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On the eve of a possible strike, a rookie CPS teacher reminds us what’s at stake

In her first year as a first-grade teacher, this rookie’s facing $40,000 in student-loan debt and an underfunded classroom filled with needy children.

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As I write this story Monday, Chicago waits with bated breath to see if Mayor Rahm Emanuel will muster the fortitude to dip into his precious TIF piggy bank and extract the few hundred million or so of your property tax dollars to give public school teachers a nominal raise and avoid another strike. Barring any late-breaking agreements, teachers have been told to strike come Tuesday morning at 6 AM.

The money's there, as I've told you before. It's just a matter of Rahm deciding to spend it on schools as opposed to some cockamamie development deal—like Rezkoville.

You can do it, Rahm, I know you can.

While we wait out these last anxious hours, I'd like to introduce you to Belle, who can tell us a thing or two about what's at stake.

Belle's a 28-year-old rookie first-grade teacher at a low-income public school on the south side. Basically, she was just figuring out how to get to the lunchroom, and she's already going on her first strike.

Something they likely never prepared her for in grad school.

A few words about Belle. For starters, that's not her real name. Given how Chicago Public Schools treats employees (remember Troy LaRaviere?) who dare to criticize the system, I decided not to use her real name to protect her from retaliation.

I've known Belle since she was in grammar school—she played forward on a fifth-grade basketball team I coached many years ago. She possesses a devilishly biting sense of humor and probably could have made a fortune in Hollywood writing screenplays. But a year or two after graduating from college, she announced that she'd decided to follow her heart and go into teaching.

Naturally, I tried to gently dissuade her by suggesting she try something a little more, oh, in tune with our times—like investment banking.

At least bankers seem to be flourishing in the age of Rauner and Rahm.

To which she said, "It's funny taking career advice from a guy who thought it was a good idea to go into journalism." OK, she didn't come right out and say that. But I can't blame her for thinking it.

Belle's the most idealistic of idealists, taking seriously our claim that public education is a sacred, all-hands-on-deck mission—akin to joining the army to defend her country—especially if we're truly committed to eradicating the gap between the Roselands and the Ravenswoods, as Mayor Rahm likes to put it.

—Belle, a first grade CPS teacher

But getting a job with CPS is not as easy as, say, walking down to an army recruitment office and enlisting.

First, Belle needed to go back to school to take the courses necessary for certification—her undergraduate degree in English wasn't enough to qualify her.

After two years at DePaul, she graduated with a master's degree in early childhood education—and roughly $40,000 worth of debt. (I'm sure DePaul will put that money to good use building that $200 million basketball arena on the near south side.)

After that Belle had to pass several teaching certification tests—tests she had to pay to take.

Good to see someone's making money from public education.

She started looking for a job this summer, and really, finding one was probably the easiest part of Belle's quest. Thanks to the school-based budgeting system that Emanuel ushered in, there's an incentive for principals to fill vacancies with the lowest-paid teachers. So in the open job market, rookies tend to have an advantage over veterans.

It's as though the Bulls had an incentive to choose rookies like Denzel Valentine over LeBron James.

Within just a few weeks, she had two job offers. In mid-August she accepted the one from the aforementioned south side school.

Her salary is $52,000 a year. She shells out $1,000 a month to repay those student loans.

Now she finds herself the only adult in a class of 28 kids. Apparently, Chicago has millions of dollars for that basketball arena, but no money for a teacher's aide in Belle's classroom.

The other day, I gave her a call to see how it's been going. I wasn't surprised to learn that her idealism was colliding with the reality of teaching in CPS.

"My biggest challenge is keeping order in the classroom without being this crazy disciplinarian who's always yelling at the kids," she said. "I hate playing that role."

Any surprises?

"I broke up my first fight," Belle replied. "Two boys got into a shoving match. I pulled them apart. It happened on a Monday. I'm thinking—hello to the week!"

"I love my kids," she went on. "I love working with them. But it's a challenge. Some of them get no help at home. It's a real bummer. 'Cause you can see that the kids who do have help have a big advantage over the kids who don't. So how do you keep these kids [who have more support] going while keeping the other kids from falling further behind?"

Then, two weeks into the year, she told me, she caught the flu. Something else they might not teach you in grad school: working in a room full of kids every day will expose you to a lot of germs.

"We had a field trip on a Monday—I knew I couldn't miss that," she recounted. "But we were outside and the flu only got worse. So I took Tuesday off. When I came in on Wednesday, my kids were just wild. That one day without me really wound them up. They need the discipline, they need the structure. I decided, that's it: I will never take a day off again."

But Belle may have to break that vow should she and the other teachers go on strike.

She never thought about salaries when she was in grad school—for her, teaching was never about money. But then she heard older teachers talk about how they'd gone a year without a contract. And how the mayor's so-called 13 percent raise really amounts to a pay cut. And how teachers practically have to beg for a raise.

We say that teaching is a sacred mission. Then we make idealistic young wannabe teachers like Belle pay thousands of dollars to get certified before throwing them into underfunded classrooms, where the odds against their success are overwhelming. It's no way to run the system.

"I voted to strike out of solidarity with my colleagues," she said. "But I love my kids. I've never been so stressed out."

You and the rest of Chicago, Belle.

I'll say it again: the mayor could end the city's impasse with its teachers by just dipping into the TIF accounts.

Avoiding a strike won't solve all the problems teachers like Belle are facing, but at least it guarantees she'll be there to greet her students in the morning. And that's one small step in the right direction.   v


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