifying. And I’m not being holier-than-thou. I taught astronomy my first year, and looking back on it—the things I taught those kids? Oh my God.
We’ve got a lot of kids who are in the bilingual program six, seven, eight years. No one should stay in the program that long. And it’s because what they really needed was learning support.
One of the parents was like, “I don’t want my kid to have a black teacher.” And I was like, “Really? In the year 2017? That’s where we’re going?”
To get fired in CPS after your fourth year [when tenure kicks in], you really have to mess up.
In other professions, you can take a half hour and go into your office and not talk to anybody. Teachers don’t have that luxury. Our students are our clients, and we have to constantly be on. That first week off in June, I’m always still going to the bathroom at exactly 11:45.
We have to be the psychologist, the social worker, the recreational leader, the nutritionist.
Teachers don’t leave schools. They leave principals.
If my students don’t have their homework, I have them write a note with the date on it: “I didn’t do my homework because …” And then they write an excuse. A couple of times, one student had written, “I couldn’t do my homework because my mother made me clean the house.” And at the parent conference, the mother’s reading this and she goes, “When have I ever made you clean the house? That has never happened.” I tell the students that’s my favorite day of the year.
Flu season is terrible. They’ve at least learned to sneeze into their elbows, but then they don’t think about their hands sometimes. They’re putting the pencils in their mouth and then touching things. I’m like, “Ugh, go get some hand sanitizer please.”
My first year, I’d spend the evenings crying and drinking wine just to deal with the idea of going back to work the next day.
When I was in school, we had a science teacher we called Jumpin’ Jerry. He was a big guy, and he was known to jump up on top of the counter and slide across. Kids would say, “Oh, you’re going to have Jumpin’ Jerry this year.” Now you talk to the older teachers, and the Jumpin’ Jerrys of the world were the ones that taught them how to run a classroom. But it’s just not like that anymore.
I would volunteer to do things [such as after-school music or drama], and other teachers would get mad at me because I was not getting paid to do them: If you start doing that, then they’re going to expect everybody to do it.
I’ve got parents coming in whose kids are C-, D-average students, and they’re like, “How do my kids get into Northside Prep?” I’m like, “Oh, honey. That ship sailed in, like, fifth grade.”
A lot of Teach for America teachers get really pissed off: “I went to Georgetown, and I got straight As, and this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I have a third grader making me feel like I’m the biggest idiot in the world.” I’m like, “Yeah, that’s how it works. In their eyes, you’re fresh meat.”
We tried to get one student staffed [with a special education aide], and the parent refused. Just wasn’t interested. A lot of parents don’t want their students labeled. Instead of seeing it as a good thing, as extra support, it’s seen as a stigma.
I was an adaptive PE teacher, and I had a kid that came in with severe and profound autism, completely nonverbal. He would always hide under this ladder. I said, “You know what? I’m going to change that.” So I had my assistants help me put this barrel under the ladder so the kid couldn’t go under there anymore. He fussed a little bit, but I knew he liked music, so when he came in the next time, I put him in the circle with me as we were doing our exercises, and we just rocked to the music. I had the paraprofessionals work with him about the type of movement I wanted him to do. And before the end of the school year, he was in that circle by himself, and he was moving, and he was making sounds. Words were starting to come. Anytime we didn’t follow the routine, there was hell to pay, but at the end, when he had to leave, he was able to do something that general-ed kids could do: be a part of physical education. His life changed. That’s when I knew that teaching special ed is where I need to be.
Find a teacher of color and watch how they teach, because white people don’t know how to teach students of color.
I had this one student who was repeating his freshman year. I kept asking him questions and found out he wanted to be an auto mechanic. So I found a book on Amazon about auto mechanics, a $7 book written for kids. I gave it to him for Christmas. After that, he was never a problem in my class. Another teacher asked me, “What did you do?” I just told her that I’d figured out what made him tick.
If you’re a kid that starts off not doing well on standardized tests, you kind of get used to not doing well on them. That’s one of my biggest problems with these tests. And the students who do bad on them become so used to failing that they start to think of themselves as failures.
They’ve been tested so much their entire lives, at this point they’re like, “It’s just another test.”
Parents should know that the teacher running to get that job at the selective enrollment school or in the suburbs, or who wants to become a principal as soon as possible, is the last person you want teaching your kid.
Standardized tests do a much better job measuring how much money students have than what their academic level is.
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III. “Stick up for the teachers who do a good job.”
You see everyone going nuts about House of Cards and Game of Thrones, but Chicago education politics makes both of those shows look weak.
There’s a reluctance in the whole administration, nationwide and locally, about spending money on education. Wherever they can save a dollar, they do it. So right now they want to balance the books on the backs of our children.
There are times when, frankly, I think the union sticks up for the wrong people. The union’s job is to stick up for all teachers. I don’t think you should do that. I think you should stick up for the teachers who do a good job.
I’d love to have a great administrator, but if you could guarantee me every year that I’d have an administrator who just went to the bar first thing in the morning and stayed there and never touched my school or instruction, I’d take that in a second.
I student-taught in a Catholic school, and the teachers, the curriculum—nothing was better than what I’ve seen in Chicago public schools.
The biggest problem with education is that you can’t keep the politics out.
I’m always interested when they say, “At so-and-so charter school, 100 percent of our seniors are going to college.” And my question always is, “How many freshmen did you start out with, and how many of those freshmen are still there?”
The 2012 strike took a lot out of teachers because it was something that they did not necessarily want to do.
Rauner? You can’t mention that name to me without getting my hackles up.
[With charters] it’s like putting two grocery stores across the street from each other and being like, “Fend for yourselves.” But then one of them has valet parking and live music and cocktail hour, and at the other one, well, you’re not zoned to have music, you’re not zoned to have cocktail hour. But you’re supposed to be equal.
Governors come and go. Unions have been here forever.
You’re trying to get me to do what with my pension? That you borrowed money for? And now I’m the bad guy because you won’t pay me back? Do people understand? We’re not asking for more money. We just want our money back. That you borrowed.
I wouldn’t be surprised if CPS declared bankruptcy.
I’m not against charters. I think there’s a place for them. But I don’t like charters coming and just kind of snatching kids out of the public school system for their own benefit.
I think CPS is gonna be private in 10 years. Big business sees education as the next profit, and they are slowly dismantling the public system.
There are great charter schools, but there are no schools that are great because they’re charter schools.
I was sitting at a restaurant in Bucktown, and this guy was complaining about teacher pensions, and I said, “You know, the pension’s not my choice. This is how the structure is set up. And I don’t get Social Security.” He goes, “Everyone gets Social Security.” Well, teachers don’t. We don’t pay into it. I think pensions are very misunderstood. People think it’s this cloud of a million dollars that falls on you when you retire, and they don’t get that you’re contributing out of your paycheck.
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IV. “Those are schools you can’t get back.”
They took away the library, and it was a neighborhood school that had a full population and everything. I had kids writing poems and crying about the library being closed. I mean, literally crying.
Schools don’t even have a nurse full-time. You cut your finger? You can go to the nurse if it’s Wednesday. If not, it’s the teacher.
My biggest class was between 45 and 50. It was for world languages, which all the research says 12 is the max you want to do, right? I don’t think there’s any 12-person world language classes in Chicago Public Schools.
I know a lot of teachers who keep tampons in their desk for the girls. I think people don’t know that teachers provide a lot of little extra things that you might not think about. We have drawers for that.
My first year, I remember being shocked that kids had to bring their own toilet paper. When they had to go to the bathroom, they had to carry the toilet paper from the classroom. For the boys, taking the toilet paper means telling everyone you’re gonna poop. That’s humiliating.
The desktop that the school gives me is still running Windows XP. They’re not paying for updates.
I had a group of kids at my high school that shot a YouTube video that got 10,000-something views. They just went into the bathroom and documented: no door on this stall, no seat on this toilet, no toilet paper. “Oh, here’s an exposed pipe that burns your skin if you touch it.” All that’s real.
The impact of the 2012 closings is always going to be felt, because those are 50 schools you can’t get back.
When you close a school, it says to kids, “You went to a failing school, your school sucked, your education sucked.” As opposed to saying, “These schools need help. How can we help them?”
They’ve closed a school that’s the last bastion of your community. You felt that’s where you belonged, and then somebody told you that that place didn’t exist anymore. Poof, gone. Your sense of belonging, gone. Now you’re told to go belong somewhere else.
We’re a technology school, so every kid has a Chromebook from fifth grade up. But staples, pens, paper, notebooks? There is no supply closet at my school.
Every teacher I know spends one to two thousand dollars a year on their classroom—for supplies, for things for their kids, for sending kids who’ve had a hard time to summer camp, for kids whose families had apartment fires.
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V.“It’s a relay to the end.”
This girl came to my class at the beginning of the school year. She was in a full hijab and had just come from Egypt. Her family had been pretty torn apart by the Arab Spring. Her mom had died. Her dad didn’t let her out of the house except to go to school. But I could tell she was kind of a badass. She was like, “I want to play sports. I want to do math. Those are the two things I love.” And so we went with that, and this girl worked harder than I’ve ever seen anyone work. Soon she was doing high school geometry in eighth grade. She couldn’t get into a selective enrollment high school because of the language thing—she hadn’t taken the right test—but she got a full ride to Boston University to study math.
I get Facebook messages and texts from kids from eight or nine years ago who are like, “I’m starting up a nonprofit in Virginia that takes in homeless families” or “I’m thinking about running for alderman.” On the flip side, some kids I taught call me up and are like, “My brother caught a case, what do I do?”
A former student came to visit me. I had taught her for two years in elementary school, and for two years, all she did was roll her eyes and scowl at me. She’s in high school now, and she came in and said, “I miss this room! I’m so happy to be back here.” I actually asked, “Are you serious?” She said, “I didn’t like it at the time, but you’re like a mom to me.” You can spend two whole years with these kids, and they never give you a sign that they appreciate you.
There’s so much that these children have to internalize. And to be able to go back the next day and look into a face that they know cares? That’s enormous.
If you can make a change in one life out of a hundred, give one child the best life he could possibly have, it’s everything. That’s the whole pay raise they never gave you. Even though you may not be there to see it, you know you gave him the opportunity because you fought for him each and every day that he walked into your classroom, and then you handed him to the next teacher. It’s a relay to the end.
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