John Dewey said in 1895, “It is… advisable that the teacher should understand, and even be able to criticize, the general principles upon which the whole educational system is formed and administered. He is not like a private soldier in an army, expected merely to obey, or like a cog in a wheel, expected merely to respond to and transmit external energy; he must be an intelligent medium of action.”
When I started working at Noble’s UIC College Prep campus in 2012, I was thrilled to have found a school in which students and staff alike were held to high expectations. I wanted to teach in Chicago, but I didn’t want to struggle like I had in my previous school that lacked resources, mentorship, and classroom management support. I taught at Noble for five years. I left because I could no longer justify working myself to the level of exhaustion I’d been consistently reaching in a setting in which my content was devalued, my longevity as a teacher was disposable, and my colleagues and I did not feel empowered or safe to advocate for their students or themselves.
In my first year, I was on top of the world. Still radiating positivity at the treasure I thought I’d discovered in Noble, I was able to justify the 12 hour work days. I was praised regularly by both my coworkers and my students for being a great teacher. I was a part of my students’ journey to making a positive multi-generational change. By the middle of my second year, I was completely burnt out. The workload I put in up to this point was not sustainable long term. I loved teaching music and I loved so much about the school. I wanted deeply to make the work more sustainable. I believed it was imperative that a high quality of music education was accessible to my students.
At one point in my second year, I reached out to an administrator for guidance on how to make my work situation more manageable without sacrificing the quality of music offerings our students had. “I feel like I’m drowning,” I told her. She considered my concern and eventually responded, “You know, there are plenty of suburban school districts with Fine Arts programs that are already thriving.” I explained that I believed our students deserved a teacher who create a thriving fine arts program for them too. “I don’t think teachers should have to be martyrs in order to do their jobs well,” I added. She replied, “I disagree.”
In my third year, changes were made to the course structure that didn’t allow seniors to take music classes any longer. UIC College Prep, a school that prided itself on being the “top non-selective high school in Chicago,” (based of course solely on ACT scores,) didn’t offer choir or band to their seniors. This type of void is unheard of in the schools that my students’ suburban peers attend. I was disappointed to realize that I was working in a school that was not only complicit in this opportunity gap but was taking steps towards widening the gap in this way.
Also In my third year, 9th grade classrooms were maxing out at over 40 students in some cases. It was, understandably, a very challenging school year for 9th grade teachers. We spent an incredible amount of time in our meetings that year discussing ways to manage these immensely overcrowded classrooms when we should have been collaborating on a much higher level of dialogue about serving our students. We asked our principal to sit in our meetings all year long. We wanted to know why we were put in this situation, what could be done to alleviate this disservice to our students, and be assured this would not repeat itself in years to follow. She would not sit down with us as a team, instead urging individuals to make appointments with her. Since that year, more than two thirds of the 9th grade teachers have left.
By my fourth year at Noble, I’d become used to feeling helpless when it came to school wide systems and decision making. I felt unheard and undervalued. I heard many of my colleagues express the same. Teachers lacked the power to make decisions like whether or not students could bring headphones to their classrooms or whether their twelfth grade advisees had to walk in a single file line down the stairs or not. Teachers raised concern around the high cost of night and summer school classes, P.E. requirements, and especially the strong emphasis on standardized test scores. The list goes on, but the conversation rarely did.
During my fifth and final year at UICCP, 130 Noble teachers and staff went public with plans to organize a union at Noble. For the first time in a very long time, I found myself feeling hopeful that teachers and staff in the Noble Network might be able to use their expertise and their voices to enact positive changes where Noble as-is was lacking. As both a Noble teacher and a leader in the effort to organize a union, I learned that the vast majority of my colleagues at UICCP were either in support of a union or were interested in an open dialogue so that they could learn more about how it might affect their workplace and their students’ lives. Noble refused to allow open dialogue – disempowering staff to engage in an important topic of discussion. I cannot say that I was surprised.
Despite a culture of fear, burn out, and disempowerment, many of my colleagues at UICCP attended house meetings, organized conversations outside of school on their own time, wore their support for the union on a button, and signed onto the open letter in support of unionization efforts. It was almost enough to make me reconsider my decision to leave, but in the end, the level of burnout I’d reached was still real, as was the feeling that my content and my talent were not valued. I left Noble.
This year, I’ve heard that Noble admin has told their staff that “the union is dead.” I want to say to my former colleagues at UICCP and at Noble; you are the union. Your union will stand up and advocate on behalf of your students only to the extent that you stand up and advocate. I urge you to consider the consequences our students face if you don’t.
What does it mean for our students if we continuing to accept a school system that is so fearful of giving voice to their staff? How might it impact students if their teachers decide that a turnover rate of 30% every year is not acceptable and demand a more sustainable work environment? How long you could truly see yourself working in the conditions in which you currently work and teach? What it might mean, not only for you personally but also for the city of Chicago and for education nationally, if you were able to stay at Noble for the length of your teaching career? What if students from under resourced communities in Chicago could attend schools where teachers stayed? Imagine a Noble in which your voice is not only sought out but also valued. A Noble in which a teacher who is passionate about creating an experience equitable to the ones their peers in the suburbs are offered, and to the ones that most of their teachers were offered, is thought of as an asset instead of as a bad fit, or worse, a nuisance.