In May of 2013, I joined the family that was Hansberry College Prep. We had four copiers, projectors in every classroom, and unlimited colored paper. A still-growing campus, I chose the most beautiful classroom in the school with an entire wall of windows facing 87th street, and I was given money to turn it into a college prep chemistry lab. No longer would I need to boil cabbage to create a bootleg pH test, and labs could use materials beyond baking soda and vinegar. When my teaching past included nightly trips to Kinkos for copies and a requirement that I supply students and myself toilet paper, I had arrived in teacher heaven.
Supplies, however, were only the start. My students at Hansberry College Prep were a dream. They cared about their grades, nerded out over lab data, forgave me when I made mistakes, and answered every single question on every worksheet I ever gave them – all while sitting up straight, never talking while I was talking, and using only mechanical pencils which they never, ever asked me to supply.
The perks came with other requirements though. I worked 14-hour days and had the school alarm set on me more than once for remaining in the building past midnight. I held my students to levels of discipline that made me uncomfortable. I was hounded over my mediocre freshmen advisory data, so I passed the pressure placed upon me down to my advisees to get better data and score better scores. We were excruciatingly hard on ourselves and our students, but I internalized the message that that’s what it took to achieve the huge goals we set.
Faced with an overwhelming workload, I pushed on believing the job was hard because I was new and my advisees were freshmen. Eventually, I told myself, my advisees would adjust and the system would feel less harsh. Work would get easier as soon as I mastered the systems, planned out my curriculum, and honed my time-management skills. If I stayed in the building a little longer, then I might finally be able to join a gym or grab dinner with a friend.
As my freshmen advisees became sophomores and then juniors, my hopes of developing a work-life balance for myself never materialized and the creeping unease around the school’s discipline decisions heightened. The unlimited reams of colored copy paper became much less exciting when I knew they would be used for ACT prep worksheets. Implementing an exciting, inquiry-based science curriculum across grade levels became an impossible task when the science department was a revolving door. When security entered my classroom mid-lesson announcing, “This is a search,” I made a habit out of tuning out and staring blankly through my classroom windows as each child turned out his pockets, took off his shoes and stepped away from his belongings as though it were muscle memory. The “tough love” we were told was necessary for our students to gain acceptance into college began to look more like injustice.
I loved my students, my colleagues, and my school, so I began asking questions when I noticed policies and actions taken towards students and staff that I believed were unjust. I had been a successful chemistry teacher and department head whose classroom was a stop on every visitor’s tour, so I saw no reason for any response from leadership other than a genuine dialogue and action around how to address the problems I and a growing number of staff were noticing. I was wrong. When questioning the requirement that students’ shirt collars remain outside of their sweatshirt at all times or else face punishment, my principal told me, “Maybe Hansberry isn’t the place for you.” When a close and respected colleague began publicly asking questions about pay fairness, she was fired for being “unprofessional.” It became abundantly clear that our leadership valued compliance over critical and creative thought, and without a protected collective teacher voice, we would have no power in developing the solutions our beloved school needed. This is why I chose to help form the Union of Noble Educators.
At the end of each year, when students start asking us if we’ll be returning, I faced the difficult decision if I should sign up for another year. My students needed me as a kick ass chemistry teacher and increasingly I understood they needed me for more – they needed us to fight for the just schools they deserve. After four years, when only one teacher who was present when I began in May 2013 remained in the classroom, it was time for me to move on and finally take care of everything that had fallen to the wayside over the last four years.
I stayed as long as I did because I found the fight within my classroom to deliver the best chemistry education possible just as important as the fight within the network to give educators the collective power of a union. The power to exercise our collective wisdom without fear would have the ability to transform not only schools but our network, the city of Chicago, and the national dialogue surrounding education. Our kids are counting on their teachers, including myself from afar, to continue this fight.