Letter to teachers

Here’s what outgoing union chief Karen Lewis told Chicago teachers this morning

PHOTO: Anthony Souffle/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images
Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis in 2016

Retiring Chicago Teachers Union chief Karen Lewis, who has been fighting brain cancer, sent a note to Chicago teachers this morning urging them to support former Vice President Jesse Sharkey as her replacement and endorsing CTU Political Director Stacy Davis Gates for the position of vice-president.

“Our enemies are banking on this transition in CTU leadership to confuse, conflate and co-opt our union,” she wrote. “Do not let them.”

It’s a fraught time for the powerful Chicago teachers’ union, which is entering its first round of contract negotiations in the post-Janus era. As a result of the ruling, school districts can no longer require their employees to pay negotiating fees to the unions that bargain on their behalf. Observers predict a decline in union membership and dues, which would limit the unions’ political power.

The union also has been facing a budget deficit and pressure to afford rent payments on both a new building on the Near West Side and its previous space, which it has not been able to sublet.

Lewis urged membership to continue to channel their energy into “a collective power,” going into negotiations. The contract isn’t up until June of next year, but the leadership hopes to put pressure on Mayor Rahm Emanuel in advance of the mayoral election in February.

“CPS may always be a hot mess,” Lewis wrote, “but with our due diligence, creativity, expertise and insights we can one day make this the strongest school district in the nation.”

Read Lewis’s full letter to teachers below.

Sisters and Brothers,

This week begins the new school year. May you each find success and new energy as you return to your classrooms and the profession you love.

As our new year begins, it is a time for us to renew our commitment to fighting for the schools our students and teachers deserve. Let us return to our Chicago Public Schools (CPS) classrooms with a renewed strength, laser focus and open hearts as we welcome our colleagues and students in this new season of growth and change.

As you know, I recently retired from CPS and therefore have resigned from my position as president of the Chicago Teachers Union. It has been a tremendous honor and privilege to serve in a leadership capacity and to join each of you on the battlefield for justice and equity in public education.

The decision to end my tenure was one that weighed heavily upon me and was done in consultation with my husband, family, friends and colleagues. Since taking office in 2010, this has been a constant fight against powerful forces and their myriad of allies that seek to destroy collective bargaining and rob our children of their futures. Yet, as great of an enemy as this system has been, I had no way of knowing that all of this was preparing me for the biggest foe of them all.

Yet, I am not afraid.

With any fight, clear vision and bravery are prerequisites of struggle. While I continue to restore my health, I encourage each of you to channel your energy into a collective power that moves our union forward and guarantees the wins we’ve secured—and the campaigns we have started will continue until every child has every resource needed to be successful.

In my fight against brain cancer, I am reminded through my faith that when storms come, the brave do not jump overboard. They do not abandon ship, nor do they panic. Even if the captain is down and storm clouds are gathering, the rest of the crew must steer the ship on its charted course.

As you enter your building, remember: We have a contract fight on our hands—and the racist, misogynistic, homophobic and elitist voices remain strong. Our enemies are banking on this transition in CTU leadership to confuse, conflate and co-opt our union. Do not let them.

Transitions are not meant to be easy. Change never is. However, I have worked side-by-side with Vice President Jesse Sharkey, who has assumed my responsibilities as president as laid out in the CTU Constitution, beginning when I was first diagnosed in 2014. Under his consistent leadership, the CTU will remain a focused, fighting union that protects the interests of its members and those we serve.

Any presidency can only be as strong as the rest of its leadership team. Continuity is important. That is why officers Michael Brunson and Maria Moreno remain valuable in their current roles of recording secretary and financial secretary in this administration. As Jesse’s role as president is formalized, the vice presidency now becomes vacant, and it is my hope that members will value the addition of CTU Political Director Stacy Davis Gates in that role.

Through our organizing, legislative and political efforts, the CTU has restored the pension levy, stopped the spread of non-unionized charter operations, and launched political campaigns that have sent educators Sue Garza, Brandon Johnson and Aaron Ortiz to public office. The CTU worked to reduce CPS’s gaping budget deficit, won back hundreds of millions of dollars from the mayor’s TIF slush fund, and fought off mismanagement and bank deals, charter companies and corruption. We successfully negotiated more than $10 MILLION for sustainable neighborhood public schools. Our political, organizing and communications model has been adopted by other labor organizations across the nation.

Even with these significant wins, there is still much more work to do. Let us channel our victories into renewed campaigns to ensure our careers are not threatened and that Chicago has an elected, representative school board.

Wages, benefits, and safe and collaborative working conditions are important to all of us and central to every contract campaign. But in a city rife with unemployment, poverty, and violence, so is ensuring that every student has access to a librarian, counselor, social worker, nurse, special education professional and the support services they need.

As I focus my attention on this next chapter of my life, I want each of you to remember that the detractors, naysayers and union busters will come. They will seek to take advantage of this moment in order to entice you to act against your own self-interests. However, if their offer does not make us stronger, if it doesn’t unite us, and doesn’t move our cause forward, then we must turn a blind eye to their schemes and keep our eyes on the prize.

CPS may always be a hot mess, but with our due diligence, creativity, expertise and insights we can one day make this the strongest school district in the nation.

Every teacher, paraprofessional and clinician who wears CTU red understands what this is about. Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes said it best when he challenged us in a work he entitled, “Democracy,” in which he states:

Democracy will not come
Today, this year
Nor ever
Through compromise and fear.

Thank you all for your well-wishes, thoughts, and prayers. I love you all and I will see you soon.

Karen GJ Lewis, NBCT (Retired)
CTU President Emeritas

Top teacher

Franklin educator is Tennessee’s 2018-19 Teacher of the Year

Melissa Miller leads her students in a learning game at Franklin Elementary School in Franklin Special School District in Williamson County. Miller is Tennessee's 2018-19 Teacher of the Year.

A first-grade teacher in Franklin is Tennessee’s Teacher of the Year.

Melissa Miller

Melissa Miller, who works at Franklin Elementary School, received the 2018-19 honor for excellence in the classroom Thursday evening during a banquet in Nashville.

A teacher for 19 years, she is National Board Certified, serves as a team leader and mentor at her school, and trains her colleagues on curriculum and technology in Franklin’s city school district in Williamson County, just south of Nashville. She will represent Tennessee in national competition and serve on several working groups with the state education department.

Miller was one of nine finalists statewide for the award, which has been presented to a Tennessee public school teacher most every year since 1960 as a way to promote respect and appreciation for the profession. The finalists were chosen based on scoring from a panel of educators; three regional winners were narrowed down following interviews.

In addition to Miller, who also won in Middle Tennessee, the state recognized Lori Farley, a media specialist at North City Elementary School in Athens City Schools, in East Tennessee. Michael Robinson, a high school social studies teacher at Houston High School in Germantown Municipal School District, was this year’s top teacher in West Tennessee.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen praised the finalists for leading their students to impressive academic gains and growth. She noted that “teachers are the single most important factor in improving students’ achievement.”

Last year’s statewide winner was Cicely Woodard, an eighth-grade math teacher in Nashville who has since moved to a middle school in the same Franklin district as Miller.

You can learn more about Tennessee’s Teacher of the Year program here.


Have you thought about teaching? Colorado teachers union sells the profession in new videos

PHOTO: Colorado Education Association

There are a lot of factors contributing to a shortage of teachers in Colorado and around the nation. One of them — with potentially long-term consequences — is that far fewer people are enrolling in or graduating from teacher preparation programs. A recent poll found that more than half of respondents, citing low pay and lack of respect, would not want their children to become teachers.

Earlier this year, one middle school teacher told Chalkbeat the state should invest in public service announcements to promote the profession.

“We could use some resources in Colorado to highlight how attractive teaching is, for the intangibles,” said Mary Hulac, who teaches English in the Greeley-Evans district. “I tell my students every day, this is the best job.

“You learn every day as a teacher. I’m a language arts teacher. When we talk about themes, and I hear a story through another student’s perspective, it’s always exciting and new.”

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, has brought some resources to help get that message out with a series of videos aimed at “up-and-coming professionals deciding on a career.” A spokesman declined to say how much the union was putting into the ad buy.

The theme of the ads is: “Change a life. Change the world.”

“Nowhere but in the education profession can a person have such a profound impact on the lives of students,” association President Amie Baca-Oehlert said in a press release. “We want to show that teaching is a wonderful and noble profession.”

As the union notes, “Opportunities to teach in Colorado are abundant.”

One of the ads features 2018 Colorado Teacher of the Year Christina Randle.

“Are you ready to be a positive role model for kids and have a direct impact on the future?” Randle asks.

Another features an education student who was inspired by her own teachers and a 20-year veteran talking about how much she loves her job.

How would you sell the teaching profession to someone considering their career options? Let us know at co.tips@chalkbeat.org.