The Teachers’ Strike from a Private School Perspective

The Chicago Teachers’ Union strike has drawn fresh attention to “the school Rahm sends his kids to,” University of Chicago Laboratory School, where students receive the kind of nurturing and expansive education all parents wants for their children: rich in arts and intellectual stimulation, with a strong counseling staff for social supports — and explicit rejection of high-stakes testing.  As a teacher at Francis W. Parker School, a private school founded alongside the Laboratory School a century ago, I see students of every background who thrive in these conditions – and who spend significant time in classes critically analyzing the disparities they see between their education and that of their CPS peers.

They wrestle with the fundamental question of critical thinking: Cui Bono? WHO BENEFITS?  When schools are closed over the protests of the students and the community, and trusted teachers are torn from children’s lives, surely it is not the community’s benefit the Chicago Public School Board has in mind.  When schools in poor neighborhoods are staffed with new, inexperienced teachers who get overwhelmed and have to leave, surely that’s neither to the students’ benefit nor to the benefit of the young teachers.

Our students ask these questions, knowing that they may shake the comfort of their own lives, as a good number have wealthy and powerful parents.  At these private schools, engagement with the current problems of the world, and all their messiness and contradictions and complexity, is what is considered meaningful learning – not skill and drill testing.  Students at schools like The University of Chicago Laboratory School and Francis Parker School know they are already members of democratic society; their lives and words and acts are part of their education.  Every day they practice Dewey’s philosophy of education:

“The first need is to become aware of the world in which we live; to survey its forces; to see the opposition in forces that are contending for mastery; to make up one’s mind which of these forces come from a past that the world in its potential powers has outlived and which are indicative of a better and happier future.”

These are not abstract and historically distant questions; the progressive philosophy our schools are built on challenge us to respond to what is happening in the here and now, through careful study of the present moment and commitment to the “better and happier future.”   Education that avoids this challenge leads to ignorance, hypocrisy, and oppression.

As Parker’s archivist Andy Kaplan explains,

Col. Parker and John Dewey drew an explicit connection between the experimental work they wanted their schools to develop and the democratic mission of public schools… The private school in particular must be able to use its advantages to become the laboratory for the public schools of the future: that’s one of the main meanings of his use of the word ‘laboratory’ for the school he founded.

These progressive schools were founded as laboratory schools in order to experiment with and practice educational methods for the benefit of the public school system.  They were not designed as havens for the children of the elite, to protect them from the rotten conditions these elite tolerate for “other people’s children.”  The public schools were in Dewey’s time, and are now, the foundation of democratic society; the private schools are adjuncts to the public schools, and all educational rights that the students of progressive schools enjoy belong equally to their public school counterparts.

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strike lessons

“If we can’t teach history, we’ll make history!”

–the sign of a striking teacher

I have been asking teachers on the picket line how they addressed the strike with their students in the days before it started.  A teacher this morning said that the administration had told them that they could teach students about labor history and the concept of strikes, but they couldn’t mention the current strike.  This is a good example of the mandated disconnect that puts real learning out of reach in many schools.  When we don’t teach the strike, we’re telling students that learning is supposed to be about other people and other times, not about engaging intelligently with the matter of our lives here and now.  Your current reality, we tell the students, doesn’t count, doesn’t figure in to what you know, what you can do, what you learn.

I’m sure a lot of teachers are wondering how they’ll teach about the strike when they go back to school.  I know hundreds of teachers who incorporate civic learning into their English, Arts, Language, Math, Science, and Social Studies classes.   They know that first and foremost students aren’t learning how to parse a sentence or write an equation; first and foremost students are learning how to make sense of their world.   Students are learning to look closely, to ask questions, to listen to one another and to speak clearly.  Teachers want students to understand the social conditions and historical forces that impact their lives – and to develop creative, healthy, and wise ways of shaping the future.   The key text is the student’s own life, and her relation to the larger community.  Any day in any neighborhood in Chicago offers plenty of material for civic learning.  But a civic learning approach to the strike yields especially potent implications for education for democracy.

I’m particularly interested in what the teachers are modeling for their students by striking.  They are stepping outside of the school; they are joining together and supporting one another; they are taking risks; they are analyzing and sharing that analysis in compelling and creative ways.  They are striking for and with the students.  They are each giving voice to the hundreds of students they work with.

The teachers on the picket lines are also addressing questions that are central to students’ lives:

How do you respond when you’re being threatened?  Teachers are modeling civic power: they have talked, argued, thought, decided, and are carrying out their decision.  They have sought and found power in community.  They are showing students a way of responding to threats, bullying, and disrespect that isn’t violent or fear-based.

What does it mean to work?  Strikers make it abundantly clear that work is not just about doing what’s right in front of you, keeping your head down and your nose to the grindstone.  It’s certainly not about doing what you’re told.  Working must also include putting your head up and looking around and responding to what’s going on.

How do I prepare for the future when things are uncertain?  The striking teachers have to take things one day at a time, very literally, and they manage it by keeping track of what’s going on around them, keeping in communication and collaborating. Every moment brings change, but by holding this moment in a bigger frame of the long-range vision, the teachers keep focused, strong, and brimming with the grace and humor that makes life good all around.

When classes resume, the lessons of the strike will live on.