The problem with the Chicago Teachers Union strike isn't entirely a matter of its timing, but its timing serves to emphasize a wealth of other issues that may have more to offer the suburbs than a ringside seat to see who will blink first.
The critical flaw in timing is that the strike comes at a point when, unfair and uninformed though the reasons may be, the reputation of teachers as a group is under assault. Coincidentally, it also comes at a time when almost universal economic malaise is requiring ever more effort and sacrifice from people in all professions, teachers included.
Teachers -- all teachers, in public schools as well as private -- have an excellent story to tell. In general, they are hard working, creative, caring and uniquely dedicated to the challenging job of preparing children and young adults for success in a dangerous, uncertain and constantly changing world. They have working for the past four years under the same strained conditions of increasing demand and decreasing resources as everyone else.
In the past year, however, public attention has been diverted away from the positive story line and focused instead on matters of pay, working conditions, job security and pensions, not always in context but often portraying teachers as focused more on promoting their own financial security than on the well-being and advancement of the children in their charge. And the response from teachers has at times been defensive, if not combative.
So, what do we see now in Chicago? Red-shirted Chicago teachers circling sidewalks, shaking signs and stalling traffic to declare the unfair conditions under which they are expected to work -- the "injustices," in short, of being asked to link some of their potential wage increases to their performance, of allowing school administrators rather than union rules to select teachers who may be rehired from layoff, of a 16 percent wage increase offer over four years for some of the highest-paid teachers in the country and, admittedly to a lesser extent now than earlier in the summer, of asking teachers with one of the shortest school days in the country to increase their instructional time.
Is this really the picture of the people entrusted with the nation's future that tax payers and parents want to see, especially now? Of course not.
Fortunately, suburban schools largely have avoided at least this part of the story line, despite their own financial pressures and despite understandable nervousness that teachers -- like almost any worker in today's economic environment -- may have about their futures. What has made the difference? It can be found in a single word: collaboration.
It was the key word used after a two-year contract was reached with teachers in the Naperville-area's Indian Prairie Unit District 204. It was the concept that both sides credited when Mundelein High School District 120 reached a four-year settlement with teachers. That specific word was raised after successful talks in Elgin's U-46, in Palatine Township Elementary District 15, in Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200, in Batavia public schools, and on and on.
That one important word. Collaboration.
It recognizes that teachers are realistic about their demands and their needs -- and yes, that it takes at least two partners to collaborate. So the contract successes in the suburbs ought not suggest either dominance or submissiveness of any party, merely a willingness to adapt to the circumstances of our time and our communities.
It's worth noting too, certainly, that the generally highly ranked schools in the modest to affluent suburbs do not suffer from some of the same quality problems or challenges that city schools face. But that does not make the CTU strike irrelevant here. Ultimately, in fact, it offers a critically important lesson for administrators, tax payers and teachers in the suburbs. Growth and improvement flow more naturally from cooperation and communication than from conflict, and sincere collaboration keeps good teachers in the classroom. Which, of course, is not only where they belong but also where they have their best story to tell.