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Sunday, September 15, 2019

For a Chicago Teacher: Look What They Done To My Song Ma

This past July in Chicago, a group of Connecticut teachers had lunch with Michelle Strater Gunderson from the Chicago Teachers Union. She has been teaching in Chicago for over 30 years, she has been fighting the good fight for children, Chicago public schools, communities, and her fellow teachers for at least that long.  She talked about school budget cuts so severe that essential services for school children are often lacking in local schools. Children who go to schools without a school nurse. She told us the city constantly asks schools and teachers to do more with less. She spoke about decades-old disrespect for children, parents, teachers, and local communities. What Michelle described in my opinion children being abandoned by administrations that put the welfare of the rich, the powerful and the connected before Chicago's public schools. 

She recently wrote on Facebook: "I have been so discouraged by the incredible disrespect shown to educators by our district in negotiations. We are going to have to fight for every inch of the ground of teacher autonomy and the ability to make professional decisions. This means STRIKE in my book. Be clear about this, Chicago." 

I have known these Chicago teachers for well over a decade. Special Education Teachers like Katie Osgood who has consistently stood up for the students she teaches. Even in the face of retaliation by the Chicago Board of Education. I have followed their struggle, been inspired by their struggle, and reminded that we teachers need to fight for our students in and out of the classroom.

Those words about respect and fighting for teaching autonomy from Michelle are the same words of every Chicago teacher. The same words that every teacher in the nation is saying. 12 teacher strikes and counting. Now imagine teachers having to fight for nurses, Smaller Class Sizes, Para-Professionals, Music, Art, Play, Gym, Project-Based learning, Student-Centered Teaching, Real Reading, and Real Writing. Then imagine our nation's leaders fighting against all those things. This is the state of education reform in America. A brutal assault on our poorest children, their schools, and their teachers by reformers who have little or no actual working experience in public schools.

I call teachers like Michelle Old School Teachers, I use the term with the highest respect. I consider myself one of these Old School Teachers. Old School Teachers who came into this profession on a mission to do good for children. Teachers whose children are not data points, who bring humanity into our classrooms. Teachers leading with love, hope, and joy.

These Old School Teachers have high expectations. Expectations that have always been higher than some test score. We understand that the children we teach are growing up in a world unlike ours. This is not a new concept for Old School Teachers. We teach children who will need to change careers multiple times. This changing career path means multiple retraining and reeducation events in the future lives of the children we teach. Standards and standardized assessments are written for static knowledge bases. They can't look forward, because they can't stop looking back. They seldom prepare children for what really happens after they leave our public schools. Our expectations seek to move children to a place where learning is interesting, meaningful and joyful. We seek learners who love to learn. We Old School Teachers work on turning learning into life long journeys.

The fight 30 years ago was for professional respect, for greater humanity in our classrooms, and for the right to teach. We called out inequity then, and we are still calling it out today. Now, these reformers have come along chanting equity is every child taking the same test, every child measured by the same standards, and school choice without equity. We Old School Teachers were not silent 30 years ago, and we will not be silent today.

There was a song popular decades ago by Melanie Safka “Look What They've Done To My Song Ma”. It pops into my head every time I hear one every time these so-called Education Reformers, Policymakers, and legislators start selling School Choice without equity, new standards, and high stakes testing. I am an old school teacher. We Old School Teachers spend our days and nights trying to turn boring curriculum into meaningful invitations to learning. We find ourselves being told where is your data, show us your data walls. What do the test scores indicate? What does their data tell us?
We find ourselves saying the test scores do not tell us a thing, except that our children are bored, confused, and suffering. Old School Teachers see children, not test scores. We Old School Teachers are finding ourselves wondering when did they turn our public schools in Black, Brown, and Poor communities into testing factories?

“Look what they've done to my song, Ma
Look what they've done to my song
Well, it's the only thing I could do half right
And it's turning out all wrong, Ma
Look what they've done to my song.”

It began in the 1990's private sector entities, policymakers, and legislators formed a Neoliberal alliance intent on dominating public education from birth to university. Every child, every teacher, every parent, every local public school became human capital. The Public good, became the right to turn people into commodities to be manipulated by power brokers far removed from our classrooms, public schools, and communities.

They turned our children into data points, education reform lobbyists targeting our legislators with large and steady political campaign contributions. Legislators who appointed Neo-Liberal allies who in turn would come to dominate public education policies.
An alliance that views children and teachers as human capital. Policies claiming competition would bring equity and justice to Black, Brown, Poor and Special Education children. Then they sold these policies to mainstream media and the public. The Main Stream Media who enriched themselves with the advertising dollars of these new human capital monetizers.  They drank that money train Kool-Aide. And the public believing their leadership knew better drank the Kool-Aide well. Like Judas, these legislators, policy makers, and media personalities took that silver, and their hands are still asking for more. An alliance not vested in the public good, but vested in turning the public into their profits. Wall Street Bankers dance, and our children suffer.

Leadership in our Nation’s Capital, our State Houses, Town Halls, and State Departments of Education were twisted and sold to the point that citizens no longer can distinguish the difference between lobbyists, the media and leadership. 

Robertson (2008) gave us a clear description of the imbrication of the private within the public:

“The national state is also deeply implicated in advancing a reconstruction of the public-private divide, including an expansion of the private domain. This transformation has been fueled by three processes. First, since the early 1980s, we have witnessed an expansion of the private domain as a result of the absorption of state authorities and through the formation of new kinds of private authority. Second, we can observe the formation of new kinds of public-private arrangements that blur the public-private divide.... Third, we can see a change in the character of the private interests that insert themselves into public policymaking, and thereby shape critical components of the content of the public domain. (p. 291). “

Robinson sees a change, Old Teachers see a sell-out of the public good, of our children, and our local public schools. Old School Teachers were too busy trying to do right for the children they were teaching in the midst of an education reform movement that sort to monetize children, teachers, and local schools. I want to put these profiteers on notice, we Old School Teachers are WOKE!

Michelle Strater Gunderson likes to play her guitar, like Pete Seeger she sings the songs that matter. I love hearing her sing those old union songs, those old Pete Seeger tunes. I can almost hear her singing:

“Look what they've done to my brain, Ma
Look what they've done to my brain
Yeah, they picked it like a chicken bone
And they think I'm half insane, Ma
Look what they've done to my song”

Old school Teachers, will not sing this new song of our children are profits.
No, we are digging in, fighting back, and most of all we are defending our children, our local public schools, fellow teachers, and the communities we teach in. 
If you want to know where to find the best of our Old School Teachers, go to Chicago. 
This one is for Michelle, Katy, and all my Rank and File Sisters and Brothers. I stand with the Chicago Teachers Union in the fight to save our children, our schools, and profession.
Your Old School Teacher Brother,
Jesse The Walking Man Turner 

If you like to hear the song that inspired my morning walk its Miley Cirus singing the cover of "Look What They've done To My Song Ma" 

Couldn't resist adding Rebel Diaz's Chicago Teacher for all our New School Teachers 



  1. Solidarity with Michelle and the CTU! Another Old School Teacher here from Ohio - we're fighting the same battles for recess, play, teacher and community input in educational policy, basic services to support our kids' needs, teacher classroom autonomy, de-emphasis on standardized curriculum and testing. Thanks for your terrific blog!