BROWN: Protesting teachers say closings among roadblocks to central mission: educating students

Written by Mark Brown for the Chicago Sun-Times
March 27, 2013 9:00PM

Dave Stieber and Jessica Marshall are high school history teachers in the Chicago Public Schools, and I have it on good authority that they are excellent ones.

They also are among many young and dedicated CPS teachers who have grown so weary of the education reform wars that they find themselves questioning their own futures in the profession they love.

As teachers and other union members led a demonstration outside City Hall on Wednesday in protest of proposed mass school closings, I sought out these two young teachers to discuss how this latest CPS initiative is contributing to dispirited morale — even at schools not in the direct line of fire.

“At what point does it become too much?”
That’s the question that Stieber, 31, a teacher for six years at TEAM Englewood, says he increasingly asks himself.
“It’s like: why are we doing this?” he said. “What gives me strength is knowing it’s not just me.”
Stieber is a Chicago Teachers Union activist who questions the wisdom of closing any schools at this time without further study and preparation. He was in the thick of Wednesday’s protest, even going so far as to get himself ticketed for civil disobedience by sitting down in the middle of LaSalle Street to block traffic.

But Stieber’s real passion is working with his students, including as a coach for his school’s spoken word poetry club, participants in the acclaimed Louder Than a Bomb program. (If you’ve never listened to the kids at a Louder Than a Bomb poetry slam, you’re missing something.)

What bothers Stieber and so many other teachers is how the hassles of working for CPS keep encroaching on that mission—from a lack of resources to constantly changing directives and mandates.

The school closings are just the latest and, in Stieber’s view, probably the most significant of these disruptions.
While no high schools were closed in this round, many of TEAM Englewood’s feeder schools are slated for closing. The handwriting is definitely on the wall.

Stieber said the closings cause students to question themselves.
“To them, it’s like, maybe I AM a failure,” he said.

Marshall, 33, in her third year at Louisa May Alcott School in Roscoe Village, tells much the same story.
A CPS graduate herself, Marshall taught four years in New York after college but said she felt compelled to return to her hometown to contribute to the school system that gave so much to her.

“I’m in that moment when I’m starting to question whether this is the right thing for me. Can I hang on? I feel like a lot of us are in that position,” said Marshall, who is part of a pilot program developing a civics education curriculum for CPS high schools.
“It’s been a very difficult transition into CPS. It’s sad,” she said.

She’s apparently good enough at her job that her class was selected for a recent visit by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
With Alcott on an earlier list of “underutilized” schools, the school closing list created tensions there as well, she said.
“As if the kids don’t have enough to deal with, it’s one more thing on their plates,” Marshall said. “It makes them feel there is something wrong about their school.”
The process breeds insecurity for teachers and students, she said.

“Even if your school isn’t on the chopping block, you wonder if I’m going to be next,” Marshall told me.
Although she also is a union rep at her school, Marshall was not at the protest rally. She called me back from a spring break trip to Arizona that she said had put her in a much sunnier mood than if I’d caught her a few days earlier.

For the record, I did not go through the union to identify Stieber or Marshall. I asked a friend who knows good teachers and worries about the prospect of CPS losing dedicated individuals like these.
For this day, at least, these two aren’t going anywhere.
“I really love my kids. When I can shut out all the craziness from CPS and just concentrate on them, I’m golden,” Marshall said. “I do think I’m going to stick with it.”

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