The Chicago Teacher Strike is Also About the Future

Teacher and Professor of Education Emery Petchauer explains how he came to understand the necessity of teachers union strikes.

In every position I’ve held as an educator—from high school English teacher to college professor—the faculty went through contract negotiations and threatened to strike. In each of these positions, I must admit that I’ve been more or less ambivalent about the process. I could see the relevance of the issues to me, but I had difficulty seeing the immediate relevance.

The difference between a 2% raise and a 4% raise was negligible. I was going to work regardless, and income never factored into my professional decisions anyway. And as healthy person with no dependents who often goes years—thankfully—without having to visit a doctor, micro changes in health benefits were of little concern to me. And like many educators, I plan to retire when I hit the grave, so slight changes to benefits packages did not move me. Perhaps due to selfishness and a naïve tendency to focus on the immediate rather than the long term, I seldom saw the core issues of contract negotiations as that pressing for me. Plus, I’d rather be with my kids than with other adults talking or marching. I became an educator to educate.

Photo by Matt Johnson

Additionally, my ambivalence was fueled by seeing that some of the most vocal teachers (though not all) were also the worst teachers. It seemed that the people who yelled the loudest about a “fair” contract took little effort to use this fair contract to become better teachers. Without a doubt, some of the most effective teachers around me also believed strongly in having a fair contract, but the hypocrisy of the few was not lost on me.

Broader than the issues or who was fighting for them, I also wasn’t raised in a union family or community. My parents were self-employed and owned their own business. While this created a different set of issues for them, it was the most familiar model of employment to me, thus I lacked the ability to see how unique it was to make the types of decisions that people make when they control their own labor.

Despite my ambivalence and lack of understanding, as a union member, I paid my monetary dues, went to our meetings, and joined the other members when we picketed before school as a last measure before a possible strike. I couldn’t internalize the importance of collective labor, unionizing, and contract negotiations until I saw beyond the immediate and realized it wasn’t about me.

I couldn’t internalize the importance of collective labor, unionizing, and contract negotiations until I saw beyond the immediate and realized it wasn’t about me.

Photo by Matt Johnson

As a teacher educator (educating teachers of the future), I have the privilege of walking with people through induction and early stages of their careers. I get to see the micro decisions and weighing of options, and I get to see what ultimately drives people out of the classroom and what causes they to change their minds. Time and time again, I’ve seen teacher evaluation systems based upon students’ standardized test scores, the regular firing of teachers every summer (aka Pink Slip Summer) only to hire them back before the fall, and mandated curricula that dumbs down students causing teachers to walk away from the calling they so strongly felt. When teachers fight these movements in education and argue for better ones—including better pay—they not just fighting for themselves. They are creating a profession that will attract, preserve, and protect teachers in the future. It’s not always about the present; sometimes is about the future we can help create.

When I finally realized that we weren’t only working for our own benefit but for the benefit of future teachers, I saw the importance of raw contract negotiations and even a strike. When people see thousands of Chicago Public School teachers organizing in the streets, it is all too easy (and incorrect) to assume that they are fighting for only themselves. If we want teaching to be a profession that is attractive to the “best and brightest” and a viable long term career (not one that is used as a 2-year stepping-stone to another career), we have to take-up the fight today. This is precisely what teachers in Chicago are doing.


Emery Petchauer (@EmeryPetchauer) is an Assistant Professor of Teacher Development and Educational Studies at Oakland University. He is also a former high school English teacher.

Also read Jamie Utt’s The Chicago Teacher Strike is NOT About Teacher Salaries 

All photos courtesy of Mathias Johnson Photography


Photo by Matt Johnson

About Emery Petchauer

Dr. Emery Petchauer is assistant professor of teacher development and educational studies at Oakland University. He is the author of Hip-Hop Culture in College Students’ Lives: Elements, Embodiment and Higher Edutainment”. (Routledge)


  1. The Wet One says:

    I’m always amazed by the educational system in the states. I understand that teachers make crap money in the U.S. In my country, teachers are professionals that get a fair amount of respect and a solid middle class salary (70 – 90K).

    I have found, by comparing the funding of schools in the states (which plays directly into the issue of teacher strikes and so on) and how it is done in my country (which I understand is consistent with how education is carried out in the rest of the first world), the purpose of the U.S. educational system is something other than educating Americans.

    It’s very very interesting, but you have to look at it and think about it. You also must have the comparisons (and an open mind) to properly understand how weird and arguably counterproductive the U.S. educational system is.

    In my view, if you answered in the affirmative to the question “Is the purpose of the U.S. education system to educate Americans?”, you haven’t really looked at the system and what purposes it serves.

    The Wet One

  2. It should be noted that more then 30% of these teachers don’t sent their own kids to public schools .. what does that tell ya?

  3. If teachers want to create a profession that will attract capable teachers, why don’t they support pay-for-performance?

    I want to agree with the things you say, but every time I hear that the teacher’s union does not support pay-for-performance it’s impossible for me to take their “beliefs” seriously.

    I want capable teachers to be paid 6 figures. I want raises to be based on teacher ability, no seniority. I want to see teachers get bonuses when they improve upon their past records. I want this to be paid for by the termination of teachers who would be better off in another profession.

    There is simply no excuse for public school teachers, who genuinely want to see students succeed, to support a system that rewards “years served” instead of a job well done. Until such time as the teachers unions change their tunes on this issue, they will sound incredibly hypocritical.

    • Joanna Schroeder says:

      So should Emery be paid less if he enters a school district where children are often not fed breakfast, are absent more than 35 days of a year, have a higher rate of learning issues due to nutrition or fetal issues like drug addiction, and little to no support for homework or reading in the home than someone who enters the elementary schools in Beverly Hills or Greenwich, CT where education is primary to nearly every family and food scarcity is basically unheard of?

      Ridiculous. Utterly ridiculous. beyond that, read Jamie Utt’s article linked at the bottom. Research says Merit Pay doesn’t work.

      Schools need a LOT of changes, yes. And in some cases Teachers Unions keep lazy and even incompetent teachers on payroll when they should be fired. Reforms need to be made. These are very real issues. But those issues don’t make “merit pay” more viable or effective or make the unions less important.

      • “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

        The union is fighting to ensure that nothing changes. Fighting to ensure that Chicago school children will continue to fail.

      • Joanna,

        You are employing a straw man argument by assuming that merit pay couldn’t control for all of those factors. This is false, there are many forms of merit based pay that can control for all of that. If the teachers’ unions would like to put forward their own version of merit based pay, I’d love to hear it. Unforuntately, they’re against the very principle, and so we’ll never see them put forward a proposal.

        Furthermore, the studies that “disprove” merit pay in public schools have looked at poorly designed programs, most of which are deeply hindered by teachers unions. When a comparison is made between public and private schools, it is clear that merit based pay has a strong positive effect (source: ).

        Private schools in Europe and the US have used merit based pay to great effect for decades, that’s all the proof we need.

        • Mike L

          Private schools just seem to work so much better. If i ever have kids they are going to be homeschooled or going to a private school. I’m all for education choice.

          I’ve also heard that some private schools do not require degrees. They take the most competent ones instead of the ones who can withstand the most college. This is a good way to get more men teaching positions.

          I know many public school teachers are great. I know sometimes its their mob bosses errr union bosses that are the problem. However this strike shows whats wrong with public education-when it fails it gets more money. How many industries (not aligned with government) would get more money with a 50-55% success rate? If I had a business with that kind of success rate it would probably fail.

          I dont have a problem with unions in general, but teachers union kind of leave a nasty taste in my mouth. They are supposed to be going to bat for the kids, but they are doing it for themselves (once again this is not all of them). For example, they want raises and even more benefits. This is a time when so many people in other industries are taking paycuts and losing benefits, but for some reason they want MORE. Even Jay Leno took a pay cut… Then the next moment talk about how there aren’t any art teachers *for the kids.* How about taking a paycut or forego raises so the city can hire more art teachers *for the kids*? Seriously, who are these people?

      • Pay for performance can be defined in myriad ways but basically you baseline (define the start point) and then measure at milestones. The improvement from baseline to milestone is the determinator of success.

        Someone teaching in a disadvantaged district would have a far lower baseline and a much greater potential for improvement than the teacher in Beverly Hills. This can be seen as an incredible opportunity for someone willing to take the risks and bet on their abilities. More risk averse teachers would be attracted to the “Beverly Hills” type districts.

        Doesn’t sound so ridiculous to me.

      • This is related to the problem with ‘charter schools’ and indirectly to the housing crisis, where so many millions of parents bought houses they couldn’t afford to get into neighborhoods with “better schools.”

        Charter schools are both an acknowledgement of the problem and a surrender to it: the notion that some schools are just going to be “superior” to all other local schools, and if you can’t get your kid into one, he deserves to fail.

        The goal of making ALL schools high quality is no longer being discussed anywhere… except among teachers, who recognize that education is not a marketplace and parents shouldn’t have to ‘shop around’ to ensure a quality education for their child.

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