Images courtesy of Elizabeth Eberle

By Elizabeth Eberle

On Day 1, our staff meets outside our school at 6:30am to form the picket line. This is when many on my staff arrive to begin the schoolday, even though our contracts don’t start until 8:45am.

Later that morning, hundreds of people in passing cars honk, wave, and raise their fists in solidarity with the teachers lining the street in front of our school. Police flash their lights and sound their sirens. Bus drivers wave and honk. Nearby businesses open their bathrooms to us. Other members of our school not represented by the CTU wear red arm bands in support and shout their encouragement from the other side of the gate. They know how many extra hours we work; they know this is not just about our salary.

I know many of our students that need the most get the least. I know that 33 first graders in a class is not okay. I know that cramming 50+ 4th graders into what was once an art room is not okay (even if they have 2 amazing teachers). I know that a teacher having to consider her paper supply, 1 ream a month, in planning curriculum is not okay. I know that my 2nd graders not having gym, art, or library this semester because the board did not fund what they mandated is not okay. My students attend an air conditioned school with a library, playground and technology lab, but I know many students in CPS don’t. Some don’t even have enough chairs in their classrooms. These are not luxuries, but necessities that all students deserve. I know my contract has a direct impact on that.

This struggle is about more than teacher salaries. This has been skewed by the media. Yes, salary is part of the negotiations. We are working 20% more on this contract, and deserve a fair salary. But I don’t know anyone that became a teacher for the money. Many teachers spend $1,000-$2,000 out of their own pockets on classroom supplies each year (for this year, I’m at $450 to date). Normally in the first days of school my principal distributes staples, paperclips, file folders, etc. This year she told us the supply closet was sparse. Classrooms need to function for students to learn, so we buy our own.

On the afternoon of Day 1, we leave our school picket lines and reunite with other CTU members downtown. Thousands of red shirts swarm the Loop. Parents, students, spectators and other unions rallied with us. One student breaks down in tears while voicing her support over the loudspeaker.

Day 2, no contract. We reunite early in the morning again outside our school. We form another picket line for four more hours. I am now more anxious to be out there. It is not fun to stand outside of your school and know you can’t go in. Nearly all passing cars continue to voice their support. People we don’t know drop off donuts and cases of water. A parent of a former student thanks me in McDonalds. Another family across the street offers us their outlets, so we can have music to keep our energy high. Our school and our community are behind us; they get it.

More families join us on the picket line today. They march and chant. They bang drums and hold signs. Our students hug their teachers and stand with them. Their moms encourage more to join us. I know we are lucky to have them. We’d all rather be inside the school gates, but everyone on the picket line also understands that we must fight for a “Quality Education for All.”

Again, thousands of red shirts swarm the streets outside of the CPS headquarters for another rally. There is a moment of silence for 9/11, and we thank the police and firemen for their support. Later, the rally emcee shouts, “This one is for the democrats. We are not candidates. We are teachers and this is what democracy looks like!”

I remember last week, when a student asked me why I wore my Chicago Teachers Union button every day. I told him I wore it because I was proud to be a teacher. I was proud to be his teacher. I was proud of him, and of our school. I also told him that I wore it because he deserved the best education possible and I know it is my job to help him get that. It was the best way I could explain this to a 2nd grader. When we return, it will be even more difficult to explain. I know they will have questions and, as their teacher, I owe them an explanation for why I have not been with them.

At the rally our union president, Karen Lewis, informs us that negotiations continue, but are not done. The uncomfortable feeling of a 3rd day sets in.

Elizabeth Eberle has taught in the Chicago public school system for four years.

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