Education Reform

Conversations with CPS Teachers

A Chance For Conversation: Teachers

A Chance For Conversations will dive into social issues like education and bring stories alive through the first-hand perspectives of teachers, non-profit leaders and students. Today, I’m happy to share a A Chance For Conversation with a CPS bilingual 2nd grade teacher, Alex.* Alex began her teaching career in Teach For America and continues to teach her bilingual classroom after nearly 5 years.

Describe how and why you became a teacher.

“I studied politics in college and I thought I wanted to work on the Hill and affect change in that way. I ended up taking Educational Psychology and American Politics at the same time. It felt like these two discourses had separate and different approaches to education. Why is it that we are analyzing policy without context for what is happening in the classroom? Teach for America felt like the right next step to figure out if I wanted to teach or go into policy”

What were your first few years of teaching like?

“The experience as a first year teacher is different from your experience in TFA. I’m really grateful for my experience with Teach for America. After all, I’m still teaching at my placement school in a bilingual classroom.

TFA’s commitment is two years and it’s impossible to feel like a good teacher in two years. You grow an insane, exponential amount. They say you don’t really become a good teacher until your fifth year. I felt like I just getting the hang of it my second year and I wanted to continue feeling successful at it. With more experience and years in a classroom, the more full your experience feels.”

What are the nuances to teaching in a bilingual classroom?

“In most schools in Chicago, there are transitional bilingual classrooms. When students are entering preschool, kids get a home language survey. If more than 10 kids in a classroom speak Spanish at home, it has to be a transitional language classroom. Gradually, the school transitions the kids to be successful in the English-only classroom.

They do a good job about making culturally relevant curriculum but I struggle with the idea that we are transitioning these kids out of Spanish. It is the wrong discourse. It sends the wrong message.”

Working in brand strategy, it’s interesting to observe how certain professions have better ‘brand reputations’ than others. Teaching is one of the most important professions; yet, teachers don’t receive the respect they deserves. What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about teaching?

“That is a very large pet peeve of mine. This misperception about teachers and their jobs. People think that it is this cushy, easy baby-sitting job. We are there for a couple hours, we leave at three, we have summer vacations, etc.

I try to make it relatable to people. Every day, you have 45-60 minutes to prepare for a 7 hour presentation and those 45 minutes are spent talking to parents, principals, students. You are pulled in a million and one directions. Sometimes, you have to create the content from scratch. Sometimes you are doing all the data analysis in that time.

I feel particularly strong about how teachers are treated in our culture. If we want to talk about issues in education, we need to respect teachers. Teachers are doing awesome things and don’t receive recognition for it..” 

Describe how federal and local policy either inhibit or enable what you are able to do in the classroom.

“The most glaring issue is related to testing and accountability. Particularly in DC politics, when politicians and policymakers talk about holding teachers accountable with testing, they don’t realize how hurtful that language is.

In a primary grades classroom, when your reading testing is one-on-one and happens at the beginning of the year, and you are teaching a new class about the rules of the classroom, it’s virtually impossible to do that, test and still teach. There’s so much time spent on testing that I’m just starting to teach reading now and it’s the end of October. I have months of instruction that are disregarded because of testing.

There are other things that happen at the local level that our principal puts on us. We are doing this lesson on social-emotional learning not because it is best for our students, but because there is pressure from the local government. Kids can tell when curriculum is forced versus organic.”

Parent-teacher relationships are so important. How do you establish that relationship in your classroom?

“You have to approach a relationship with a parent like they are your teammate. We are working together for the success of their child. I will invite them into my room. For example, I have one parent who loves to decorate and set up a Dia de Los Muertos altar. In Latino culture, teachers are really respected and parents tell their kids to respect the teacher. That’s so wonderful and I want parents to think of me as a friend.”

I’m so grateful for the teachers that spend some of their hard-earned free time to contribute to A Chance For Conversations. Teaching is one of the most noble professions and I hope their stories resonate with you as much as they resonate with me. To protect their privacy, classrooms, schools, and names have been changed.

Conversations with CPS Teachers

As a brand strategist, I believe in the power of storytelling to inspire empathy, create change and propel action. In my work, I see a huge miss in leveraging storytelling and brand strategy  to tell the stories of the most important social. A Chance For Conversations will dive into social issues to create a community of empathy. A Chance For Conversation: Teachers focuses on the topic of public education and brings stories from inside CPS classrooms to life. Today, I’m happy to share a conversation with a CPS middle school teacher, Matt


Describe how and why you became a teacher.

“It’s been a long, winding journey. I knew I wanted to get involved when I was in high school. I grew up in Columbus and there was this stigma about sending your kids to public school. Once I went to public high school, I absolutely loved it. It was a way better fit. I was inspired by how public education could work because I had this idyllic conception of what public education was.

When I was an undergraduate, I knew I was interested in pursuing education in some way. I wasn’t so sure that I’d go into teaching. After doing ed research, government, non-profit work, I realized I was most happy when I was inside a school, inside a classroom.”

I’ve spoken to quite a few teachers about their struggle with certain local and federal policies. Has policy enabled or inhibited what you were able to accomplish in the classroom?

“We do a lot of standardized tests. With the exception of one, a lot of the tests don’t benefit teachers. Since feedback isn’t immediate and the material isn’t necessarily relevant to the teacher’s curriculum, teacher morale around these tests is really low and really negative. They add constraints to what you need to teach and how you need to teach it.”

It often seems that policymaking is a top-down approach that doesn’t capture the voice of teachers. Do you feel there is opportunity to have your voice heard in the policy arena?

It’s really difficult. There is traditionally a policy route or a teaching route. But, I believe that you can be a teacher and a policymaker at the same time. It’s just a little difficult. The actual job of teaching is pretty stressful. But if you have to have a strong desire for change, you can join unions, outside organizations, community groups to have that impact.

Much of this project was inspired by the negative narrative surrounding CPS: dismal graduation rates, gang violence, etc. rather than the things that are working. What do you think is the biggest misconception about Chicago Public Schools?

“The biggest misconception is about the type of teaching that goes on. I think the instruction is really ambitious and really good. If you go to schools on the South or West sides, you’ll see it. Unfortunately, we use metrics that don’t measure relationship building, pedagogy, social-emotional skills – things that we are doing really well.

The narrative has been too focused on the brokenness of the system, and that gets more acknowledgement than the things that are working to keep it together.”

It’s been a tumultuous year in terms of US politics, national and global issues . How are your students responding to what is happening around them?

“I clearly remember the day after the election. It was report card pick-up so we didn’t get the opportunity to talk about what happened the night before. It felt so solemn. It felt like clouds were looming over everyone. No one wanted to talk about report cards. The kids didn’t want to talk about grades. And the next day, the school advised us not to talk about it.

At my new school, I’m encouraged to talk about those issues. In our morning meetings and afternoon check-ins, students are very vocal and definitely want to talk about it. I feel that it is my responsibility to teach students how to process those feelings and emotions in productive way and direct them in a way that heals. Anger. Frustration. Confusion. How can we direct those feelings to inspire change?

One thing we take for granted is that students know what they’re talking about. That’s a big misunderstanding. They are wise and knowledgeable. They are our future. Now more than ever, it’s important to have teachers that talk about these issues with students. For that reason alone, I feel like I need to be in the classroom.”


*Name has been withheld for privacy