Striking disservice? On comparing Palestinian teachers to Chicago teachers

The Chicago Teachers Union went on strike today after negotiations with the Board of Education failed to produce a contract agreement supported by both sides.

A teachers union in the West Bank called for a two-day strike to challenge polices put in place by the Palestinian Authority.

In an earlier post on Sixteen Minutes to Palestine, I drew a comparison between these two strikes, citing what I find to be very striking similarities. But some see this comparison as a disservice to Palestinians and, in particular, Palestinian teachers who require much more than just educational reform. Although this is a very reasonable concern, I’m convinced that this is still a valuable connection to make.

First, a quick note. Teachers in the West Bank aren’t the only people striking. They will be joined by a great number of civil workers who have chosen to strike for longer periods of time. It is important not to characterize the social protests as a “teacher thing” because it is more than that. For the sake of this comparison, however, I will refer just to the teachers union strike in the West Bank, not the movement at large.

Additionally, this piece addresses the comparison of the strike and not their justifications. Though I personally support strikes if and when they are needed, I recognize that there is a great difference in opinion over their practicality and effectiveness. But again, the root of this piece is the shared contexts between two strikes on opposite ends of the world.

The most obvious things to start with are the strikers’ demands. The teachers union in Chicago is calling for a pay raise in line with the extra amount of time they’ll spend in classrooms now that school days have been extended by 90 minutes. This has received the most (media) attention but there are other more noteworthy demands. Teachers are calling for smaller class sizes, increased funding for schools in low-income neighborhoods, an end to school closures, and a reformed evaluation system that rates teachers on their own personal performance rather than on the performance of the school. The current system puts good teachers working in low-achievement schools at risk and protects weak teachers at top-ranked schools.

Teachers in Palestine are striking for similar reasons. The teachers union is calling for increased pay in line with the salaries of other government employees and for payments to be made on time. Teachers are also demanding better school conditions although, by virtue of the poor coverage of the strikes, it’s difficult to elaborate on the exact demands. Nevertheless, they are taking a stand for their students — and for themselves as well as they also challenge unreasonably high costs associated with poor living standards, exacerbated by policies implemented by the Palestinian Authority.

So already we see threads of commonality. As one public school teacher put it during an early morning picket on the first day of the strike in Chicago, “teachers are public servants not indentured servants.” And she’s right. There appears to be a growing trend, a regression of sorts, that sees teachers being paid less for the work they are hired to do. It’s almost as if teachers are expected to work for free. In both cases, teachers are calling for salary increases, and this is neither shameful or greedy.

The two strikes are also calling for better school conditions, although the Chicago demands are elaborated publicly and, to my knowledge, the demands from the Palestinian teachers union are not. In Chicago at least, improvements can include air conditioning (many schools go without air conditioning even when the temperature is in its upper nineties, as it was on the first day of school this year), renovated gyms (at a school I once tutored in, the gym floor had molded over and the graffiti that lined the walls made for a dank experience), permanent nursing staffs (believe it or not, some schools in Chicago do not have nurses), and reasonable class sizes (especially since Mayor Rahm Emanuel has threatened to fit up to 55 students in a single classroom).

Naturally, the purpose of these improvements would be to improve the quality of education provided to Chicago students. Improving conditions in schools in the West Bank will also serve to improve the quality of education provided to Palestinian students. Increased accessibility to school resources and healthier classroom environments will make a world of difference in a child’s educational experience.

Another comparable factor between the two strikes is concern over job security. Chicago’s teachers union is pushing for a reformed evaluation system designed to keep the good teachers in and the bad teachers out. The Palestinian teachers union in the West Bank is also pushing for comparable reforms that will cut the need for teachers to find second or even third jobs to cover basic living expenses. In turn, they’ll be able to fully commit themselves to their jobs, leading to improvements in the classroom and better performance ratings.

Many connections can and should be made between these two struggles for the reasons outlined above. But is this a disservice to Palestinians? No, and no. If we as Palestinians insist that identifying or intersecting with allied groups is a disservice to Palestinians, we are putting ourselves in a lofty position that will inevitably make it difficult for people to relate with us. And that’s how support is lost.

Chicago teachers do not live under occupation. They are not subjected to checkpoints, air raids, midnight arrests, and institutionalized denial of their existence. But they do have their own struggles. They are faced with inner-city gentrification, a total lack of transparency from the Board of Education’s side, increasing rates of child violence, and the difficult task of transforming schools into safe-havens for children who don’t have homes or families to return to. The struggles are different but they still exist. What’s comparable is that in both cases, children come first and the right to a proper education is prioritized.

These are the connections that need to be made. Disservice? On the contrary, the Chicago Teachers Union strike has helped bring attention to the strikes in the West Bank. A meaningful bridge has been built — one that doesn’t ignore the occupation and the framework it sets for the Palestinian Authority and its poor policies, one that doesn’t belittle the frustrations of public school teachers watching Chicago’s school system fall apart — and it is up to us to maintain it.

Sami Kishawi

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