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Clash in session

As the possibility of a strike looms, RedEye talks to educators about what it's like to work in Chicago

  • From left: Kyle Schulte, Mike Ryan, Mayra Almaraz-DeSantiago (center, with husband and son) and Leanee Brown
From left: Kyle Schulte, Mike Ryan, Mayra Almaraz-DeSantiago (center,…
September 05, 2012|By Leonor Vivanco, @lvivanco | RedEye

Forget "saved by the bell." The work day for some Chicago Public Schools teachers begins before class is in session and ends long after students are dismissed.

It's common for teachers to prepare the classroom before school starts and spend time after school tutoring students, running clubs or coaching sports. Many are known to grade papers and work on lesson plans at night and on weekends. Others willingly spend their own money on classroom materials or prizes to reward students.

The job of a teacher is under the microscope this week as educators gear up to strike over their contracts after months of negotiations between the Chicago Teachers Union and Chicago Public Schools. The union has set Monday as the walk-out date. It would be the first teacher strike in Chicago in 25 years. (The 1987 strike lasted 19 days.)

More than 26,000 teachers, counselors, teacher assistants and school clerks in the nation's third-largest school district could walk out unless an agreement is reached, disrupting classes for about 403,000 students. Many teachers have been saving money over the past few months because they won't get paid for the days they strike.

The union and the school district have been negotiating a new contract since November. They have been able to hammer out some issues but are at an impasse on others such as pay raises, job security and class size. The average CPS teacher salary is $71,000. The annual starting salary is about $50,000.

The strike looms after both sides agreed to make the school day longer—an initiative pushed by Mayor Emanuel. High schoolers will have 7 1/2-hour days and elementary students will have 7-hour days. As part of the deal, the two sides agreed to hire teachers who had been laid off to cover the extra time.

Given the possibility of a strike, RedEye talked to elementary and high school teachers in various neighborhoods about the jobs at the center of the labor dispute. Some said they chose the career because they were inspired by their own teachers. Others wanted to make a difference. Still others just have it in their blood. Here are their stories.

Kyle Schulte, 27, Lincoln Park

Physical education teacher and athletic director at Gunsaulus Elementary Scholastic Academy in Brighton Park; fourth year as a teacher

"The biggest perception as a P.E. teacher is it's the easiest job in the world. All you do is play," Kyle Schulte said.

Sure, he wants the kids to have fun, but his hour-long class is not like recess. He teaches students team building and good sportsmanship skills as well as sports terminology and history.

He arrives at school 45 minutes early to set up the gym before the 8:15 a.m. start. After school, he runs a 2-hour wellness program for students twice a week. In the winter, he stays until 5 p.m. coaching basketball and until 7 p.m. for games. In the spring, he holds an hour-long parent fitness class three times a week.

Aside from teaching, he also has to deal with student disruption.

"I had a student hit me before – a third grader – and a student told me to F-off," Schulte said. "You just kind of got to roll with it and handle the situation appropriately and not overreact and talk to them and see why they're doing that."

With the possibility of a strike, he is worried about missing a paycheck at a time when he's deciding to move apartments and paying off his car and student loans.

"It's affecting the students. It's affecting everybody. It'd be nice to work together and get this done," he said about a new contract.

Mike Ryan, 30, Uptown

Music teacher at Greene Elementary School in McKinley Park; fifth year as a teacher

Mike Ryan ended up in the family business. His dad is a high school theater teacher and his mom, a private piano teacher. He returned to the classroom last month after taking two years to get his master's degree in music education.

"I've worked in an office where I had a 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. schedule and I feel like I do a lot more work in my normal school day than I ever did when I was working in the office," said Ryan, a national board certified teacher, a professional distinction.

He teaches students in five hour-long music classes a day and stays after school for one hour twice a week for choir practice. With the longer school day, he gets a 45-minute lunch break that allows him to recharge a bit before he resumes teaching.

Though it would be a financial hardship for Ryan, he will strike, he says, so that children can get the education they deserve.

"When I think about my job, I know that what I do makes a difference. I never wonder whether or not the hard work that I put in is worth it," Ryan said. "Any good teacher has a connection to his or her students. We really care about the students. We're there for them and what they represent: the future of our society."

Mayra Almaraz-DeSantiago, 32, Norwood Park

Latin American history, ethnic studies and world studies teacher at Taft High School in Norwood Park; 10th year as a teacher

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