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Tribune: From the picket line - Why a teacher feels she had no choice but to strike

by Leslie Russell  |  09/13/2012

I have one hour to teach both reading and writing. One of my classes is broken into two sections — 30 minutes in the morning and 25 minutes at the end of the day. There are 41 seventh-graders in one classroom, and since I have only 31 desks in my room, we start the period borrowing chairs from two or three different classrooms. And the solution to an overcrowded class of 41? It is not to hire a new teacher. It is to take 10 seventh-graders out of their seventh-grade homeroom and add them to my eighth-grade homeroom, making a seventh-/eighth-grade split class. That essentially means teaching four different classes in the same hour.

If reform is the order of the day, start with the radical reforms of reducing class size to 20 students, provide enough teachers so that each grade level has its own instructor and provide an instructional period for every subject.

Let's not even talk about the fact that I cannot give each student a literature textbook because I do not have enough of them, or the fact that many of the books I distribute are missing covers. I will spare you the details of the email I received from my principal telling me that I am required to use nonfiction books on the Industrial Revolution in my instruction.

Last year my students had a reading and a writing class. This year there is just a reading class. Last year my students had Spanish three days each week. This year they have it once. Last year my students had physical education two days each week. This year they have it once. My students are definitely getting a longer day, but I am hard-pressed to see how it is a better one.

To add insult to injury, my classroom was a blazing inferno last week, I was not even given accurate lists of the students in my five classes, and did I already tell you that one of my classes is broken into two discontinuous sessions?

This strike is a strike of no choice. When the mayor gets on television spinning fairy tales about the conditions in our schools and does so with conviction, when my professional judgment is pre-empted by illogical instructional mandates, when my students and I are given challenges to overcome in the place of the resources we need to excel, and when the Chicago Board of Education sets me up for failure and then evaluates my performance based on test scores, I have been left with no choice.

Rahm Emanuel picked the wrong union to try to bust. I will be shouting that from the picket lines for as long as it takes to get teachers a fair contract and for as long as it takes to get students the schools they deserve.

Leslie Russell is a Chicago Public Schools teacher.

Chicago Teachers Union