Middle School Teacher, Professor, Author
“I would always say, ‘One day I might give it another go.”
He began his teaching career in 1990 at Seward Communication Arts Academy in the Back of the Yards neighborhood where the student population is about 97-98% Mexican immigrant. He taught media literacy. In 1999, he left classroom teaching to pursue his Ph.D. During that time, he wrote Holler if You Hear Me, See You When We Get There and We Don’t Need Another Hero, and co-edited City Kids, City Schools.
In 2012, he decided to pursue a path he had long contemplated: a return to Seward. We talk in his classroom, just down the hall from his original room. He is teaching media literacy, again. Behind him is a poster that reads, “Undocumented and Unafraid.” The Chicago Teachers Union strike has just ended the previous week. Greg’s On Strike picket sign is leaned against the wall.
Greg talks about why he returned to classroom teaching and what it was like to come back at the time of Chicago Teachers Union strike of 2012.
I visited the school at the end of last year and told a friend who I used to teach with that I was thinking about coming back. And he kind of looked at me like, Why? [Laughs] Why would you do that? When I got my PhD, my plan was not to go teach at the college and university level. But gradually over time, I kind of got drawn to that. I’ve enjoyed it, I’m glad I did it, but from the beginning, when people would ask if I thought I might go back to teaching, I would always say, “One day I might give it another go.” And I meant it every time. But the more time that elapsed, it seemed like the harder it was going to be.
Having a university faculty position… there are so many benefits in terms of a flexible schedule and creating your own work hours and having a lot of control over your working conditions. I was weighing a million things: Wow, I have five step kids; am I going to be able to get to the train to pick up the girls from high school? If our boiler breaks, I can’t be the one who stays home and meets the repairman. I can’t work from home on Fridays, anymore. These seem like little things, but they add up to quite a privileged life of convenience. That’s very appealing and very hard to let go of.
So that was one of the things that was holding me back. But I had a certain amount of — I guess “guilt” is not exactly the right word– but I felt like, should that really be the thing holding me back if I believe teaching is important and that that’s where a lot of the real work is happening? What’s holding me back is I’ve got a comfortable job? That shouldn’t be holding me back. Another reason I did it is a selfish thing: I really felt a challenge to see if I could still teach kids after all these years.
The same school, same community, half of the staff is the same. How different is it to teach here, now?
There are so many things that are different. I’ve only been back three weeks, and seven days of that was the strike, so it’s early yet, but it’s a whole different context. You’re coming back to a world of education and schooling that is so different from what it was in 1999. For one, this is a different generation. I couldn’t come back and teach media the same way I taught it in the 1990’s. That would be ludicrous. There weren’t cell phones, then. I was teaching kids how to hold a video camera because most of them had never held one before. Now, some of them at least, have video cameras in their pockets.
I’ve been in schools all this time, not as a teacher, but I’ve been in schools as an observer, so I’ve seen the shit that goes on. I know that accountability is the name of the game, and I know that testing has crept into every nook and cranny of school life. I know that the arts and the importance of social studies has shrunk, I know that teachers feel a lot of pressure. All these things I knew and have witnessed, but to be on this side of it, man, it’s still jarring.
Even though I felt like I got back into this knowing full well what I was getting into, and I think I had a pretty good sense of what CPS is like, there’s still, every day, just these head-shaking moments about, why are we doing this to kids and why are we allowing this to happen? That part is extremely frustrating, but I do think it’s probably too early to know exactly how I’m going to come to terms with that. And what I’m going to choose to do and how I’m going to choose to resist it. What do I go along with, what do I not go along with, how do I resist, how do I fight back? Because I guess part of what is harder, being back in this school, is I feel for my principal.
When I was just in schools visiting, observing, my relationship was mostly with the teachers. And when things seemed bad in a school, it was pretty easy to cast the school leader as part of the enemy. You know: If they had more of a backbone or if they had more creativity, they would ignore some of this stuff or they would find creative ways to get around it.
But I think my principal is trying hard to do the right thing. She’s been in this neighborhood a long time; I think she really believes in the kids and wants good things for them. She was a good teacher herself. She’s many of the things I think you would want in a principal, so it’s forced me to be more empathetic. She is in a tough spot. We do work in a top-down model. It’s always been that way to some degree, but it’s just way more intense, now. You feel directives that are coming from the mayor, from the CEO, from the network. It’s not really a discussion. It’s: Here’s what we’re doing, and we’re starting it today.
How do you see that affecting your teaching?
I find myself thinking about things I didn’t worry about before. Before, when I taught media studies–it’s called “media literacy” now–I didn’t think much about any district mandates. I thought, this class is important, kids are getting good things from it, they’re becoming more literate people. I didn’t worry about whether it was aligned with the board’s narrow vision. Once I was talking with a high-ranking CPS bureaucrat who saw some of the great video productions my students did at a video fair. She said, “It’s really impressive, all the things your kids have done, and I’m sure it’s really raising their reading scores.”
I told her, “You know what? I appreciate your kind words. But I don’t know if it’s raising their reading scores. I know it’s making them more literate people, and that’s important in its own right. We shouldn’t have to judge everything we do in school based on whether it raises the kids’ reading or math scores, should we?” Back then I just kind of said, “I’m going to do what I’m doing, because I believe in it.”
But now, I still think those things, but I already find myself second guessing more and thinking, should I be doing more written work and not as much production work? Because is that really helping the kids’ scores or the schools’ rating? I don’t know.
What is it that’s pricking your conscience, now?
What’s pricking my conscience is, how do I navigate daily life in a system that is operating in ways that I completely disagree with? How do I maintain my own integrity and values and beliefs as an educator within a system where I’m having to fight against what the system is representing and what it’s holding up as important? I don’t think you can fight every fight, you know? I’m not going to stand up in every faculty meeting and give a diatribe about how awful standardized testing is.
First of all, I think other teachers would find that to be extremely annoying, to have somebody who’s just come back to the school after 12 years as a professor. “Okay, you think you know everything because you’ve been a professor? Well, we’ve been here all this time, you know?” I really feel like I need to be in the role of listener too. I do think I’ve learned a lot over the last 12 years, but I haven’t been in this neighborhood and negotiating these issues on a daily basis like they have. It’s not like I’m planning to be silent and not speak up this first year, but I do see it as a respectful stance to say, I’m going to come in here and do a lot of listening and a lot of observing and get the lay of the land again and not assume I know how it is just because I have, to some extent, studied the bigger picture of education and written about it. I still have a lot to learn about this school, this community, this place.
I do hope though that some of what I’ve seen as an outsider will in some way help to chip away at this kind of behemoth of a testing machine, accountability machine, corporate schooling machine. It’s big, man. It’s overwhelming.
So a week into your first year back, after 12 years away, you’re on strike.
It was pretty galvanizing for everybody. If you were in any meetings of the teachers, whether it was here, out on the picket lines, nobody was talking about pay. They were talking about the bullshit that they’ve had to put up with for the last ten years, and the fact that they’re not treated as professionals, and the fact that their kids are going to have 26 days lost to testing this year when the mayor’s talking about a longer school year.
Well, cut half of the tests out and you’ve got your longer school year right there without adding any days. Teachers were angry about being disrespected, about their voices not being heard, and about having to abide by policies that they know are detrimental to kids and they know aren’t the best way forward. That’s what was animating people, not, “Oh, we want a 3% raise instead of a 2% raise.”
I don’t think you would’ve gotten a tenth of the number of people you got on those marches for that. But when it comes down to philosophy, what do we believe, what does it mean to be a teacher? I’ve never seen that kind of solidarity. I never remember feeling as much unity of purpose among teachers who don’t even necessarily have the exact same philosophy or style of teaching, but I think what we’re all clear on is: This is enough! We’ve got to speak up. I think for teachers from all over the city to see that coalescing of spirit saying, We’re together. Man, that felt great. It was beautiful.
I had felt early on in my teaching career that the unions’ goals were too narrow, that it was too much about money and benefits. Those things were important. But I thought, Hey, this is a collective group that should be speaking up about some of the really important issues. Of course pay, working conditions, insurance are important. But the union should have had a larger voice on some of the things that matter.
I really think that this union leadership has just been phenomenal at that. They changed the conversation. I mean, they really did. These conversations had been happening, but they weren’t happening in the mainstream. And they are now. That’s a huge, huge victory.
What would you say is the Goliath our field is up against?
Pretty obviously we’re up against a movement toward corporatizing education and privatizing education. I think that’s a huge push and some people would say the train has left the station, that it’s a done deal, we’re not turning it back. I don’t agree with that, but I think some people feel like if you’re still fighting it you’re wasting your time, that you need to get on board and figure out how you’re going to fit into this new world of education or you’re going to be shown the door pretty soon. But I think we have to keep resisting. If not, we’re in danger of losing truly public schools sooner than we think.
My slingshot is coming back and figuring out a way to not be sucked in by the way things are. To be able to create a classroom where kids’ voices are heard, where their experiences are valued and validated, where they have space to create and imagine and not just “achieve.” I hate the word achievement. I just hate it. Because, to me, it signifies such a narrow realm of what’s possible and what should be happening in schools.
I guess I’ve always felt, whether it was through my writing or teaching kids or teaching future teachers, I’ve always felt like that work is a slingshot. That what I can do is make a dent. Make an impact, even a small one. I feel like it’s very hard for one teacher to make huge, systemic changes, but I think it takes exactly what Studs’ says, “a legion of Davids.” I think that’s what was represented out in those marches. I think for a lot of teachers the strike was the first time they really saw: Wow! We do have power, and we can have a voice, and, yeah, we are in for a struggle.