The value of public school teachers to our society became quite apparent this month.
In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and other politicians who had bullied teachers and who used the bully pulpit to scapegoat public schools, demanded that striking teachers report back to work for “public health and safety.”
Teachers were suddenly vital to the economic foundation of a city. It seems kids need someplace to go with people whom we trust.
While the focus in the media seemed to be getting kids off the street, teachers are more than babysitters or “kindergarten cops.” Teachers are central to a healthy economy.
I was reminded of a story that the late Albert Shanker, President of the American Federation of Teachers, used to tell. Financier and philanthropist David Rockefeller had invited Shanker to a meeting of New York business leaders. One of the items on the agenda was the screening of a glitzy film designed to attract overseas businesses to Manhattan.
The film showed architects, engineers, accountants, bankers, computer programmers, ad execs, artists and other professionals hard at work in the city. The message was any kind of professional help you need for a successful enterprise is within a few blocks — come to New York.
After the meeting broke up, Shanker asked Rockefeller for several copies of the film to show to New York teachers. Rockefeller was perplexed, “This film was produced for business leaders, why would teachers want to see it?” Shanker responded by saying, “Your film doesn’t say New York is the easiest place to live, the cheapest place to live, you didn’t talk about weather or beaches, you didn’t say the city was beautiful. You said come here because we have educated people.”
I wish we had more conversations like the Rockefeller/Shanker exchange. We should be talking about how we can expand our students’ opportunities through a public school education. Instead, we have the new movie Won’t Back Down that trashes public schools in order to close them. We’re wrapped up in fake competition. We pretend we’re fattening a pig by weighing it, and we call that accountability.
In Florida, the Legislature passed a law requiring “pay for performance” at a time that teachers can’t get regularly scheduled salary increases. This unfunded “pay for performance” is limited to those “top performers” based on the FCAT, a test that has not shown to be a valid or reliable instrument in assessing teacher effectiveness, much less student achievement.
Florida’s Teacher of the Year, Miami-Dade’s own Alex Lopes, is ineligible for such pay because he teaches autistic kindergarteners.
What pride can our teachers have when every voice seems raised against the very people who enter our classrooms each day and are supposed to motivate children on the value of education? What do we say to students who hear teachers being admonished by walk-through administrators in front of them? We don’t need to say anything. When teachers are denigrated, students learn the true value of their teachers.
Rahm Emanuel called the Chicago teachers strike, “a strike of choice.” He’s right.
The teachers in Chicago chose to strike over issues larger than their self-interest. Their fight was about a public school system that doesn’t provide the necessary resources for students. They made an issue of overcrowded classrooms and closed media centers. They took a stand against shrinking curricula with the loss of arts, music, physical education, and all the areas that make children want to come to school.
The Chicago teachers’ fight is the same fight teachers are having in Miami-Dade and throughout Florida. We are fighting for our students, our public schools, and ourselves. It’s no surprise that the parents and communities in Chicago backed their teachers.
Karen Aronowitz is president of United Teachers of Dade.