At the end of the day on the second day of school, September 5, one of my students, Veronica, pulled my arm down so she could whisper something in my ear. She told me, "Mr. Sajous-Brady, you're the best third-grade teacher in Illinois." As someone who has spent over 17 years in classrooms—with the last 12-plus being in a neighborhood Chicago Public School—I've been able to recognize and deeply appreciate the honor that comes with this sort of praise from 8-year-olds.
Chicago Public School teachers made, as Mayor Emanuel puts it, a difficult "choice" to suspend classroom instruction for Veronica and her schoolmates in order to provide to the greater public a "hands-on" lesson on democratic practice and constitutional rights. The decision was difficult for many reasons, but especially because we value the work that we do, and know that our work is sometimes misunderstood and misrepresented by those who have never seen what we do firsthand.
I didn't always understand what working in a public school is like, either. I began my teaching career in a private school—the kind of school where Mayor Emanuel and President Obama send their children, and where Secretary of Education Duncan attended as a young student. These schools were founded and/or influenced by many of the great minds of our times, including John Dewey, whose notions included instilling democratic principles in students, providing students with opportunities to actively engage in educative processes, and expecting community members to be responsible for and responsive to the greatest needs of the community.
Like most teachers, I wanted to learn as much as I could about schools and teaching practice, so I spent time over vacations and breaks learning about and visiting other schools. After reading Deborah Meier’s The Power of Their Ideas, I was so moved by her arguments about the need to prioritize public education that I decided to leave the relative comfort of the private school I’d been teaching in and take my practice public.
That meant returning to school to obtain a graduate education and teacher certification at Northwestern University—and a $30,000 loan obligation, but that's a story for another time. As is the case in many schools of education, there’s a core belief in Northwestern's program that an effort to properly educate every child must be made. That allowed me to engage in significant conversations with a wide range of folks deeply committed to bettering educational outcomes for all students. Still, even with all that preparation, I didn't fully know what I was getting into as a full-time public school teacher.
In my 12-plus years teaching in CPS, I have been moved to tears many times, both because of the joy of seeing students succeed and the misery of aimless district bureaucracy. I've worked with folks to figuratively untie complicated knots of misguided and poorly thought out Board of Education policies just as patiently as I've untied first-graders' knots out on the playground. The first-graders smile and say "thank you," for what it’s worth.
I've come to know dozens of colleagues and hundreds of students and parents. I have a deep love for these folks. When I've walked the picket lines and canvassed neighborhoods, I've done it for them. I work with the best band teacher in the universe, the best music teacher, the best art teacher, the best French teachers, the best librarian, a tremendous physical education teacher, superb special education teachers, and too many great classroom teachers to name. They all support my work and keep me motivated to be the best teacher I can. Indeed, a student thinks I'm the best third-grade teacher in Illinois because of the efforts of those educators to make it the “jewel” that CPS’ CEO Jean-Claude Brizard calls it.
At a recent teachers rally I came to see something that, due to the fact that I'm teaching, I'm unable to see on a regular basis: Great teachers don't exist in small pockets in random places. Those teachers who were out there striking did so because there are Veronicas—children who think the world of their teachers because they know what their teachers provide them— at their schools, too. That's really the only standard that interests most teachers, a higher standard than any test or evaluation could measure.
Geography class image from Shutterstock