It’s hard to ignore the turmoil that faces Chicago Public Schools. The district has faced multiple budget cuts this year, including a round of mid-year cuts that took some principals by surprise, and in April the teachers staged a one-day strike. (As of today it appears the on-again, off-again talk off another teachers strike this school year is off, again.)
But students still need to learn, and a recent round of accolades awarded to Illinois educators—including three CPS teachers and one principal—aims to refocus attention on the exceptional efforts that are happening inside the schools.
“Regardless of the drama between CTU and CPS and the state impasse, these educators can keep a laser-like focus on teaching and learning in their classroom,” says Dilara Sayeed, Chief Education Officer of the Golden Apple, a nonprofit group that presented awards to 10 Illinois teachers recently and will host an award program on WTTW on May 20.
It’s the 31st year of the Golden Apple Awards, which celebrate excellence in education at schools of need, but this year represents a particular challenge, Sayeed says. “The times we’re living in are so political, it must be one of the most challenging in our education system.”
Sayeed says that although education has always been politicized, this year CPS honorees showed a particular resilience in the face of hardship. “It popped up over and over again—this resilience to stay strong and committed in a potentially challenging environment,” she says. “The community is very diverse … in a large, urban, heavily populated area, where there’s segregation, racial challenges, faith-based challenges.”
The key to that resilience? Simply keeping your eye on the prize, says Dana Butler, the principal at Ruiz Elementary in Pilsen. He was taken by surprise when Golden Apple, his students, and staff presented him the Excellence in Leadership award at a school spirit rally before spring break.
“It kind of felt like you won the lottery and everybody saw you won the lottery," he says. "And everybody was really really excited that you won the lottery because they thought you deserved the lottery."
Butler taught at Pilsen-area schools for about 15 years before becoming the principal at Ruiz 12 years ago. He peppers the conversation with teachable moments and aphorisms, like an image he remembers of a lion walking away from a buffalo, saying, “Either I win, or I learn.” That’s how he describes being a teacher.
“It’s not gonna be about the check because you won’t remember what you made five or ten years ago,” he says. “But the impact you have on kids … is longstanding, and the more you start to pay attention and get teachers to pay attention, you get to see the fruits of the labor, because the kids are coming back to you …. And you know the effort and the time and sacrifice you put in is not in vain.”
He and other Golden Apple winners say an essential component to this focus is autonomy for teachers. Butler emphasizes that his teachers get to control their own classrooms: “You can’t say, 'I want you to build this house and you have full autonomy but here are your materials and this is what I want it to look like,’” he explains. “That’s false autonomy.”
Independence and flexibility for teachers is the logical extension of most schools’ philosophy about educating children, says, Todd Katz, one of the teachers honored this year. “The expectation is that the teacher is gonna differentiate the learning strategy for students,” he says, but some schools don't allow that same differentiation amongst teaching styles.
Katz is a science teacher who speaks with a driving focus and a clear passion for teaching. At Whitney M. Young Magnet High School, he says, a supportive administration allows him to pursue his hands-on philosophy, such as by building a greenhouse at the school and having animals in the classroom. “I would say 90 percent of my students are afraid of snakes on the first day of school, and by the end of the week they aren’t afraid anymore,” he says.
But he recognizes but that his teaching style isn’t the same as other successful teachers. “I’m a unique person. We have many great teachers, and their strengths are much different than me. If I tried to be like them or vice versa, we would all be very unsuccessful.”
What does work, Katz says, is being able to collaborate with teachers who do have similar styles, even if they aren’t in the same schools. “I would encourage administrative teams to find the money to allow their teachers to go to [education] conferences so they can find things that they’re passionate about learning about, and see what they can bring back to their classrooms.” After finding like-minded science teachers at other Chicago-area schools, Katz helped start Reaction Science Labs, a summer science camp open to all kids grades 3 to 8.
Golden Apple winners find ways to spread learning beyond the classroom, too. Both Katz and Leo Park, an orchestra teacher at Northside College Prep, encourage their students to teach at local elementary schools. Park acknowledges that his school is fortunate, as a selective enrollment school, of having highly engaged students and parents. He has students in the Tri-M music honor society create presentations for nearby elementary schools to spread their knowledge.
“It’s eye-opening to see the level of preparation based on students having been fortunate enough to be given music education or not,” Park says. At Northside Prep, “there are students coming from disenfranchised communities with absolutely no experience at all playing alongside kids who had full-time music teachers.”
To bridge that gap within the school, Park uses a technique he says he gleaned from the George Lucas Educational Foundation. At the beginning of the year, with all the students sitting in random seats in the classroom, he asks them each to crumple up a piece of paper and toss it into the wastebasket at the front of the room to get a prize. “The kids get annoyed about how [un]fair it is,” Park says. “I question why—and they say people in front of the class have it easier to get it in. Well, [I say,] some may be in the back of the line for whatever reason, in terms of where you live or the socioeconomic bracket that you come up in. We have this conversation about how some of you come from privilege and have a wealth of experiences that will allow you to perhaps get ahead.
“What begins to emerge, in my opinion, is that students start to help each other, and that’s one of the most powerful aspects of public education. … The power is social experience, sharing and providing experiences for each other,” he says.
It’s a lesson that the educators feel themselves. At Whitney Young and Northside Prep, the challenge of staying resilient is different, Katz and Park acknowledge, than at neighborhood schools like Ruiz or Infinity High School in Little Village, where another Golden Apple Winner, Dennis Kass, teaches social studies.
The awards honored Kass for helping students work on global issues like poverty and inequality through the Modern-Day Slavery Advocacy Project, as well as personally engaging with the community to help families experiencing homelessness and domestic violence.
Educators excelling in CPS are realistic about the trouble the district faces now. They said it’s “emotionally draining” when they see their colleagues on the chopping block year after year. Sometimes it’s a “numbers game” to attract students to enroll in a class or a school, and without full enrollment they are at risk of having resources cut. Pay is low, especially compared to other local school districts, which has forced some teachers to take on second and third jobs. They all cite high staff turnover and classroom days lost to standardized testing as a difficulty for both educators and students.
“I think collectively there’s a morale issue,” Sayeed, who evaluates the Golden Apple nominations and applications and goes on site visits, says of the mood within CPS. “But individually, a teacher gets up in the morning, and they focus on the kids that they’re working with in their classroom, and they try to shut out all the other drama.”
That’s something educators hope the general public remembers as CPS remains in the news for all the wrong reasons.
As Butler puts it, “With all due respect to all professions, everybody’s profession had a teacher.”