My wife, Jean, won an award a week ago. It’s not your usual award for best pie at the fair, best scout leader, any of that. It carries a certain degree of controversy with it by its very nature, and she is fine with that. The award came from the Chicago Teachers Union, in which she serves as a retiree delegate, and is called the Pioneer Award. It is bestowed at the CTU’s annual LEAD dinner, which this year also attracted Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, and some members of the Illinois legislature, plus U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky. In other words, the event is politically oriented, and the award, bestowed on Jean and one other individual, Gloria Mhoon, is for retiree activists.
Jean earned the award, unknowingly, by attending numerous community meetings about school closings, and by writing about them in a teacher newspaper, Substance. She was and remains vehemently opposed to the closings, in part because they force young students in poor neighborhoods to cross gang lines to get to their new schools, and in part because she feels too much money that could have gone to neighborhood schools in the Chicago system has been devoted to charter schools, many of which have no better performance than the schools for which they are supposed to be an alternative.
Jean is retired in large part because, about three years ago, she was working under an elementary school principal who pushed her and others out the door because they did not fit easily within her vision of the school’s future. She used terms like “data-driven” to describe her vision of teaching, but studiously ignored the fact that Jean has always gotten results. Jean does it the old-fashioned way. She worked very hard at getting her students to care about learning, then helped them learn. Jean’s passion did not fit in the brave new world, which lasted only another year before the principal herself was gone. If that sounds a lot like many of the “wreck ‘em and leave” CEOs who have haunted parts of the business world, that may be no coincidence. The question is what our students gain from such management.
There is room to disagree with my wife’s specific opinions on a number of education topics, as there is with all of us, including me on other matters of public policy. But there also needs to be some respect for the power of passion to make a difference, and in the three years since leaving the Chicago Public Schools as a full-time employee, that is what Jean has chosen to do. She has stood with parents who worried about where their child was supposed to go next, who lamented the loss of educational facilities in their neighborhood, who felt that those in power were not listening. Last Friday night, October 25, 2013, that is what her fellow union members attending the LEAD dinner chose to do. In front of 2,000 attendees at Plumbers Hall that night, Jean got to see that someone had noticed—and cared.
Photo from Substance website