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Re 'Schools vs. Slogans'

An open letter to President Obama

Thank you for this piece, which hit very close to home for me, a father of two school children and husband of a recently laid-off teacher. I thought I'd share a letter I wrote last week to President Obama (copying every relevant public official I could think of), using my wife's saga as a microcosm of what's happening here in Chicago.

I'm looking forward to Pedro Noguera's next essay.

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President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500

September 14, 2010

Mr. President,

I’d like to take a moment to tell you a little story about a teacher in a town you know quite well, Chicago. Coming from a family of teachers—her mother and two of her four sisters have made it their chosen profession--she just happens to be my wife.

For ten years she taught in an elementary school located in one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Chicago, if not the entire country. It’s so diverse, it goes by more than one name—some call it West Rogers Park, others call it West Ridge. North of Devon, and west of Western, and located in what was once a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, the students’ families hail from countries like India, Iraq, Mexico, Korea, Pakistan, Iran, Honduras, and Bangladesh, among many, many others.

Although these students may be just as likely to speak in Urdu, Spanish or Korean at home as they are in English, and their dinner tables might feature meals more familiar to natives of Monterrey, Baghdad, Seoul, or a rural town in India, than to people whose families have been here for generations, they get along with one another relatively well here, in the metropolis of the Midwest. And they watched together with tremendous pride that cold, January day last year, Mr. President, when you took the oath of office. Like many other teachers across the country, my wife made her students witnesses to that historical occasion. Lacking an adequate Internet connection in her classroom, cable access, or even an analog antenna, as an industrious public school teacher, she still managed to find a resourceful way to tune in. Here, in the middle of a major city in the most prosperous country in the world, she fashioned a paper clip into a TV antenna to watch your inauguration.

Fast-forward a year and half. A challenging time for the country, elected officials, and government at all levels, none of which is news to you, I’m sure. The City of Chicago is certainly not immune, facing severe budget deficits, and its public schools are scrambling to address a shortfall that reportedly stood at $900 million at one point. Teachers are laid off at various points over the summer, my wife included, just weeks before the school year is set to begin. The reasons vary, but very few are due to performance. In all, 1,300 CPS teachers find themselves without a class to return to in the new school year. And in a cruel twist of fate, about half of these teachers are informed of their fate the same week that Congress passes the Edujobs bill, which provides over $100 million to CPS, but whose leaders are quick to point out it will not bring back too many of those who just lost their jobs (or, in the terminology preferred by CPS, were “honorably dismissed”) because the money will not arrive in time.

I understand that desperate times call for desperate measures, and under normal circumstances, no school district of any size would want to let go of 5% or more of its workforce and deal with the resulting chaos and reduced ability to serve its students’ needs. But something more than that is happening here in Chicago. Not only are these teachers being dismissed, with no regard to seniority, experience, qualifications, or credentials, not to mention in likely violation of their union contract (and many have learned that individuals new to the profession are being hired to take their place), but their ability to re-enter the education workforce is being severely impaired, if not blocked completely, by the organization that let them go.

You see, a de facto blacklist has been established for these “honorably dismissed” teachers. They are not eligible to belong to the pool of displaced teachers seeking new assignments in CPS. They cannot serve as substitute teachers at CPS schools, even if they find such an opportunity through their own legwork. Their benefits were ended abruptly, and if they do not find another position in the system within 10 months, they also lose all tenure and seniority that they worked so hard to accrue. It will be as if they never existed as CPS teachers, and their years of service and the countless students’ lives they touched, never happened. I’ll admit that I’m not a scholar of labor laws, but I can’t see how some sort of violation is not happening here.

To make matters worse, my wife has also been denied unemployment benefits by the state of Illinois. Why, you may wonder? She’s halfway through a graduate program in English as a Second Language (ESL) Education (which, as a non-native English speaker herself, has helped her discover her true passion within education), and because her two weekly classes begin at 4:15 pm, apparently she’s not eligible for benefits because her classes take place during “work hours”. Never mind the fact that these hours are outside the normal schedule of someone in her profession, not to mention that there must be many other types jobs that do not conform to that sort of schedule, as well as employers who offer the benefit of flexible work schedules. In other words, she’s being penalized for trying to increase her employment prospects. Fortunately, her husband is employed at the moment, so she won’t starve, but I can only wonder at the stress and uncertainty that those teachers who were the only wage earners in their household and were laid off must be going through.

Beyond all of this, perhaps nothing sums up the sudden and dizzying highs and lows of a displaced teacher in Chicago these days than what my wife went through last Friday. Unexpectedly, she received a call from a nearby school, asking if she was available to substitute for a teacher who was out that day. Out of work and missing the experience of starting a new school year as a teacher, excitedly, she said yes, she could, and immediately reported to the school, even though it meant she would miss two neighborhood job fairs she planned to attend that day. She thoroughly enjoyed the time she spent with a class of young children, and one child in particular. This child, new to this country from the Middle East, knew barely a word of English. I’m sure my wife must have immediately identified with this student, as she herself came to this country from far overseas at the age of eight, knowing no English but soon finding herself in a class of American students. Drawing on her professional training in ESL, and her childhood experience even more so, she was able to connect with this student and provide instruction on letters, numbers, and identifying parts of the face. A child that wore a sullen look at the beginning of the day carried a smile for the entire afternoon and rewarded my wife with a big hug by the time class was dismissed.

A month to the day after being let go, and feeling more discouraged about herself, her career choice, and her future employment prospects than she ever has, my wife instantly experienced the passion again that led her to become an educator and seek to concentrate on assisting kids who are not native English speakers. She no longer questioned why she ever entered or would want to stay in her profession, in spite of all the struggles and uncertainty teachers face in this country, especially right now in Chicago. That feeling, as inspiring, cherished and overdue as it must have been to her, would not last long, however, for she learned upon checking out of the office at the end of the school day that she was not eligible to serve as a substitute teacher because of the status CPS bestowed upon her for her dismissal. In this scenario, at least, it seems that loopholes and technicalities trump passion and dedication. Not merely trump them, but rather brutally pummel them into submission.

This story I’ve shared is that of but one teacher, who belongs to one family. But her story is emblematic of so many others. This one teacher has touched hundreds of students, and is one of over 1,000 in the same situation across the city. No doubt these teachers have reached dozens, if not hundreds, of students of their own. Who will connect with those students in their absence? How will those students have any confidence that the teachers they are able to establish a new connection with will be there the next school year? How do the teachers that remain, who are underappreciated as professionals at best, and objects of undeserved animosity and scrutiny from many other quarters, maintain any morale? And how does any organization, especially one that is a taxpayer-funded, governmental entity like Chicago Public Schools, get away with mistreating its workers this way?

This is much more than just a personal narrative or a local issue. Teachers are under attack, and if this sort of thing is happening in Chicago, a city with a strong union history and a stronghold of Democratic politics, the very place where you launched your extraordinary political career, I hesitate to imagine what might be happening elsewhere. I hope that you, along with the various officials at the federal, state, and local levels that I have copied on this letter, can work together and find a way to put an end to these practices.

With Hope,

Matthew Mikkelsen

Chicago, IL

Sep 20 2010 - 10:45pm