As an elementary school student in New Jersey, I remember seeing my teachers in red shirts every Friday. Even then I knew it had something to do with the teachers’ union. (What can I say — I had a sociological eye!) Two decades later, I’ve learned the term “solidarity,” and I’m tracking the sea of red shirts in downtown Chicago this week with great interest as the city faces its first teachers’ strike in 25 years.
Everyone knows that the best way to raise your blood pressure is to view readers’ comments on online news articles. Well, I’ve risked my health, reviewing these comments along with original news sources, in order to present you with two very different, highly moralized images of teachers.
Side 1: Teachers are greedy welfare queens, neglecting the children in their care in order to demand more benefits from poor Rahm and his cash-strapped city government. A reader made the following comment on this article in the Washington Post: “I tried to listen to some comments by the president of the Chicago Teacgher [sic] Union President, Karen Lewis last night [...] She was trying to talk through A mouth full of fingers that she got by biting off the hand that was trying to feed her.” Another commenter writes, “In 21st century America, the only teachers who require union to protect them and to negotiate their salaries and benefits are either unqualified, inefficient, incompetent, lazy or all of the above.” Mayor Emanuel made remarks with a similar shame-on-you overtone. “This is a strike of choice — it’s the wrong choice for our children and it’s not necessary,” the Post quoted; and The New York Times, “Don’t take it out on the kids of the city of Chicago if you have a problem with me.” At the end of this clip, a FOX newscaster remarks, “I feel bad for those kids today — no school for them.”
Side 2: Teachers are noble nurturers and victims of an oppressive system, fighting for their needs to be recognized. Evidence to this end highlights the sacrifices that teachers make for their students. One parent observes that her daughters’ teachers often uses their own money to buy supplies for their kids. A strike captain points out, “We don’t want to be on this picket line…our heart is in the classroom.” Pro-strikers explain that teachers are continuously asked to do more with less, such as the case of this teacher who has 43 pupils, age 5 and under. The argument is that teachers cannot be effective educators under their current conditions, and deserve to have a say in policy changes such as the extension of the school day.
One reason the strike is so polemical is that it references the current political imbroglio over education reform. But I think another is that it’s referential of larger issues about gender and power. Our society understands children as innocent, needing careful attention and protection. The care of children is a traditionally feminine responsibility, and teaching is a traditionally feminine career (76% of elementary and secondary public school teachers in 2007-2008 were female, according to the National Center for Education Statistics). Those against the strike highlight the threat that it poses to children’s well-being. They imply that striking is selfish, an unladylike display of aggression, anger and greed that diverts teachers’ energy away from their real classroom duties. The other side argues that striking is a necessary evil that will, in the long run, allow teachers to better do their jobs. It argues that teachers make sacrifices to support children’s well-being, and deserve to be heard in return.
While children and their parents are certainly losing out in the short-term as teachers take to the streets, it remains to be seen whether this strike will spell long-term gains for public education. As one social worker said, the strike is a “history lesson” for many students. “We’re telling them, ‘This is how you stand for your rights.’”