Tales from the Front Lines - Blog by Paul Gamboa

Paul GamboaIt’s teacher appreciation week. It’s a week where our profession is celebrated. It’s a week when the parents can let us know how they feel and how thankful they are for us. My building does a truly magnificent job of this and I can’t say how thankful I am for everything our PTA and parents do for us during this week and throughout the year. I know that it’s like this in many schools across the state.

It’s in stark contrast to something else that’s been sticking my mind recently.

This week the Huffington Post has had up an article about how millenials have very little respect for the teaching profession. I had a long talk with several friends about this the other night and all pretty much came to the same conclusion.

My gut reaction was, this really isn’t a surprise. It’s getting harder and harder to find anyone, outside of us, that responds positively to teachers these days.

Back in 1983, in A Nation at Risk, the Reagan administration essentially said that teachers, and unions, were pretty much terrorist organizations hell bent on destroying America.

It’s gotten a lot worse since then.

The media loves a good “teacher gone bad” story. Every time there’s a misstep in anyway it’s at the forefront of the news. If there’s a drop in test scores, it’s reported.  Every time a teacher gets a cost of living increase, we’re eviscerated for being greedy swine with our vile snouts endlessly sucking from the public trough. It’s almost impossible to have a talk about Illinois and not have our pensions brought up for being the lone culprit in our state’s current financial predicament. It’s nonstop.

It’s so bad that Bruce Rauner pretty much based his entire campaign in the primary race around the fact that teachers are ruining the state. It’s pretty much a nonstop barrage of bad publicity and it isn’t helping our perception at all.

It’s even more maddening when you take it down to a personal level.

Several years ago, I had a seminal moment that really sums up what it’s like to be a teacher today. I was at a wedding making the normal small talk between strangers.  When asked what I did for a living, he was surprised to hear I was an elementary teacher.

This person gave the usual talking points about how hard it must be, how much men are needed in the elementary world and how they would never have the patience to do what I do. He spent a great amount of time asking how I can do what I do and thanking me for being someone willing to dedicate their lives to making a difference in other peoples’ lives.

Not less than ten minutes later, I heard him talking to someone else.  The conversation was decidedly different.

Another gentleman was talking about having to attend his local school board meeting to protest the fact that the teachers were getting a “fat raise” [direct quote] in the district he lives in. When I asked what the terms were, he was unable to tell me. I looked it up. It was two percent below CPI.

For those of you unversed in financial terminology, that means that the raise the teachers were being given was two percent below the cost of living increase. There was a stark contrast here though.

This outraged the person I was speaking to earlier. Although he seemed to be a huge fan of teachers a few moments prior, he now had a decidedly different tone.

At that point I decided to ask the question. I was curious about the apparent shift in philosophy from my supporter. I sheepishly asked, “If teachers do work that you don’t feel you could ever do, how is getting a modest raise unfair?”

His response: “Teachers do something I could never do in a million years. It’s a difficult, thankless job. I just don’t want to pay for it.”

It was wise to remove myself from the conversation at that point.

Basically what you have here is a weird juxtaposition. Most of the teachers I had, and that my kids have had, made a world of difference. However teachers are ruining the country.”

It’s a strange place to be. On one hand, to our faces, people speak glowingly of the impact that educators have on students. On the other hand, they say we’re ruining the state. It’s a strange place to be.

If you open the Chicago Tribune, or most news sources in the area, turn on the news, watch political ads, or recently opened some mail, it’s a constant attack. There, of course, will be consequences.

A two-minute segment once a month on the evening news featuring the “Teacher of the Month” isn’t enough to undo the other countless stories that rip us to shreds.

For almost all of their lives, millenials have heard nothing but about how schools are failing. Our teacher unions only care about themselves. In “Waiting for Superman” it showed parents sobbing when their child had to go into a public school and equating it with a death sentence.

Teach for America is actively recruiting millenials by saying that the best way to rescue struggling inner city schools is to take Ivy League students, give them a few weeks of training and then immediately start changing lives.  Attend a couple of seminars and you’ll be ready to star in your own version of “Stand and Deliver!”

Take all of these things into account and it’s not hard to understand why millenials don’t respect the profession. Society doesn’t.

In the last blog I wrote, I asked what we want from our union? I want our association to try to change public perception. Our association is aggressively trying to do this.

We are trying to give back with grants and with programs that increase opportunities for students and for teachers. We are trying to improve our craft and advocate for students. We are trying to change the perception. We are trying to improve our public schools. We want to get better and help our students do better.

As a teacher talking to other teachers, know that I appreciate all the work you do.  We are all working toward a common goal and it’s through us working together that we will change the tide.

So despite the constant attacks, and negatives that can go along with being a teacher, I will take this week and appreciate it. I’m lucky to be in a school that does value our teachers a great deal and goes to great lengths to show this.

I hope all of you take some time and reflect on all the good that you do and all the lives you improve. You do and it does make a difference.

As always, I look forward to reading your comments and thoughts below.  You can also let me know what you think by following me @paulgamboa on twitter .  Thanks for reading!

Paul Gamboa is a fifth grade teacher at White Eagle Elementary School in the Indian Prairie School District and an IEA member and leader. You can follow him on Twitter at @paulgamboa.


  1. Paul: the following response was intended for your previous post entitled, “What do we want from our union?” Since the comment section has been locked since posting your latest piece, I have responded here. Thanks! …

    I agree that things are not always black and white. However, the characterization that there are two factions within our union is, in my opinion, a concept that is outdated by about a decade.


    We have learned so much in recent years in regards to the driving forces behind the attacks on our profession. Many powerful groups/organizations have been been pushing reforms in the name of data-driven and researched based accountability measures. What we have come to know in recent years, is that these so-called “reforms” are based on flawed ideology and skewed data. We have come to know that much of the reform movement is an act of deception.

    Many of the arguments being made by our adversaries, however flawed and untrue, have successfully painted the image into the minds of the public that unions (especially the teachers unions) serve no role outside of advocating for their members’ wages and benefits and to fight to maintain a status quo which stifles change and education innovation in our schools. (Although, I must say, I have been an IEA member for 22 years and I cannot remember a time when quality education was not at the forefront of everything we do.)

    This perception game has been played especially well with big money and corporate interests in mind. Likewise, it appears to many in the rank-and-file that the motivation behind our union leadership’s quest to “change the perception” of our union is solely in response to a school reform movement that has perpetuated many of these false images of our union. Why would we rush to change the way our union conducts itself based on faulty premise?

    Case in point: our leadership’s rationale with regard to Senate Bill 7. When my local visited Springfield for Lobby Day upon the passage of SB7, we were told by the leadership that if we hadn’t accepted the teacher evaluation measures in SB7, “something much worse would have been done to us”. Yet, when the press conference was held shortly after, our union leaders stood next to our adversaries and stated that, “SB7 is good for education and should be touted as a model for public education”.

    Never mind the countless research studies that suggest how poorly student growth evaluation models are. How many teachers in the classroom in IEA today truly feel that SB7 has been a good thing for their profession, I wonder? How about for their students? Is it a good thing for the day-to-day teaching environment that each and every one of us work in?

    Nearly two years after SB7 passed, an interview of President Klickna was printed in the Springfield Journal-Register that speaks directly to your point, Paul. http://www.sj-r.com/x1868831567/IEA-president-an-advocate-for-education-teachers The interview confirms what many rank-and-file teachers, especially those who follow what happens in our state teacher’s union, feared all along.

    From the article:
    “While the IEA is focused on improving education for students in Illinois, they also must fight the perception that their overriding concern is the well being of teachers. One of Klickna’s goals as president is to change how the general public perceives her organization.

    “If you say ‘association,’ everyone thinks you’re great. If you say ‘union,’ all of the sudden you’re bad,” she says. “And to me the union is simply a group of people who have a voice about their profession.”

    “To counter the belief that unions are only interested in protecting their members, Klickna points to the “Performance Evaluation Reform Act” that was signed into law in 2010, a bill the IEA supported. It enacted major changes to how teachers are evaluated so that student performance is taken into account, not simply tenure.”

    Is the membership to believe that reason that IEA co-developed and supported SB7 because, “something worse could have been done to us”? Or was SB7 really “a model for public education”? Or, just as Cinda’s interview says in her interview, a way to get the public change their perception of our union?

    The question “what do we want from our union?” is a good one.

    I believe members want from their union, a union leadership committed to responding to the extremely difficult issues facing our profession in a way that provides the the rank-and-file with the assurance that, while we are working in our classrooms, somebody is watching out for us, our students and our profession. Members want leadership that will not cloud line between acting to change the perception of our union and fighting for or against education policy that is bad for students and schools. We want a leadership engaged in creating a movement that challenges the assumptions of the corporate school reform and demands greater internal debate and democracy within our organization.

    Many of us who have been in teaching long enough don’t kid ourselves about how difficult of a task this is. Especially while in the public eye. And the point of my response is not to recklessly criticize our leadership. We all know how hard they work.

    We needn’t waste any more energy trying to marginalize the varying opinions of members beliefs about how to best handle the attacks on us. We all want the same thing. To save and preserve public education in our state and our communities.

    We don’t need to look very far for examples of unions that is publicly responding in defense of public education, teachers and quality education in a dynamic, creative and sensible way. All one has to do is look at the very recent news regarding the Chicago Teacher’s Union. They are turning the education reformers’ arguments upside down and doing it with eloquence. They are taking a hard line on issues they must for the sake of teaching and learning, yet responding to other challenges with compromising alternatives.

    They are changing the re-directing the public’s perception of what a union’s role in defending public education. They are standing strong and united. There are no factions within their union, just a membership with a fundamental set of beliefs and principles for leaders to carry out.

    We can do the same.

  2. I have endured this cheapskate taxpayer streak through our society while their calling for “above and beyond” service for 40 years. What are our own causes for our own problems? Unions protecting he lazy and incompetent, not being tough enough when going on strike made a bigger difference, and buying into all the recycled trends over the years – plus the great inequities in awarding pensions: disproportionate rewards for administrators, coaches, and high-paying districts at the expense of all contributing teachers. What to strive for outside of our ranks? Stronger support for that part of our electorate that supports us and push against making school fun and pleasant over making school effective and productive – they are not mutually exclusive. I have had many enjoyable years and students despite all this. But this, and other changes in my life, make me less concerned about being 70 years old.

  3. Thank you Paul for sharing your information, I will continue to share your blog with members within my local. Thanks for keeping it real Good job.

  4. Dear Paul,
    I read your blog with interest and feel similar sentiments.
    I have always been a militant teacher–not the kind that puts up anarchist posters in my classroom–I use books like 1984 and Brave New World for that–but the kind that talks up our profession and blisters anyone who denigrates us with comments to the contrary.
    Since I became a teacher in 1985, I have fought the system. First of all, it took me two and a half years to get a contracted position because the Clark County School District kept Nevada’s UNLV graduates out of those positions so that we could become subs instead. We were cheaper that way.
    Once I got a position–as an in-school suspension teacher–I signed up for any committee to better our school and its environment. I became involved in the union and eventually became a teacher advisory committee member and continued to fight for our rights. For a while there, things went smoothly and I was happily ensconced in a teaching position at a vocational school that garnered high marks from everyone in the district.
    But then I refused to “teach” my journalism class as a club and suddenly I was being called into the office on a regular basis with complaints from parents, administration and students. I brought my union rep in every single time and at the end of a particularly rough year, I was finally absolved of all wrongdoing.
    To make a long story short, I landed in Chicago because my parents, who lived in the area, had both become ill and I returned to Illinois to help with their care. I worked for CPS, first at Austin High School, then at Foreman High School until I retired in August of 2011, under duress, suffering many, if not more, of the same scrutiny, disciplinary actions, and write-ups as in Clark County.
    Since joining the Badass Teachers Association (@badassteachers.org), I have learned of the tactics of Teach for America and their five weeks training, and offer to slash student debt to recruit young college graduates to work in inner city schools. To be a manicurist and get a license, 300 hours are necessary; TFA only provides 200. I’ve learned of every organization that has targeted teachers all over the country and because of our efforts–primarily online–we have gathered almost 50,000 members since last June.
    So, in closing, I am inviting every teacher to join the BATs and know that they’re not alone.
    If anyone wants to email me, feel free to do so.
    In solidarity,
    Barbara Yohnka

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