Future of Schools

How Chicago teachers really feel about safety, discipline, and school choice

PHOTO: Educators for Excellence
Kallie Jones (center), a Chicago Public Schools teacher, discusses results of E4E's first nationwide teacher survey

More than four in 10 Chicago teachers feel unsafe at school, a markedly greater percentage than teachers nationally — but at the same time, Chicago teachers also feel better prepared to deal with violence and oppose arming teachers — more so than do their peers across the nation, a newly released survey shows.

These are some of the findings in the first nationwide survey commissioned by the teacher-advocacy organization Educators for Excellence (E4E) that was released on Wednesday. Educators for Excellence, a group of over 30,000 teachers nationwide, partnered with Gotham Research Group to develop the survey questions, and Gotham administered the survey online. They queried 1,000 teachers across the country plus an additional 100 teachers in Chicago. 

Jeffrey Levine, president of Gotham, said that the teachers surveyed in Chicago reflected the geographic distribution of teachers in the city and reflected the city’s ratio of charter to district teachers.

These are some of the main findings:

While 31 percent of teachers nationwide fear for their safety in school, the proportion was 42 percent in Chicago. At the same time 67 percent of Chicago educators said they feel their school has prepared them to address school violence, surpassing 54 percent of teachers nationwide. The top three ways teachers nationwide say they may feel unsafe are gun violence, in-person bullying, and fighting among students.

Stacy Moore, the interim executive director of E4E-Chicago, said that this pair of findings “was actually not all that surprising.” She said that because many Chicago teachers feel unsafe, they have also have pushed their schools and the district to provide more training on how trauma affects students and on how to address school violence. Moore noted that in past years, several Chicago schools received federal Healing Trauma Together grants that helped them provide specialized care for students impacted by violence.

“The idea that educators would feel more prepared is the result of the fact that they are seeking those resources,” Moore said.

Math teacher Drew Heiserman said that at his former school, TEAM Englewood, “many students were coming to us with trauma from home and the neighborhood.” In one of the last years he taught at TEAM, “there was a string of seven or eight weeks in row where one staff member was reporting being assaulted by a student.”

He agreed with the findings that Chicago teachers may be more  prepared to address violence. He said that teacher training programs in Chicago, such as the one at the University of Illinois Chicago which he graduated from, “gives you a heads up” for what to expect when teaching in the city.

Heiserman also proactively sought resources to address violence when he taught at TEAM. He and his colleagues used resources from Umoja, a Chicago-based organization that develops restorative justice curricula, to implement practices that attempt to resolve conflict rather than punish students for acting up.

Those practices appeared to be effective in changing students’ perspectives, Heiserman said. He found that afterward, many students “didn’t see us as someone to vent to. …They would see us as human beings again.”

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A larger percentage of Chicago teachers believe in restorative ways of addressing discipline than teachers nationwide. For example, 71 percent of Chicago teachers compared with 64 percent of teachers nationwide believe that restorative practices (requiring perpetrators to address the harm caused by their actions) are effective at improving student behavior.

Still, 49 percent of Chicago teachers believe in the effectiveness of expulsions and 54 percent support suspensions. Both surpass the 39 percent of teachers nationally who support each of those two punitive measures.

Writing teacher Melissa Hughes from Michele Clark Magnet High School in Austin offered an explanation for those seemingly conflicting findings. She said considering that Chicago might have more instances of school violence than other cities, then “in areas [in Chicago] where trauma-informed professional development is lacking, it’s very challenging and hard for teachers to know how to address discipline.”

Still, she said that many teachers in Chicago “see that punishments are actually not effective.”

“Teachers are in it because we love our students, and we want to do what’s best for our students,” she said.

She brought up an instance in a “peace circle” — a mediating session —  in which two students who had previously fought came up with a code word that indicated when their play-fighting escalated too far into real fighting. The code word allowed them be more cognizant of their own physical behavior in future encounters.

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Chicago teachers and teachers nationwide overwhelmingly believe in their unions, 89 percent and 85 percent respectively, and would opt in their union if not automatically enrolled, 80 percent and 82 percent respectively. But only 32 percent in Chicago and 28 percent nationally feel well represented by their unions.

Moore said that this finding is especially important to consider in light of the Janus Supreme Court case in late June, which ruled that members can choose whether or not they pay union dues. “It’s more important than ever that unions are being democratic and listening to all the perspectives of their members,” she said.

But only 18 percent in Chicago feel greatly represented at the state level. The report states that nationwide, “the further teachers are from the decision-making body, the less represented they feel.” This is also true of Chicago teachers.

Kallie Jones, a first-grade teacher at McDowell Elementary School in Calumet Heights and one of the teachers who helped draft the survey questions, said that policymakers need to start with “actually going out and talking to teachers. They need to ask what we want, not guess what we want.”

Moore said that policymakers also should let teachers draft legislation on education policy. For example, she added, E4E-Chicago teachers helped draft two state resolutions that passed this year: HR0795, which urges the state to prioritize school climate and culture and HJR0115, which urges the U.S. Department of Education to sustain an equitable school discipline guidance.

“That was incredibly impactful,” she said. “Teachers continue to want the opportunity to be heard beyond their classroom.”

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On ways to measure school effectiveness, 67 percent of Chicago teachers prefer using academic growth, compared with 74 percent of teachers nationwide. Both locally and nationally, teachers also want school culture and climate, such as disciplinary data and feedback from students, included in measures of school effectiveness.

Moore said that using growth and non-academic measures of school culture and climate “is something we’re seeing our state take major steps towards.”

Moore noted that in Illinois’ Every Student Succeeds Acts plan, academic indicators make up 75 percent of a school’s rating. Half of the academic measure for elementary schools is based on academic growth. The remaining 25 percent of the a school’s rating is focused on non-academic indicators, which include a measure of school climate and culture.

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40 percent of Chicago teachers support school choice in the form of universal school vouchers, compared with 21 percent of teachers nationwide. But Chicago teachers condition their support on charter schools being equally accessible and not shifting funds away from district schools.

Read more about the national findings here and the summary of Chicago findings here. Detailed findings about opinons on unions from Chicago teachers are here and from teachers nationwide are here.

Editor’s note: This article was updated to reflect the fact that the percentage of teachers nationwide who would opt into unions if not automatically enrolled, according to survey results, is 82 percent, not 60 percent. 

voices of the vote

Meet Denver teachers who voted yes to a strike, no to a strike — and just aren’t sure

PHOTO: PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Skinner Middle School math teacher Peter English walks out of the Riverside Baptist Church with his son, Landon, left, and daughter Brooke strapped to his chest after voting on whether to go on strike ()

Throughout the day, the parking lot of Riverside Baptist Church filled up as Denver teachers made their way into a meeting organized by their union, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.  

Months of negotiations that failed to produce a deal between top leaders of Denver Public Schools and the union had given way to individual teachers facing a choice: To strike or not?

Along with reporting the news of the day — which you can read about here — Chalkbeat spent time visiting with teachers to get a sense of what was shaping their decision-making.

Most teachers we spoke with, both in depth and in passing, said they voted “yes” to strike. Union officials have said two-thirds of those who vote Saturday and in a second session Tuesday must sign off on a strike for it to proceed, and the prevailing wisdom among teachers we interviewed was that support is strong.

The decision, though, is far from black and white for many teachers, regardless of where they ultimately land.

Here are the stories of three teachers, all at different places:

Krista Skuce, Slavens K-8 school: Yes to strike

At the urging of teachers and parents, Slavens K-8 students turned out early on a few recent mornings to show support for their teachers. They wore red in solidarity and posed for pictures.

They also brought questions. “Why are you doing this?” was one.

Krista Skuce, a physical education teacher and 14-year Denver Public Schools employee, would tell students that she lives 40 minutes from the school because she can’t afford to live in Denver.

Krista Skuce

But there is more to her story. Her spouse, she said, is no longer able to work, beset by medical issues, unable to draw disability benefits, and in need of costly care including massage therapy, chiropractic appointments, neuromuscular therapies, and more.  

At the same time, Skuce said her pay “doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.” So she hustles, earning extra pay by driving across town to coach softball and basketball.

Skuce, like many teachers who stopped to talk about their votes on Saturday, believes the district can do more to boost teachers’ base pay — before bonuses and incentives.  

She said her salary has only increased $4,000 or $5,000 in the past 14 years, even though she has been teaching 27 years, has a master’s degree, and is National Board Certified.

Skuce said she knows that by voting to strike, she could very well end up taking money out of her own bank account. Striking teachers don’t get paychecks.

“I am hoping the district and the DCTA do the right thing and recognize the fact that there are some people here who are on the edge,” she said. “We are on the edge emotionally, financially. We know these are good people. And I think teachers are people who wake up every morning with forgiveness.

“You have to take a stand and say what you are for at some point in time in your life — and this is it,” she said. “I’m willing to do it, scary or not.”  

Jason Clymer, John F. Kennedy High School: No to strike

An English teacher at John F. Kennedy High School, Jason Clymer stands with his fellow union members in the belief teachers aren’t paid enough. He finds fault with what is asked of teachers through LEAP, the district’s growth and performance system for teachers.

“Teachers at my school feel extremely micromanaged and can’t catch a breath,” he said.  

But in the end, after being one of the first teachers in the door Saturday and attending an information session, Clymer said he voted against the strike.

“Going on strike is very hard,” said Clymer, whose wife works in human resources for the district’s central office. “And I think the agreement DPS came to was close enough.”

Clymer questioned focusing energy on what is under negotiation now: ProComp, the pay system that provides teachers one-time bonuses for things like teaching in a high-poverty school, getting strong evaluations, having students who earn high test scores, or teaching in a high-performing school.

He said he’d like to save some political leverage to focus on other issues covered by the district’s main contract with the union.

“It’s really unfortunate these things can’t all be negotiated together,” he said. “If the district came out and said, ‘We want to give you more money, not as much as you like, but we want to devote more to things like mental health services,’ I really think that would be a winning argument.”

In opposing a strike, Clymer said that he did not want to divide his fellow teachers

“Although I voted no, I believe in the union,” he said. “And if the union voted to strike, I will absolutely support the union.”

Paula Zendle, Denver Green School: Undecided about strike

Paula Zendle is dreading the moment that is appearing increasingly likely: standing before her students at the Denver Green School and explaining why she won’t be there to teach them.

“I tell them constantly, ‘Don’t miss school, don’t miss school. Don’t be absent, don’t be absent, don’t be absent,’” said Zendle, her eyes welling up with tears as she waited on a friend. “I have been fighting to avoid a strike. I hate this. It’s utterly and totally agonizing to me.”

Paula Zendle

Zendle said she left a career in the corporate world for the classroom and has been teaching eight years. She teaches English language acquisition and Spanish at the Green School, a popular and highly-rated middle school option in a district that celebrates choice.

 Zendle said she has done her research and written to the district’s chief financial officer. What bothers her is a system she believes rewards younger teachers and underpays teachers in terms of the cost of living.  

The average Denver teacher currently earns about $51,000 in base pay and $57,000 with incentives, according to data from the state education department and the district. That’s less than teachers in districts like Boulder Valley, Cherry Creek, and Littleton.

District officials have agreed to put $20 million more into teacher compensation and defended their most recent offer on Saturday as “compelling.”

For Zendle, the prospect of facing her students — and that she works in a supportive school environment — is contributing to her struggle in deciding whether to vote “yes” to strike.

So if the moment does come, what will she tell her students?

“We have the right to protest unfair taxpayer spending,” she said. “This is not only unfair, it’s unconscionable. Their priorities have been wrong for 10 years.”

Then she paused and made clear that her decision had not been made. She considers herself a person of principle, and that will guide her in making a decision.

lesson plan

Denver hopes to keep its schools open in a strike — and the union wants you to send your kids

PHOTO: Kathryn Scott Osler/The Denver Post
Students eat lunch in the cafeteria at Dora Moore K-8 School in Denver.

Superintendent Susana Cordova says she is committed to keeping Denver schools open and continuing to educate students in the event of a strike.

In Los Angeles, where a teacher strike is entering its second week, many students are watching movies and playing games. Cordova said she plans to do more for the 71,000 students in district-run schools if teachers vote to strike and state intervention does not lead to a deal. The 21,000 students who attend charter schools will not be affected.

“We want to assure parents school will stay open,” she said. “We know it is critically important that we focus on the education of our kids. Sixty percent of our kids qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. We know they depend on school not just for their meals but for their access to opportunity.”

Negotiations broke down Friday between the district and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, the union that represents teachers and special service providers such as nurses, school psychologists, and counselors. A strike vote is taking place in two sessions, one Saturday and another Tuesday. The earliest a strike could start is Jan. 28.

This would be the first strike in 25 years in the state’s largest school district. In 1994, the district used more than 1,000 substitutes to keep schools open, though many parents kept their children at home, something union leaders encouraged.

It’s not clear yet how high teacher participation in a strike would be. During the final week of bargaining, some teachers reported near universal support in their buildings, while others said some of their colleagues were uncertain. Some teachers have said they disagree with the union position in the negotiations and won’t participate as a matter of principle.

Teachers who strike do not get paid while they are not at work.

Cordova said the district is “in the process of building out our sub pool” and offering higher pay to those willing to work during a strike. But she declined to say how many substitutes the district could call on, and some teachers say they already have a hard time finding subs for routine absences.

Substitutes who work during a strike will earn $200 a day, double the normal rate, and “super subs” who work more than a certain number of days a year will get $250.

Many central office staff who have past teaching experience will be sent to schools to work with students. Cordova said the district is working on pre-packaged lesson plans for every grade and subject area so that learning can still take place, and officials will prioritize placing qualified staff members with special education and preschool students, those she deemed most vulnerable.

Students who get free or reduced-price lunch will still be able to eat in school cafeterias.

For its part, the union is encouraging parents to send their children to school, but with a different purpose.

“One major goal of a strike is for school buildings to be shut down as a demonstration of the essential labor performed by educators,” the union wrote in an FAQ document. “To this end, we encourage parents to send their students to school if their school building remains open. Student safety is paramount for all district schools, therefore the district will be obliged to close schools if safety becomes an issue due to limited staffing.”

Union officials said they were working to establish alternative daytime care with community partners like churches and Boys and Girls Clubs should schools close.