During our Chicago Educators Strike during the fall of 2019, a group of educators including myself were on the John King radio show on WGN talking about why we were striking. Spoiler we were striking in an attempt to give our students EVERYTHING that the deserve. You can listen to our interview here.
Chicago Public Schools finally replaces Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day
My maternal grandfather Dominick Colella came over from Italy when he was 12 years old. At that time our country was far more welcoming to immigrants and his family was allowed to come here for a better life. I always looked up to my grandfather. He was a story teller, a hard worker, and someone who cared about people. I looked up to him so much that I named my first born child after him.
It’s important to find honorable people that inspire us and that we can look up to. As someone with Italian ancestry let me just reiterate what many have been saying for generations…Christopher Columbus is not it.
Growing up I always heard the tired regurgitated lines of “…in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue and discovered America…”. It wasn’t until college that I learned that when Columbus came to America he raped, enslaved, murdered, and tortured indigenous Arawak people. Columbus never deserved a holiday. The recent step by Chicago Public Schools to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day is one Native Americans and other activists have been fighting for for years.
There are many other, appropriate, Italian Americans that could be celebrated if Italian Americans felt that they needed someone to look up to.
Chicago Alderman Nicholas Sposato (38th Ward) and Alderman Anthony Napolitano (41st Ward) are extremely opposed to replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day. But let’s be clear, Alderman Sposato and Alderman Napolitano don’t really care about celebrating Columbus or not, they are threatened by the idea of anyone trying to challenge their problematic white history. They are fragile white people, both of them are textbook examples of white fragility. For these Alderman who are clearly unaware of what white fragility is, “it is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves”. For example, Alderman Sposato saying he will bring an “army of Italians” to the next Board of Education meeting and the fact that he even tries to compare Columbus and Dr. King.
As a white person, as someone who has half Italian ethnicity, I’m embarrassed by their actions and their resistance to replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day.
Teaching true history is necessary in our society. There are age appropriate ways to teach the truth about Columbus to children. Last year I had my high school students research what Columbus actually did and then create 1st grade age-appropriate yet historically accurate books. The students then took the books to a local elementary school and read the books to the 1st graders there. Many resources exist already to teach children of all ages what Columbus actually did. Many states and cities have stopped celebrating the holiday.
In time, nearly all people will realize that honoring a raping murder is not a good idea. It’s time that white people, especially Italian American white people, speak up. The name Columbus, should be said with the same disgust as the name Hitler, Mussolini, and every other person who has committed atrocities in history. The Columbus “holiday” needs to be erased from the fabric of our country.
It is now time for all of Chicago to celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day.
It is beyond time to honor the people who were here first.
To view this piece on ChicagoNow click here.
For 13 years I’ve been teaching in Chicago. 13 years of budget cuts, no librarians, part time nurses, not enough counselors. 13 years of of promises from Mayors and CEOs to improve our schools. Yet, educators always do more with less. That is why the city continues to take. It knows that because teachers love our students we will always do our best, even with no resources.
We love our students so much that we don’t share our teaching stories with non-teachers willingly. We are cautious, we don’t want anyone to judge our students or us. We have pride in our schools. Our schools become our identities. Our kids are on our minds long after the bell rings. We reflect on what went well and obsess on what we need to improve.
Contrary to what I believed when I was a student, teachers have lives outside of school. We are parents, partners, taxpayers, and relied upon by many others in our lives.
So when someone dare calls us greedy it is a right hook to our face. How dare they? Our love for our students and our schools physically drains us. We don’t get enough sleep, we over eat, over stress because of our professions. We stay after the school day ends to grade, to coach, to mentor, for free. We give up our time with our own families for people’s kids.
How dare you call us greedy. How dare you ignore us when we ask for better conditions for our students. It’s not easy for us to do this. We went into teaching because we love kids. We were told our career choice was noble. Yet, now we find ourselves being called greedy because we dare ask for better conditions for our students? We opened up, advocated and showed our love for our students out loud and you called us names.
Tomorrow we are about to perform a noble action taught to us by Gandhi, MLK, Chavez, and Raby. Tomorrow we will strike. We will strike for our students. We will strike for our schools. We will strike to improve our city. We will go without pay. We will risk outsiders talking badly about us. It will sting, it will be hard, but it’s past time that our students have the same basic necessities that every suburban student has had for years.
We will strike because we are noble. We will strike because we know our moral compass points to equity, it points toward justice and we know those are things the students of Chicago have never had.
To view this piece on ChicagoNow click here
My classroom is decorated with historical figures who inspire me. Every person on my wall worked to do what’s right, because they envisioned what a better future should be like for all people. These individuals cared so deeply about their country that they put themselves on the line to advocate for others even if what was right was not popular or even legal.
I became a social studies teacher because of them. These individuals knew that those in power used legislation and laws to control, discriminate, harm, and dehumanize people. People like Dolores Huerta who broke an Arizona law that prevented people from saying the words “strike” and “boycott”. People like Sal Castro who ignored the laws that made it illegal for him to teach his students what their over-crowded and underfunded East L.A. school system was being deprived of and helped them plan mass walkouts. When these activists came across a damaging and controlling law, they would examine it, understand it and purposefully refuse to follow it.
In Illinois, there currently exists a damaging and controlling law, a law that became official in 1995. Known as the Chicago School Reform Act, this law was created to silence teachers’ voices calling for equity in public schools. It gives the mayor full control of the school system and school board. And in an effort to make us look greedy it forbids teachers from striking over anything besides pay and benefits. The law makes it impossible for educators to force the city to admit that having over 30 kids in class is unjust, that not having a librarian in 9 out of 10 majority Black schools is unjust, that a critical shortage of nurses, counselors, and social workers system wide is unjust.
This insidious law makes teachers look greedy and weakens our power because the city only has to negotiate pay and benefits with us. This law continues to allow those in power to ignore the conditions and lack of resources in Chicago Public Schools. This law makes the teachers who are on the front lines, unable to get the city to negotiate over truly improving our public schools.
This is why the Chicago Tribune, Sun Times and even our own school system calls us greedy by perpetuating these opinions. They want us to simply take a raise.They want us to just trust that the Mayor will do right by the students. They want us to ignore the fact that Chicago’s schools have been criminally underfunded for generations. Every student who ever attended CPS knows this fact. Every parent of a CPS student knows this. Every teacher who has ever taught in CPS knows this too.
Our schools should have so much more than what they currently have or have ever had. This is why many politicians and people in power don’t send their own children to CPS, because the inequities are devastating.
94% of Chicago’s educators just authorized our union to strike. In 2012, when we went on strike we had 90% of teachers vote to strike. In 2012 Chicago Public Schools was trying to take pay away from us. Now CPS is willing to give us our cost of living increases without a fight, so why did more teachers vote to strike this time then in 2012? We are so fed up with looking into our kids faces every day and knowing this city truly doesn’t give a damn about them. We are done waiting on verbal promises from the city.
Mayor Lightfoot claims she’s not Rahm. Maybe she wasn’t when she ran but since she’s become Mayor, I hear a whole lot of Rahm in her statements. Rahm called us greedy, Rahm talked badly about us when we had our strike vote and Rahm sued our union when we struck in 2012 because we wanted to negotiate over things besides pay and benefits. Mayor Lightfoot has done all of those things, besides sue our union. But if she continues the failing Rahm playbook I’m sure the city is already planning to sue the Chicago Teachers Union if we strike on October 17th. The city will sue us because as educators we dare to demand that our students have everything they deserve, in writing.
Mayor Lightfoot said a strike would be “catastrophic” for the students. In a series of posts on Twitter with the hashtag #PutItInWriting, educators and supporters detailed the real catastrophe and decade long catastrophic effects from the lack of funding and resources for our CPS schools and students.
EVERYTHING that our students and schools deserve, in writing, includes:
- Place full-time librarians, counselors, clinicians, psychologists, social workers and nurses in every school
- Make sure all students get special education services they are entitled to by law
- Hire special education teachers, case managers and paraprofessionals
- Maintain real class size limits
- Give us the freedom to plan, grade & be professionals on our teacher preps (the limited time during the day when we don’t have students in front of us)
- Establish true restorative justice programs in schools
- Take police officers out of schools
- Make all schools sanctuary schools
- Provide mental health services for all students and staff
If the city chooses NOT to give our students these requests in writing, then the city is following in the path of Mayors Daley and Emanuel by ignoring what the students deserve. If this city actually cared about the students it “serves” it would not be arguing with those on the front lines of education, the educators.
If this city cared about its children, it would happily fund our education system. Chicago quickly gave $33 million more to keep the police in the schools, even though many students, parents, and teachers objected. The city will hand over money to the police department to incarcerate our youth but will not do the same to educate them.
When Bernie Sanders was in Chicago recently, publicly supporting public school educators, he said, “…teaching is one of the most patriotic professions that you can do.” It is our patriotic duty to do whatever it takes to get our students what they deserve.
The Chicago Teachers Union will strike over pay and benefits. But me, and many others, we will be striking to disrupt the status quo. We will be striking against systemic racism and generational neglect in our public schools.
We will be attempting to follow the lead of those people that I have on my classroom walls. The people that I’ve always aspired to emulate. There have always been bad laws used to harm, discriminate, and to silence people. It’s once again time to ignore laws like that.
It’s time to do what is right for our students.
Educators in Chicago are currently working towards getting a new contract that will truly improve our schools for our students. But this past week the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board wrote a piece telling us to “just take the deal” — basically take the money and shut up.
This is the same Editorial Board that had one of its board members write a piece in 2015 wishing for a Hurricane Katrina-type disaster here in Chicago. The article praised the disaster for giving “a great American city a rebirth.” The author, Kristen McQueary, stated “That’s why I find myself praying for a real storm. It’s why I can relate, metaphorically, to the residents of New Orleans climbing onto their rooftops and begging for help and waving their arms and lurching toward rescue helicopters.”
After the Tribune urged us to just take the deal, Chicago Public Schools shared that article on its social media. The message CPS sent its 40,000 educators is you are all a bunch of greedy educators who should just take the money we are offering you.
I’m beyond exhausted of the “greedy teacher” narrative. I’ve been teaching in CPS for 13 years. I’ve been through multiple contract negotiations, the strike of 2012, the Day of Action one day strike in the spring of 2016 and the last minute midnight contract signing in the fall of 2016.
I’ve heard the empty promises of Rahm Emanuel, which ended in devastation. I’m hearing the empty promises of Lightfoot. I’ve been lied to by 12 CPS CEOs. All of these people tell us that they know what’s best for Chicago’s kids and that we should just trust them.
What mayors and CEOs of CPS have done in my 13 years is slash school budgets, close schools, break special education laws, displace thousands of primarily black & brown experienced teachers, make parents hunger strike to open a school, unnecessarily extend school days and years and lay-off librarians, counselors, social workers.
Chicago makes students pay to take the bus to and from school. I’ve watched Chicago steal TIF money designed to go to neighborhoods and schools and put that money to things like private stadiums, the Riverwalk and hotels. I’ve seen CPS vote to give the Chicago Police Department millions of dollars to continue the school to prison pipeline while increasing class sizes and cutting school budgets.
There is and always has been money in Chicago. Money that Chicago should have been using to fully fund and improve its schools for generations.
Now CPS wants us to take the money and trust them to actually, finally help the schools. It doesn’t matter who is in charge of Chicago or CPS, the answer is no, we will never trust you until you put it in writing.
I would rather teach and be in the classroom but I’m ready to strike. I’m ready to strike until all of the following are put in writing in our contract:
- Place full-time librarians, counselors, clinicians psychologists social workers, and nurses in every school.
- Make sure all students get special education services they are entitled to by law.
- Hire special education teachers, case managers and paraprofessionals.
- Maintain real class size limits.
- Give us the freedom to plan, grade & be professionals on our teacher preps (the limited time during the day when we don’t have students in front of us).
- Establish true restorative justice programs in schools.
- Take police officers out of schools.
- Provide mental Health services for all students and staff.
In my 13 years as an educator, I’ve taught almost 2,000 students. I’ll strike for every single one of my students. I’ll strike for all my future students. I’ll strike for my two sons in CPS. It should come as no surprise that I will be voting yes to authorize my union to strike in next week’s strike vote.
So Chicago, know that the mayor and CPS have a choice to put all of our demands in writing to truly make our schools better or we will shut this city down until they do.
Click here to view this piece on The Chicago Reporter
Recently the CPS Board of Education had a chance to actually be different than the appointed school boards of the past and do right by kids. They were asked to vote on a plan to give the Chicago Police Department $33 Million more dollars for employing police in schools. Out of the school board members 5 decided that investing in CPD was a good idea.
$33 Million more will given to policing. $33 Million more given to one of the most corrupt police departments in the country. The Chicago Police Department cost the city $118 Million in police misconduct cases just last year. CPD police misconduct has cost the city over half of a Billion dollars in just the last 8 years. CPD is responsible for codes of silence, black sites, sexual assaults, trauma, torture, and far too many murders.
It’s been researched and proven that having police in schools does NOT make kids safe. It allows the trauma that the police caused on the streets and in the neighborhoods to continue in our school buildings.
This is just another reason why I will be voting yes to authorize the Chicago Teachers Union to strike.
To read the the piece on Chicago Now click here
When They See Us sees the Central Park Five give false confessions under interrogation (Image: NETFLIX)
In this class, we had spent extensive time learning about the greatness of Africa and life pre-imperialization, to reaffirm strong identities. We spent weeks examining institutionalized racism, Chicago police torture, educational inequalities and city policies. The students were ready to watch the series; they had class context and maturity, plus the life experience of being Black teens in America. As a teacher though, I was ready for summer vacation. I was ready to be done teaching.
One of the reasons that I decided to become a history teacher is because when I got to college I became so upset at the many things the history classes I took before that point didn’t teach me. One of the events that upset me the most was when I learned the true history of Christopher Columbus. My earlier schooling just kept my knowledge at “Columbus was a brave explorer who sailed the ocean blue in 1492 and discovered America”. It wasn’t until college that I realized he and his men murdered, enslaved, raped, and tortured the Arawak people that they met. The fact that we have only 6 federal holidays in our country and one of them is dedicated to this piece of trash, is beyond infuriating.
Last year my oldest son, who was in kindergartner at the time, brought home a book that was donated to the school about Columbus. I immediately read it and realized that this book was filth, because it made him out to be a hero. Here is how I handled that book with my son:
I thought about this incident over the summer; how little kids were still not learning the true history of Columbus. I decided this year to have one of my high school classes start a momentum to change this. As part of their culminating project on the legacy of colonization, they were to create a historically accurate, 1st grade appropriate children’s book of their own about Christopher Columbus. To take it one step further, I then partnered with some amazing teachers at a neighborhood elementary school to have my students read their books to the 1st grade students.
Before my students could begin to write their books, they had to research whether educated people believed the world was flat or round, if Columbus was the first non-indigenous person in this part of the world, learn about the encounter with the Arawak people, and then finally decide how Columbus should be remembered and if we should celebrate Columbus Day. All of these things were required to be in their book.
Here is the actual assignment:
Since you don’t have the books my students researched and then made in front of you, here are some spoilers: Educated people believed the world to be round, the Vikings came to North America 500 years before Columbus AND Phoenicians from the African civilization of Carthage most likely came to North America 1500 years before the Vikings.
My students described Columbus’ encounter with the Arawak using 1st grade appropriate cruelty as, “Columbus enslaved all the Arawak’s and didn’t treat them as equals”, “Columbus took advantage of the Arawak’s because they were giving off good vibes, he hurt and damaged the Arawak tribe”, “He mistreated many women and children and forced them to do things they didn’t want to do”, “Because of the treatment of Columbus and his men the Arawak’s started dying rapidly because of the lack of the food, being abused or worse”.
While I would love to include the beautiful pictures of my 11th and 12th grade students reading to 1st graders I must respect the privacy of all the students involved. After the visit, my son, who was in one of the classes that my students came to, said to me, “Dad, I don’t get how people could be mean to other people just because of skin color. It is just skin.” My response, “I know buddy, the messed-up thing is cruelty because of skin color and greed has been around since our country first started and it is still going on today.” My 1st grade son’s reply…a deep frustrated sigh.
To view this piece on ChicagoNow click here.
So why do I feel so guilty leaving them?
In my twelve years teaching social studies in CPS, I’ve taught at two different high schools. I have recently made the decision to go to my third.
When I left TEAM Englewood, the first public high school I taught at, I felt like I had to. TEAM, which opened in 2007, was where I started teaching and where I learned how to teach. I was a part of that school. Our principal used to call the original teachers the “founding teachers.” She gave us credit for helping to create that school. We gave input on everything from the hall pass policy, to the hiring process, to what we learned in professional development, and everything in between. When I left TEAM after seven years, it had changed to a point where I didn’t feel it was healthy for me to stay. The principal and assistant principal who I learned so much from had left and we had gone through two other principals who I felt were not helping the school. I was also grieving the loss of a baby. So personally, and professionally, it became necessary for me to make a change.
The next school I worked at was Chicago Vocational (CVS), which is in the Avalon Park neighborhood. When I started teaching there, I wasn’t really prepared for the guilt I would feel about leaving TEAM Englewood. I felt like I didn’t belong at CVS, not because of the kids, but because it wasn’t TEAM. At TEAM I helped create the culture and influenced how the school ran. At CVS I was just another teacher. However, I quickly built connections with students and began establishing my presence in the classroom and school.
This past school year at CVS has been one of my favorite years in the classroom. I have worked hard with my colleagues to create a curriculum that connects to kids while also pushing them to think, reflect, and analyze the world. I brought in twenty guest speakers from Chicago to speak to my students. These speakers included award-winning writers, poets, singers, rappers, veterans, and community activists. I helped coach our academic decathlon team. Our librarian and I created a spoken word program that got kids excited to write and perform poetry. Our students competed in Louder Than a Bomb, a youth slam poetry festival.
I was happy at Chicago Vocational.
Then in May I heard about a job opening for a social studies teacher at the high school in my South Side neighborhood.
At first, I didn’t even apply to the opening because I was not ready to leave CVS. But I eventually decided to apply due to some major personal and professional reasons I couldn’t ignore: it is a neighborhood public school located in the same neighborhood that my partner and I chose to live in twelve years ago for its racial diversity; it is the school where my partner works; and it is where eventually my kids will most likely attend high school.
The whole application, interview, and acceptance process took about one month. Throughout the entire process, I cycled through a huge range of emotions that I have been working through. I had to decide when and how to tell my students that I was leaving and heading to a new school. When I left TEAM Englewood, the decision was made during the middle of summer, so I sent every student I taught an email telling them that I was leaving. But I made my decision to leave CVS during the last few days of the school year, so I decided to tell my students in person. I experienced a range of reactions from them. One student became angry and asked, “Mr. Stieber, how can you leave us?!” Another reaction, that was even more difficult to hear, was the student who simply said, “Mr. Stieber, I will miss you,” and then walked away. I told the kids that I am not leaving because of them, and I am not. The kids are what I love. But the kids don’t understand that, and to be honest, no matter my reason for leaving, I am leaving the kids.
In fact, during an interview, I was asked, “Do you even want to work here? Your body language seems like you don’t.” This caught me off guard because this person sensed how I felt. I had to tell them that I felt guilty for leaving my students at CVS. I told them that I am a loyal person. In fact I am so loyal I felt guilty for my first son, when my wife and I found out we were pregnant with our second son. I thought I might have blown the interview, and I was okay with that idea, but I also hoped that my explanation let them know that I was interested in switching schools—but the decision was extremely difficult.
For better or worse, teaching defines who teachers are. Schools can shape teachers as much as teachers can shape a school. Our schools, then, also become who we are. So when a teacher decides to leave a school, it is almost like they are losing a piece of who they are.
A colleague told me, when I talked to her about switching schools, that teachers can’t be martyrs for their students. Ultimately, we have to do what is best for us. I agree. The issue is since our city has many issues (hyper-segregation, lack of democracy in our schools, police violence, intra-community violence, resource theft), if we all did what was best for us, many of us would want to leave Chicago. As teachers, I believe there must be a balance between our willingness to stay and fight for our students, our schools, and our city, and our own mental health.
Despite my own personal and professional reasons for switching schools, it is still true that CPS, and especially on the South Side, schools experiences extremely high levels of teacher turnover. A 2009 University of Chicago Consortium on School Research study found that a hundred CPS schools, many of them with majority-Black student populations, lose at least a quarter of their teaching staff every year due to reasons like “principal leadership, teacher collaboration, [and] student safety.” Losing twenty-five percent of a teaching staff per year causes many issues. Students feel like they are the reason that their teachers leave them, and will refuse to allow themselves to get close to their teachers because of the likelihood that their teachers won’t be there the next year. According to the report, having to rehire a quarter of the staff every year also leads to the hiring of “inexperienced, less effective teachers” and can also “produce a range of organizational problems for schools, such as discontinuity in professional development, shortages in key subjects, and loss of teacher leadership.” Why is it okay for certain schools, many of which serve Black and Brown students, to have teachers with little experience, while others have more experienced teachers? What would schools like the one that I am leaving need to make sure teachers are supported and want to stay?
Ultimately, CPS needs to solve the rampant issues it has with inequality in resources and support for the sake of not only its students but also its teachers. Every school deemed “Level 2” should get twice the support of every school deemed “Level 1.” To make this happen, I am not saying we take from one school to give to another, but rather to get funding from other items in the city budget. One of the largest chunks of the budget is policing, which takes up forty percent of the city’s operating budget. Schools and the communities that they serve need resources, not more cops. There is currently $95 million slated for a new cop academy on the West Side, which many activists from the community have organized against.
As I am about to begin my twelfth year at CPS, I have learned that it is only through giving all schools the equitable resources they need that teachers can dedicate their careers to educating their students. With more funds directed towards CPS and schools that need more support, these schools could afford to have more counselors, who could work with students and staff to provide trauma services and individual counseling. A Level 2 school could have a teacher aide for every single class. By fully taking care of our students, you are also taking care of teachers.
This piece was originally featured on the South Side Weekly to view it click here.