Frank Menzies started working in Chicago public schools in 2000 and is now the director of instrumental music at Jones College Prep, where he oversees the orchestra, concert band, and jazz group. He’s also the school’s head bowling coach. Menzies is a member of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and one of the roughly 29,000 Chicago public school teachers that have been on strike since Monday.
Why did you vote to go on strike?
Many of the members in the CTU didn’t really want to do it, but we have understood that this is one of the mechanisms that is in place for union membership to try to bargain for a better deal. We are definitely in favor and desirous of a fair contract.
The bottom line is the teachers did not really want to do it, but that [a strike] seemed to be one of the only avenues left to us to be able to try to get what’s necessary for us to have a fair contract. That’s the bottom line. The strike was brought about simply because teachers that love their students had no other way to gain the possibility of a fair contract.
You make reference to a fair contract. Could you talk a little about what that means to you? What are the most important issues?
For instance, there are some that feel very strongly about class sizes. We also wanted to speak for those teachers who will be displaced by schools that are going to be closed and not to have the opportunity to be re-hired as a result of that school closing. Their career is gone, they don’t have an opportunity to even be considered and that’s not fair. There are several things in terms of collective bargaining that are in the contract that [the school board] wanted to be taken out. And although it is certainly not the most important issue, it is an issue, with pay. There are a lot of people that assume the teachers are only out because of money—they want more money, they want more money, they want more money. It is a job that we love, and the money issue is just fair labor practice. You cannot tell somebody you’re going to pay them an amount of money and then say, well, I changed my mind, I’m not going to pay you. It’s just unfair. We’re looking for equity, we are looking for respect, and we are looking for fairness.
How has the strike been so far? There have been a couple of massive rallies downtown—what do you make of the energy of the teachers so far? How have teachers responded to the strike?
Teachers are very excited. Although we would all love to be in the classroom, this is necessary. And we see how many of us are brought together for the same purpose. And to see how many of us are in one place at one time to support and say, hey, stay strong, let’s not waver, let’s stay the course and realize that our union is strong because we don’t depend on one person, per se, but it is our strength in numbers, that has made us strong. We are family and we’re sticking together. To see that, just the visual of that, is amazing. It’s absolutely amazing. It’s a humbling situation that just lets you feel proud to be a teacher. We are privileged and honored to be in this profession.
When I came to Chicago, my mom passed. And my wind for teaching was gone. I said I’m done, I don’t want to teach anymore, I just I can’t do this anymore. And when I would get in front of my kids, I would forget that my heart was broken. It’s something that means more to some of us than to others. And those who have not done this and who don’t understand our struggle, they’re going to continue to say that the things we’re asking for are not fair. It’s more than that. It is the love of our children, it is the love of this profession. We are beyond humbled because we are able to do this. But we are proud and happy and we love our children. That’s the number one thing. Everything is for the students we teach.
Why do you think teachers unions still matter? Why are they important?
If we didn’t have the union, there are several things that take place that would work against the care of the teacher. There’s an organization [operating in several townships in Illinois] called ESDA, the Emergency Services and Disaster agency. One of the test questions for that is, who is the most important in terms of care in situations that call for [ESDA] to be deployed? And the answer is the rescuer. If the rescuer is injured, then they can’t function properly with assisting those who are in need. Educators are first responders. We are in that classroom, where we see these children more than parents do sometimes. They’re coming to us with social issues that are of note, they’re coming to us with questions regarding things that sometimes they are not comfortable going to others to answer. It’s very, very important that the teacher is cared for and the union serves that place, to protect the teachers. And I think they’re very important and very meaningful.