My View: We’ve got your backs, Chicago teachers
September 18th, 2012
04:20 AM ET

My View: We’ve got your backs, Chicago teachers

Courtesy Dug MaraBy Bonnie Kenaz-Mara, Special to CNN.

Editor’s Note: Bonnie Kenaz-Mara is a Chicago-based writer, photographer and videographer and mother to two children. She blogs daily at

My 9- and 11-year-old Chicago public school kids are getting schooled in politics, union organizing and grassroots protest in a very visual way this week. The streets of Chicago are running red as teachers wearing crimson shirts take to the streets for the first strike in a quarter of a century. They're joined by red-wearing parents, kids and supportive community members.

This isn't an “us vs. them” fight. Our teachers ARE our friends, neighbors and parents with their own kids in public schools right next to our own.  Where is Mr. Mayor?  Maybe he missed out on every one of those 50 prior meetings that Chicago Public Schools and Chicago Teachers Union had because he was so busy chauffeuring his kids to a well-funded, private Lab School.

The teachers have taken it to the streets, and the strike has exploded into the public consciousness.

As closed door negotiations remain at an impasse, eyes nationwide are on Chicago now.  Before Monday, September 10, if the public had heard the acronym CTU at all, they equated the moniker with “Counter Terrorist Unit.” Now, CTU is better known as Chicago Teachers Union all over social media and the news.  Chicago's real CTU is the teachers, keeping 400,000 kids off the streets and educating them into crime-free futures as productive members of society.

My father was a product of the Chicago public schools in the ‘40s and ‘50s. He went on to an accounting degree at Northwestern and then a master’s degree.   Now, two generations later, his grandchildren are in CPS.

I've had two kids in a fabulous Chicago public Montessori school since they were 3 years old, and the teachers are professional, committed and caring, and go above and beyond.   As the daughter of a teacher myself, I have the utmost respect for the invaluable work teachers do.

On the first day of the strike, the mood on the picket lines was festive and playful, despite the seriousness of the issues at hand.  At our school, many parents took the day off work and brought doughnuts and coffee. Children marched and sang alongside their teachers and made signs with markers and poster board on the sidewalks.   Neighbors near our school opened their homes to the teachers for bathroom breaks, and passing cars honked incessantly in solidarity.   There is energy and power in action, and it was exciting to see the overwhelming groundswell of support, when our teachers stood up to the corporate and political bullies and took necessary action.

This strike is not just about fair pay for 20% longer work days. This is about basic necessities for our kids and fixing difficult working conditions that make great teachers want to leave and make learning tough for the kids.

This year, my kids are packed in classrooms with 33 children, up from 28 last year, and if Mayor Rahm Emanuel has his way, high school classes of up to 55 students would be acceptable, according to the CTU.

It's 2012, and there are still numerous CPS schools without basics such as libraries, nurses and school counselors. Track E students returned to school August 13, when it was 96 degrees, and many classrooms lacked air conditioning. Parents need to provide most of the basics for the schools such as printer paper, paper goods and classroom supplies, in addition to kids' personal school supplies.

Despite underfunding, my kids have thrived in Chicago public schools, both exceeding standards on tests.

My 11-year-old son scored in the 99th percentile on the ISAT.  But regurgitating facts isn't learning, and upping the quantity of tests is stressful and counterproductive.  We're in a unique position as a “Public Montessori” family.   Under CPS dictates, the kids get standardized tests and grades, but pure Montessori doesn't do testing or grades. They measure kids' progress on a continuum with an I for introduced, D for developing and M for mastered.  The guys who invented Google were Montessori educated, and they're unarguably successful by every standard of our society.  We have the hybrid kids; the best of both worlds.  They have the experience of test taking, so it won't be so scary later, but teaching to testing is not a huge focus. If CPS has its way, it will have to be.

Our kids have planted classroom gardens and learned public speaking by researching and debating hot-button topics such as gay marriage, child slavery and whether Barbie is detrimental to kids' self image.

They've done community service and volunteerism through the school and learned multiculturalism by participating in Day of the Dead Celebrations, and having guests from around the world come in to teach on their countries.   They've taken numerous field trips to see theatrical productions and learn ecology in the woods.

They've designed architecture in art, Native American buildings, Chinese ink scrolls, illusions and studied and emulated famous artists.  They've sung songs of the week and analyzed the lyrics for figurative language and learned about musicians and musical genres.  These things will never be quantifiable on a standardized test, but these are the types of wonderful, well-rounded educating that keep the kids engaged and excited about learning.  They're growing their brains, truly learning HOW to think and reason, and experiencing hands-on learning.  This is hugely important to our family and the teachers we know, and it’s a key point in the current walkout.

The teachers we know spend countless hours of their own time developing creative lesson plans, grading students' work and even buying basic supplies out of their own pockets.   I'm amazed that the Chicago teachers are being vilified by much mainstream media in this conflict.   We don't feel like our kids have been abandoned.   I'm proud that my kids are able to see their role models taking a stand for themselves and their students' well being.

Our family emphatically supports the CPS teachers in this strike and hopes for a quick, equitable resolution.  We've got their backs, no matter how long it takes to reach a reasonable agreement.  Numerous “strike camps” have sprung up, ranging from free park district child care to a wide range of wonderful, educational camps.  Chicago kids can do camps in indie film immersion at Facets Multimedia, theater at Adventure Stage, Spanish language at Multilingual Chicago, role play in a minicity at Journey World, run by the Girl Scouts but open to all, and more.  The whole city of Chicago has stepped up to make sure our children have fun, enriching places to be while our teachers take the time to take care of business and let their voices be heard on the picket lines.

We fully believe the teachers have our kids' best interest at heart, and we encourage them to stand their ground as many days as necessary.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bonnie Kenaz-Mara.

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Filed under: Issues • Parents • teacher unions • Teachers • Voices
soundoff (30 Responses)
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    September 21, 2012 at 7:46 am |
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    September 20, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
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  6. Commie Tactics

    I like the way you wear the Yoke of the democrat plantation and the support the Friends of Mao, Bonnie. Your kids will certainly internalize all the necessary dogma for evolution in Chicago of a perfect socialist society and they too will wear the Yoke. Congrats.

    September 20, 2012 at 8:40 am |
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    September 19, 2012 at 11:48 pm |
  8. Parent and teacher

    Thank you Bonnie for your continued support. I have been so lucky to have you as a parent these 5 years and know that your kids will be successful, happy people (unlike some of the more bitter people that responded to your post). Great job on the article and I look forward to reading more from you.

    September 19, 2012 at 11:32 pm |
  9. Bob

    The American public school system is a horribly failed experiment anyway, It's a negative social environment that rewards low achievement and discourages excellence. People and the government should stop throwing good money after bad and just bag it. Maybe moms should start being moms again and teach their kids at home, where so many of our greatest minds have been schooled.

    September 19, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
    • Commie Tactics

      Whaaaaaat ? You don`t want your kids socialized in a "progressive" cesspool of ideology that will render them perfect little robots ? Why not ?

      September 20, 2012 at 8:42 am |
  10. Becky

    Her kids thrived? Low standards and expectations must have been the goal. Has she not seen Chicago's scores for achievement? More than half are not proficient in reading, writing, and/or math. But, I'm glad her children are thriving. When the kid next door can't read at grade level, I guess any kid will look like a genius.

    September 19, 2012 at 12:28 am |
  11. Ben

    The average salary for CTU teachers is $71,000 per teacher and they want a pay raise? Seems to me that the teachers should be happy that they make $30,000 more than the national average and be happy with it. The union is the reason Chicago can't provide adequate facilities and learning programs for the students. Chicago public schools would save $780 million per year if the teachers' salaries were reduced to the national average. $780 million. And you say the Chicago school system is the bad guy? Wow.

    September 18, 2012 at 7:23 pm |
    • David Crossgrove

      Ben – You say: "The average salary for CTU teachers is $71,000 per teacher and they want a pay raise?"

      Listen, this $75K BS is a lie and a dead issue. The top dogs in the CPS makethat money. Your oft repeated $75K dog won't hunt.

      September 19, 2012 at 11:41 am |
      • Ben

        Nice try but I actually used the dollar amount that the teacher's union says, not what the school district says. Facts can be tricky can't they?

        September 20, 2012 at 9:27 am |
  12. Aurora

    I fully support the fight for better learning environments and resources. However, the teachers lost my support when I realized it was MOSTLY about their compensation and benefits. If this was really all about the kids, why aren't the teachers offering the various percentage pay increases they are demanding in exchange? That money could cover the needs such as air conditioning, supplies, etc. I work for a public university and had a 5% pay reduction for a year to help offset the state debt. Wasn't my favorite year but we survived, I'm happy to know I did my part to help. The Chicago teachers should too and get back to work.

    September 18, 2012 at 4:37 pm |
  13. Jackie W.

    "We fully believe the teachers have our kids' best interest at heart, and we encourage them to stand their ground as many days as necessary."

    Count our family among that "we"!

    I'll be honest. My seven-year-old has been in three different CPS since she was in pre-K. Her current school is our favorite. It's also on academic probation, according to the CPS website. What the site WON'T tell you is that it's run by an unmalleable principal who totally has the teachers' backs. The school also has teachers who are tough but fair - even in the special education classroom where my kiddo spends the bulk of her day - staff and aides who hope they get assigned there every year, and a strong community of parents who wouldn't dream of stepping on the toes of another family to gain an advantage for their own child.

    It is maddening and taxing to have my kiddo out of school right now. (I can only imagine it being moreso for families with limited caregiving resources.) Personally, I'd rather the teachers work it out in the long term for the kids' benefit, than have them hastily return to the classroom to the detriment of their students. Teaching conditions are learning conditions.

    September 18, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
  14. Hey teacher

    Its wonderful that your kids are learning gardening and multicultural music. When they're digging ditches for a living they will understand the music of their co workers.

    Its exciting to know that they're learning to strike as that will be valuable knowledge when they realize how much more money people who read and count make.

    September 18, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
    • dedicatedteacher

      Hey Teacher, Your response proves how little your know about education. The examples cited are components of a curriculum that is obviously inquiry-based and hands-on. Research shows that this authentic form of instruction is the best way to guide students to become active, independent learners. By using their critical skills and making connections to the world around them, students will be able to transfer this knowledge in other areas.

      September 18, 2012 at 10:59 pm |
      • Hey teacher

        Research has shown that people who cant read or count dig ditches. There is nothing better a out it. Too bad your students cant afford a better teacher than you. Thats why vouchers are so important.

        September 19, 2012 at 1:46 am |
  15. Margarita

    I am also a parent of a chicago public school student. Schools are different here in the south side of chicago you do not have a lot of dedicated teachers that want to educate our kids. Look at South side schools and tell me which schools are not on probation. I have to drive my 5 year old 7miles everyday to get him to a good public school and my oldest son to a charter school. Don't tell me that all teachers work hard and are not up to standars because of poberty. We live in the southside of chicago but my kids have to go somewhere else to get a better education than our home schools.

    September 18, 2012 at 12:48 pm |
  16. JOSE-USMC-0311


    September 18, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
  17. dedicatedteacher

    Dear Bonnie,
    Your commentary is an accurate description of what has been happening at the Chicago neighborhood where I teach. As I read your words, I am encouraged and motivated as a teacher. I cannot wait to return to the classroom to explore new themes with my students. It is an incredibly difficult task to plan a curriculum that is deep and meaningful, but it is well worth it. This planning DOES take countless hours and well crafted units of instruction. This is only one component of our roles as teachers. Thank you so much for highlighting this fact to the public.

    September 18, 2012 at 9:12 am |
  18. Meta Brown

    Thank you, Bonnie, for this post.. I'm also a parent of a Chicago Public Schools student, and have great respect for my daughter's teachers and their many colleagues around the city. It's a tough job they do, and the entire community would suffer if we lost them.

    September 18, 2012 at 9:08 am |