“Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish; and you have fed him for a lifetime.” --Chinese Proverb
Today is our new mayor’s first day in office. The Daley Dynasty has ended and a new era has begun in Chicago. Rahm Emanuel will inherit the problems of several generations and a boat-load of debt from his predecessor, and I, along with millions of other Chicagoans, am hopeful for new solutions. As a former journalist-turned-teacher of high school English, thrust into a job market that deserves a requiem, I have an initial question for our new leader: Mr. Emanuel, did you become the man you are today because your schools provided you with a good breakfast?
Let me elaborate. My daughter is just about finished with her first year in a Chicago Public School as a kindergartener. Last week, she was sent home with a note asking us not to give her breakfast that Thursday morning because, through a new, philanthropic CPS-wide program, the school would be providing a free breakfast for the children of her elementary school each morning, all 1,500 of them. Wow, I thought. Isn’t that nice? Not only are we in the education business, but we are now in the soup kitchen business. Now, I’m not opposed to helping out kids who need a good breakfast per se—I’ve heard stories of kids taking crackers and ketchup for lunch every day because they are not able to bring or purchase a lunch. It’s doubtful that these same kids had any breakfast at all, which undoubtedly impairs their ability to focus and learn while in school. Since my daughter’s school has a high percentage of low income families, it seems like the right thing to do, on one hand.
On the other, throughout my training and teaching experience at many of the schools in Chicago and the Chicago area, I’ve spoken to and read about teachers who complain of not having enough textbooks for their students or paper and pencils for students who could not afford to bring them themselves. Some of these same schools have primitive or no technology available for their students and, without any means of writing, how is an English teacher supposed to teach it? Approaching school administrators to solve these problems has been moot for many classroom teachers because the problem remains—the funding just isn’t there. Huh. I may not be a math teacher, but this formula just doesn’t seem to add up. And then there’s the problem of classroom sizes in Chicago and more teachers being laid off every year because of lack of funding.
With ten years of college education (both degrees earned magna and suma cum laude), a background as a journalist, and several years of experience teaching high school English and English as a new language, I have been unable to secure a full-time position during the school year since changing careers in 2009. Classroom sizes in Chicago Public Schools have grown from around 22 to 30 students per class (and larger, “temporarily”) for one teacher, with no aide required. The more children you place in a classroom with one teacher, the less individualized attention those students get during the year, and that’s an inevitable fact. Individualized attention, or a “differentiated” classroom, the educational catch-phrase of the year, is what can make or break that student that may be having a hard time with the material, issues at home, or the school experience in general. It can mean the difference between graduate and drop-out.
So let me pose my question again, Mr. Mayor. If funding for CPS is our biggest issue, and we face higher drop-out rates every year in Chicago, are we in the soup kitchen business, or the education business here? Is breakfast really the answer for students with no teachers? Is cold cereal a solution for literacy students with no textbooks or writing supplies? When funds are scarce, is free food in the morning higher on our priority list than teachers in the business of education? If that sort of prioritization is what makes an educational system successful, I’m glad you’re here Mr. Emanuel, because I could use someone to educate me.