A Tale of Two Chicagos

As of this morning the teachers’ strike in the city of Chicago continues and there is only one group of people I feel an iota of sympathy for: the families affected by the strike, and more specifically that parents of the children whose children will be out of the classroom for a sixth day.

As someone who lives in a different city and geographic region of the country, it would be easy to look at this tragedy much like one would any other catastrophe happening elsewhere. We often give similar responses when we receive news of hurricanes and murders on nightly broadcasts.

“Aww man…what a shame!” we may mutter, and then go back to painting our nails or playing on our fancy iGadgets.

After all, what can a mere onlooker do in the face of such a calamity besides cluck in despair and hope for the best for the victims? It depends on the individual. While some might sit around and hope and pray in earnest that such a disaster never befalls them, others will look at this event and begin to prepare for the unknown – and possible. Though it may seem improbable that a strike could occur in your city, it is still very possible that there could be other teacher strikes large school districts and metropolises in the country.

What should you do as a parent to prepare for such an event? That really is the $3 million question. By the way, how much IS this teacher strike costing parents…especially poor parents in Chicago and its environs? I have yet to hear any news on that.

In the few newscasts I’ve personally seen covering the drama as it unfolds, I’ve noticed that reporting differs depending on who is covering the story. As with all disasters, both manmade and natural, people experience these events differently depending on race and class. At the onset of the strike, a reporter went into an impoverished neighborhood to discuss their thoughts on the strike. A trio or large, angry Black women belted their disgust, their English sometimes broken as a result of the fury they were experiencing.

“My child has enough problems just growing up here,” said a woman in burgundy highlights, spreading her arms towards the neighborhood behind her. “We got gang violence, poverty, and bad health…and now they wanna take away their education? They barely getting an education as it is!”

Well, she does have a point there. Inner city students consistently test lower than their suburban counterparts. The reasons for that are varied, and I hope civic and political leaders will address those. The blame does all don’t stem from the teacher.

In a radio broadcast, I heard a suburban (and I assume White from her accent) mom give her take on the strike.

“Yes, it’s certainly been  difficult keeping the kids occupied this last week, but I think it’s a wonderful lesson for my fifth grader,” she gushed. “It’s teaching her that if she believes in something, she has to stand up for herself and fight for what she believes in!”

I think that’s a wonderful sentiment. I really do. But when what you are doing – for a percentage increase in pay and guarantees of job security even when you SUCK at your job – is affecting the most vulnerable in society, you come off looking like…well, a bit of a douche.

The fact is, the mom in suburbia (and that certainly includes me) can afford to see the positives in such mayhem. We’re more likely to be college educated and well read. We’re more likely to be married and living in a two-income household, or if we’re truly fortunate, be a stay-at-home mom living off of one income. If a teacher strike happened in Atlanta today, my children and I would be far better off than many of my African American counterparts because unlike many of my sisters, I have the “luxury” of staying at home if I wanted to. I could teach my kids any subject and conscript a tutor to instruct them in any subject I’m not proficient in. However, many of the parents of the students affected by this strike don’t have these options. They don’t have the education, the funds, a dedicated life partner or the resources to bounce back from the greed and inconsideration of others. And by that, I mean the teachers.

I read a story on NPR this morning about how teachers’ expectations can affect student performance. (http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2012/09/17/161159263/teachers-expectations-can-influence-how-students-perform) A researcher, Robert Rosenthal,  found that expectations affect teachers’ moment-to-moment interactions with the children they teach in a thousand almost invisible ways. Teachers give the students that they expect to succeed more time to answer questions, more specific feedback, and more approval: They consistently touch, nod and smile at those kids more.

The study was based on a group of children who were selected at random, all possessing varying levels of academic strength, but were presented to the teacher as ‘high performers’ and ‘destined for success’. With the prejudice that this group of students was gifted in some way, the teachers provided them extra attention and were more focused on their development.

How gifted do these inner city teachers believe their charges are? Let’s be honest. What expectations do they have for their academic performance? What expectations do they have for their futures? Has anyone discussed these expectations with their parents? Has anyone reached out their parents, also previous recipients of this abysmal education now handed down to their kids? The numbers of impoverished children who cannot read at grade level or speak English properly is staggering.

Setting expectations is a first step in achieving excellence. Amy Chua exemplified that in her book Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mother.  If you let individuals know what is expected of them, you will be surprised how quickly they can rise to the occasion. If the city of Chicago and other cities in this nation can manage to reset the clock, get parents the tools they need to better themselves and become partners in their children’s’ education, and begin to believe in these kids untapped potential, then we’ll be on a path to ending these impertinent public tantrums a.k.a. strikes.

From school boards to instructors, America has it all wrong when it comes to public education. The proof is in the test scores.

Are you a parent, a teacher or a student? What do you think?

  • TD

    I am none of the above but I believe that a parent is responsible for a child’s education. My mom (a teacher) told me about a kid who was held back a year (not sure the grade- maybe 1st. When do they start teaching that here anyway?) because he didn’t know how to write his name and his mother came in screaming and calling the teacher (NOT my mom) every name but the child of God. My question is – why didn’t his mom know that her kid didn’t know how to write his name, for a whole year? I could keep going because I grew up in Ghana, so I have a lot to say about this country’s educational system, but, I am a mere scientist and not a literary genius like Mrs. Grant 🙂 so I’ll just stop here.

    • You – you called me the ‘g’ word. You really think I’m a genius?!!? That means a lot coming from a DOCTOR. 🙂

      I absolutely agree you. Learning and discipline begin in the home. A school is meant to further your child’s education and hopefully reinforce learning habits that parents have begun at home. My concern is for those parents who are trapped in a vicious cycle and don’t have the skills to introduce their children to proper early learning. The mom at your mother’s school was WAY out of line. The fact that her child went an entire year without even knowing how to write his name is a judgment against her. It means she never checked his homework folder and never conferenced with the teacher during the school year. She was just hollering to cover her shame!

  • Rasheeda

    Very interesting take on the strike, I am none of the above either but I do plan to have children one day and I am appalled at the options available to parents in this city. I don’t have the solutions at all but I do feel charter schools give the public school system great competition and better options for parents. The documentary, The Lottery, was influential in shedding more light on our current educational debate raging across the country,public vs. charter. I think that lawmakers and parents are afraid to try something new for fear of failure, but failure seems to be what we are experiencing right now, so I guess I don’t see how we could fail more( not even sure that makes sense as it is written-my education fails me again).

    • *Ahem* Didn’t you go to an Ivy League University or something? I’m not buying that your education is failing you! 🙂

      My children go to a charter school and we absolutely love it. They have a strong emphasis on parental involvement. I think you’re absolutely right, in that lawmakers, parents and teachers are afraid to try something new AND they’re afraid to relinquish any control of funds and power. Not enough of them truly care about education in its purest form.

      And I agree with Ali. We’re all smarter when you grace us with your comments!

  • Good comments Rasheeda! I always enjoy reading your witty comments. That bit at the end makes sense. However,
    it could have read better if written ” so I guess I don’t see how we could afford to fail even more by not implementing changes”.

  • Michael Kangethe

    A tale of two continents perhaps, teachers here in Kenya too are on strike, parents are angry, considering final examinations begin in October, students at first nervous of it now dulled by the question when is it going to happen?…As if spurred by their colleagues in primary and secondary school the dons went on strike too! I know knowledge these days in a conventional classroom is all about funding, allowances e.t.c but still it is a childs right to free education here too, seems the old tales of our fathers (of dedicated and ruthless teachers though barefoot under a tree) are lost on our children…