Posted by: theodorecosmosophia | September 11, 2012

Ten Questions We Should Be Asking During the Chicago Teachers’ Strike

As I reflect on the teacher’s strike in Chicago, I do so from multiple perspectives: A citizen of Chicago, a parent, an educator, a supporter of unions, the son and grandson of teachers. There are probably more. But I’d like to share what I believe to be some important questions about our schools that are too infrequently being asked, if at all. Far too often, the discussion falls into simple, dichotomous categories: long-days good, short days bad; high standards good, low standards bad; “reform” good, unions bad.

Since we are talking about education here, as well as labor, perhaps it would be useful to pause for a moment and ask some questions–it is, after all, in asking the right questions that true learning takes place. My concern is that we are having a conversation in which positions are being taken based on unchallenged and false assumptions. Specifically, there is the notion that the union is to blame because it is blocking “reform”. But while I can’t say that teachers are blameless–there is plenty of blame to go around in the schools and, of course, there are bad teachers–I would like to ask some questions about the form of this so-called reform. For all reform is not good; and, in education, reform must be based on asking the right questions.

1. What is going to happen during the extra hours that are being added to the school day? What, other than keeping kids “off the streets” is the purpose of our after-school programming? The assumption that the school is a factory and the kids are a product leads to the assumption that longer days yield better results. What is the evidence? And those who would criticize teachers for resisting this should spend one day in a classroom. It is hard work. A six hour day in the classroom is a lot harder than an eight hour day in the cubicle. The other argument for keeping kids in the container longer is that they will be “off the streets”–ie not killing or robbing anyone. If this is the only reason for a school, we need to ask some more questions.

2. How are the students eating? How are they moving their bodies? The students and teachers will be happier and learn more if they are healthy and moving their bodies. This has to be part of any education reform plan. As much as the information our kids are learning, we need to ask what they are physically doing all day. We learn with our bodies as well as our minds. And our kids must be spending time outside, learning about their ecological place in the world.

3. How are we involving parents in non-condescending ways? Teachers know that they will have far more success if parents are involved. The problem is that we usually don’t involve parents except to imply that they don’t know what they are doing. Let me be honest here: Parents can cause a lot of problems. But we can’t give up on engaging and involving them.

4. How are we meaningfully integrating the students emotional lives into the school day? One of the biggest reasons kids have problems in school is that they have trauma and stress and can’t deal with anger and other emotions. Why do we only talk about feelings when there is a problem? Moreover, the emotions are an important facet of intellectual discussions, too. Do we ask the kids how they feel in addition to what they think? A greater awareness of how we are feeling helps us become better problem solvers and engage in dialogue more productively.

5. How are we inspiring our students to be creative? Are we providing them with the right context and media to express themselves? The removal of the arts from many schools is tragic. Creativity is a fundamental aspect of a person’s development and should be integrated into every curriculum, not marginalized or removed. Creativity, the Imagination, and the arts is how young people explore and discover their place in the world; it is how they tell their stories and teach others.

6. Why do students get so much homework when there is no evidence for any educational benefit? This only frustrates students, teachers, and parents. I realize that many kids are watching too much TV at home. But let’s figure out how to foster more free play and encourage reading at home. This is a classic example of a solution that is presented because it makes for a good sound bite.

7. What, other than money, do teachers really want? I would suggest (and I am happy to be corrected by teachers) that teachers want to be respected as professionals as much as they want high salaries. They want to engage in a meaningful conversation about what it means to be educated. And they want to work in a place of growth and of joy, not a place that feels like a prison or a factory.

8. How do those who would blame the unions for the problems in our schools propose we have a respected, professional group of teachers? A society that doesn’t respect its teachers is truly lost. Go to a charter school and see how teachers are treated if you want to see what a world without teachers unions looks like. Those schools, while once promising radical reform and creativity, have become test-taking factories. They–and the teachers who work in them–can be bought and sold without consequence.

9. What the questions are our children going to ask us when they come home? We are so focused on the skills and information that our kids get in school that we forget that a truer sign of an educated person is curiosity. The problem is that we can’t test for curiosity, for a desire to explore, or to think paradoxically. So teachers can make a legitimate argument against so-called standards not because they don’t want to be held accountable, but because the basic for the reform (tests) is not educationally sound.

10. What, at the end of the day, will make them come alive? What will inspire them? And what kind of world, other than one in which they make a lot of money, will our children dream of creating? I will address these questions with a quote:

“The work of education, of course, is not to make better schools, but to make a better world.  Too often, I believe, educators forget this obvious and simple truth.  Discussions about education seldom reflect the kind of world we might imagine is possible; rather, they focus on achievement and success within a given paradigm.  They seem not to realize that the way we educate our children creates, reinforces, or shatters the paradigm. For example, when we assume that the purpose of education is to help students find a job in the global economy, we forget that the “global economy” is not some force of nature.  Humans created it.  It exists because of the decisions we made, decisions based upon how we view the world, which is based on the way we have been educated. While what goes on in a school is important in itself—after all, our children spend most of their childhoods there—the ultimate relevance of a school is what kind of civilization it inspires our children to create.  A school is not “good” if its students get good test scores but are so unhappy, so disconnected, and so unable to think critically that they go out in the world and commit acts of violence and destruction.  Such schools only give more power to the mis-educated.  I think I prefer the ‘bad’ schools.”  [From Creatively Maladjusted: The Wisdom Education Movement Manifesto]

For more about these and other questions, please visit The Chicago Wisdom Project. You can also find out more about my forthcoming book on education here: Creatively Maladjusted.



  1. Thanks for this.

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