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Caught in the Middle: Chicago’s Student Teachers During the Strike

While schools sat empty and teachers marched downtown, Chicago’s student teachers were lost in the middle.


Downtown Chicago was packed with striking teachers and schools across the city sat vacant: stark contrasts to each other. But unseen by many of the public, the city’s student teachers had nowhere to go. Instead of being with their kids or standing on the picket lines with their colleagues, they were told to stay home and stay out of the way. Trapped on a gray middle ground, in world of black and whites. 

Strike specifics 

During the last two weeks of October, the nation’s third-largest school district was shut down for 11 days while the Chicago Teachers Union clashed with Mayor Lori Lightfoot. Among the issues the union was fighting for was reduced class sizes, more preparation time, and increased nurses, librarians and social workers. 

The strike officially ended on the afternoon of Oct. 31, allowing classes to resume and more than 300,000 students to return to school for the first time on Nov. 1. Part of the deal struck between the union and city met the teachers’ demands of putting a social worker and nurse in every school. The overarching deal did not accomplish everything the teachers were marching for, but Jesse Sharkey, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, said that was okay.

“Did we accomplish every single little thing? No,” said Sharkey, as Vox reported. “But I can say that we moved the needle on educational justice in the city.” 

Stuck on the sideline

Chicago’s teachers strikes are nationally renowned for garnering change – the most recent occurring for seven days in in 2012 – and there’s often plenty of press coverage on the students, parents and teachers involved. But one particular group is seldom included in such conversations. Occupying both spaces of both their kids and their mentors, student teachers are forced to remain on the edge of the entire situation.

Many of the student teaching contracts around the city are made through universities and the city of Chicago. As part of those contracts, the students are not allowed to be part of the teaching union until after they are hired. Consequently, marching on the picket line would be a violation mere months before many begin to look for employment.

Kelsey McCracken and Mary McDermott are both seniors at Loyola University Chicago’s School of Education. During the strike, they said they felt a little more useless as each day went by. 

“When I find my purpose, that’s my purpose,” said McCracken, who hopes to become a middle school math teacher. “I love teaching, and when I’m not allowed to I feel like I’m useless and have nothing to do. I went from being able to be this big person in the classroom to this person who just kind of had to sit and wait, and that’s very opposite and not fun at all.” 

To McDermott, every one of the 11 days was a stressful waiting game. She watched those who might become her own colleagues and students – in just nine short months – take action while she sat at home, wondering how to fit her school year into a shortened schedule. 

“We just all lost a little bit of time,” she said. “For the Loyola calendar, we’re not changing, so it’s a little more pressure to get a bunch of assignments done in a very short expanse of time.” 

Now that the strike is over, McDermott and McCracken are both focused on making their lessons more time-flexible and taking advantage of every day they have with their students. 

HCLUC Co-CC Shelby is an LUC senior studying multimedia journalism, cultural anthropology, political science and Asian studies. Although she grew up in South Dakota, she has found homes in Chicago, Morocco, and Vietnam. She strives to continue traveling the world to seek out human triumphs and trials by telling stories through a fresh, unbiased viewpoint. When she's not studying or working, Shelby is a devoted fan of sunsets, strawberry smoothies, and Seth Meyers. 
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