Fighting with a purpose: interview with a Special Education Classroom Assistant on strike in Chicago

The Chicago teachers strike involves not just teachers represented by the Chicago Teachers Union, but paraprofessionals and other school workers represented by SEIU. Marianne Garneau spoke with D’Andrea, a Special Education Classroom Assistant and SEIU union delegate, currently walking the picket line.

How long have you been a SECA?

I’ve been with the board 9 years, but a SECA 5 years. I started as a bus monitor, then I became a bus aide, and in 2014 I became a SECA.

What does being a SECA involve?

We assist diverse learners. Right now primarily I’m in a lower cluster classroom, so all of my children have autism, so I assist the teacher with reinforcing the lesson she’s given already. I also do toilet training, I have to change diapers or pull-ups, sometimes I have to assist with feeding, but mostly just really reinforcing the lessons, and teaching them different things they might not know how to do. I have to assist with fine motor skills – cutting, hand over hand.

How old are the children you work with?

They’re all in 3rd grade, so they’re 8 to 9 years old. I used to be in the upper cluster last year, so we had 5th, 6th , 7th and 8th graders in one room.

How many students do you have?

Right now, in our classroom, we have 6. There’s a teacher, myself, and another SECA. Whereas last year, it was 3 adults with 13 children. The max is 13 thirteen kids in a cluster class.

And you’re also a union delegate?

Yes, with SEIU.

I’m curious how the two unions, CTU and SEIU, ended up on strike at the same time.

We [SEIU] have been working without a contract for over a year. They’ve been in negotiations back and forth, back and forth. It just so happened that CTU’s contract expired this year. They built solidarity between the two unions because previously there wasn’t so much. I wouldn’t say there was none at all, but there were some bridges that needed to be fixed, because just as much as the teachers need us, we need them.

How was that solidarity built?

I can’t really say because I was not the steward.

What are some of your biggest issues on the job?

One thing for sure is our pay, because we do a lot. Not disregarding the teacher at all, because they got the education, but the reality is, these children are with us the majority of the time.

My other major concern, and it’s expressed through the union, is SECAs should be allowed to attend IEP meetings [special needs students are assigned an Individualized Education Program]. Yes, the teacher is trained to see this or that, but we see things because we are working with the students one-on-one, hands-on. Two, as a parent, you’re telling the teacher what you see about your child — that’s something, as a SECA, I need to hear. Because the way a child acts with me may be different than how he acts at home. Just Wednesday, I was asking a parent if a child had the same tantrums at home as he has with me. She said yes, and I told her she might look into a compression vest, because at school I sit with him in my lap, and put my arms around his body, and it brings him down. And she said thank you, I will look into that.

It sounds like you’re doing very specialized work. What kind of training did the school give you for that?

[Laughs] So as a SECA, when I came in, I was just put into the job. I didn’t know what I was doing. I wasn’t even given children’s IEPs. I wasn’t even shown how to access the IEPs, so that I could know what each child’s disability is. Other SECAs showed me. Because that is something we need to know.

Our union is also asking for planning time for us. Because we need to know what the goals are for the school year. We use our own time, our lunches for this, to get to understand and know the children. So we are also asking for that in the contract.

But no, I was just put in the job, and other aides showed me how to access IEPs, or told me about the children: “This baby does this, this one does that, don’t acknowledge him and he will get himself up.” I am a mother, so even though I am in here as a professional, as an educator, I have to put my momma face on. I always tell people that all children, no matter if they have a disability, can learn. They just learn differently. I know that for a fact. That’s why I got into special ed, because I have two children at home with learning disabilities. And my children attended a public school. So then they were getting service, and the service would fall off. That’s something I appreciate CTU striking for. Because if you have those service providers in the building full-time, then the children can have service. My children were getting service only some of the time.

What are some of the other demands on the table?

CPS [Chicago Public Schools] for years has violated our contracts. SECAs are not supposed to do lunch or recess duty. And the way it’s put to us is, we have two evaluations: a self-evaluation, and then an end-of-the-year evaluation by the principal or assistant principal. So the way it’s put to us is, “You know, when you go above and beyond your job, that goes to your professionalism, and you get extra points.” I’m okay with people asking me to do something, but don’t put it to me like this is something I’m required to do. It’s [even] in our schedule!

In addition to that, when teachers take off, SECAs are alone in the classroom. That’s a violation of our contract and of CTU’s contract. That’s not supposed to happen for more than 45 minutes. SECAs are not supposed to be alone in the classroom all day long just because there’s no sub.

Then, when we have PD [professional development] days — as I was saying, when you get put in as a SECA you have no training. You would think we would have training on PD days, around the children and the classes we are servicing, like how to deal with a child who is having a meltdown, or how to anticipate a meltdown before it happens. But instead, I am sitting in trainings that are talking about REACH [Reimagine Excellence and Achievement Consultant House, LLC], or these three Big Rocks.

So, boilerplate, corporate stuff?

Yes.

You said some of these things violate the contract. Does SEIU grieve them?

Even though I’ve been a SECA for five years, I wasn’t really fully aware of my union and how it worked and what was a violation until this year, when I stepped up to be the union rep and delegate for my school. So I can’t speak on whether they have done it in the past. But I can say that prior to this strike, when we were in negotiations, I expressed some things to my union, and they said “we’re getting on top of it.” When the schedule was created, we were supposed to be given a 30-minute lunch and two 15-minute breaks and I said, “Hold on,” because we only had one fifteen-minute break. So I went to my union, and they did address it fairly quickly, and our schedule was adjusted. So when I have brought issues, they tend to address it fairly quickly.

But you end up using your break time to do work?

Yeah! To make our case notes, for example. I have a student who kicks me, bites me, throws things at me.

What is your day-to-day interaction with teachers like, and has that changed in the lead-up to the strike?

When we first started [the school year] we didn’t have a teacher [in my classroom], then we had a sub, who had retired and came back, for about 3½ weeks, then the permanent teacher came in.

I have much respect for her, and for the previous teacher. Because they’re like, “You’re not just my aides, we’re a team, we do this together.” And when the new teacher came in, she expressed that if we [SECAs] have ideas about how to do things differently, we can talk about that. And I think that’s because she’s been on both sides of it. She was in my position, as an aide. So she respects the fact that the aides do most of the work.

Some teachers feel that we’re a team, and some teachers don’t feel that way.

Do you feel as though the strike is building solidarity?

Yes, I really do. Honestly, I feel like with our school, there is solidarity. We call ourselves a family. But definitely, with all of us being out there on the picket lines, it has allowed us to grow together.

How has it been on the picket line? How do you feel about being out on strike?

I feel like being on strike… we’re fighting for a purpose. The smaller class size. Because there is no way a teacher can teach with 30-something students. Our kindergarten classroom has 31 students. These are kindergarteners, they’re already antsy. Then you have children that need service, but we haven’t got all the paperwork together, and we are in the process of trying to get them service, or they have learning disabilities that are undiagnosed. So you’ve got 30 kids in a classroom, and two of them over here want to throw or hit, and there is no way you can teach like this. You have to break this up. That’s worth fighting for. I respect the teachers for fighting for that.

So out on those picket lines, I feel like we’re doing this together. We really are. It’s nothing personal, but we gotta do it.

What do you hope to see?

When our mayor [Lori Lightfoot] ran, she promised us this, she promised us that. We were negotiating for ten months prior to the authorization to strike. The fact that she’s saying that we need to move with a sense of urgency now, I feel like that’s totally disrespectful. She wants us to go back to work while we’re negotiating? No, you already lied to us once. So we’re not going to do that.

I hope and pray that we can get a fair contract. What’s right is right. We’re not asking for the whole world. The minor things that we’re asking for is a greater fix in the end. You may not see it now, but it’s a greater thing in the end. I don’t like not seeing my kids. I miss them, even though they beat me up sometimes.

Do you get strike pay? I know the CTU teachers don’t.

Ha! No we do not.

So it’s tough for you guys too.

Yep. Especially since you’re just coming off the summer, and if you didn’t work during the summer then you didn’t get paid. So you’re just kinda getting yourself back up, and then you’re back in that situation again.

So you’re making a personal sacrifice to make things better for everyone?

Yes, we are.

Marianne Garneau

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