As the child of two Chicago educators, Lovett Elementary teacher Dr. Denita Armstrong-Shaffer has been a product of the CTU for a very long time. So it is no wonder the 26-year veteran teacher is such a strong cheerleader for her union and the school communities it serves.
“I’ve been walking picket lines for as long as I can remember,” she said. “And as a CPS student, I was the recipient of all that our union won during those strikes.”
Armstrong-Shaffer’s parents were both teachers and each held several advanced degrees in education. “I grew up in a household where I saw the work of educators and the rewarding conversations they had after work,” she said. “And I experienced and witnessed an environment that valued educating young minds.”
Though born and raised in Chicago, Armstrong-Shaffer has deep ties to Louisiana. Her parents were born and raised in Monroe and Mangham, Louisiana, and, as a child, she and her six siblings, spent most summers in Louisiana with family.
An alumnus of three CPS schools — Mt. Vernon Elementary, Pershing Magnet School and Hyde Park Career Academy — Armstrong-Shaffer returned to the south for college. Following in her parents’ footsteps, she attended a Historically Black College, Fisk University, in Nashville, Tenn., before coming home to graduate from Chicago State University. She also holds multiple advanced degrees, including a Doctor of Ministry degree from United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio.
Armstrong-Shaffer began her CPS career in 1998 at Foster Park Elementary School, under Assistant Principal Dr. David Young, who she said still mentors her today. Her resume also includes years at CPS schools Niños Heroes Academic Center and Fuller Elementary, as well as schools in Shreveport, Louisiana, and Missouri. She started teaching at Lovett Elementary this year.
While she has taught preschool to fifth grade, teaching the little ones brings her the most joy.
“Watching the light bulb of discovery and learning light up with every new concept learned is an incredible experience to witness,” she said.
CTU’s vision for the next contract centers on making schools loving and liberatory places for young people. As an early education teacher, that vision hits home for Armstrong-Shaffer.
“I would love to see my students be able to reflect on the world they live in more actively through more real-life experiences and field trips,” she said. “Young children learn through play and songs and social emotional learning is so important for them. These need to be woven throughout the day.”
More child centered
Armstrong-Shaffer would like CPS to transition to a more child-centered system, where every kindergarten teacher has a full day assistant and every school has the wraparound services students need. She believes the Sustainable Community Schools model, which has been enshrined in the CTU contract, should be expanded throughout the city.
“Every school should be a Sustainable Community School,” she said.
Armstrong-Shaffer learned the importance of the CTU from her parents and has been an active union member. She served as union delegate at Fuller Elementary School for seven years, chair of the CTU Human Rights Committee for five years and currently sits on the CTU Executive Board.
For Armstrong-Shaffer, being a CTU member means “giving voice to the voiceless” — to those who are too often underrepresented in our school communities — and fighting for the equality and justice our students, parents, and educators deserve.
Teachers need a voice
“The CTU is so important because teachers and staff need to have a voice. We need to be able to express what is important to us, what is important to our families and what is important to our communities,” she said. “Without that voice, our school communities will not be represented well.”
Dr. Armstrong-Shaffer is proud of the union’s accomplishments and ready to keep fighting for the schools Chicago students deserve.
“Every win that has brought more resources into our schools has been a victory for me. Every time my students get a win, every time they receive what they need, every time our parents get more resources, I find that to be a victory,” she said.
An Assistant to the Pastor at West Point Baptist Church, Rev. Dr. Armstrong-Shaffer said she has been in the ministry since age nine. That might help explain her generally hopeful outlook, but she does wish more people would “be the change you want to see.”
“Once I became active, it was so easy to be a part of positive change, and that change was so much better than sitting on the sidelines and simply hoping for change,” she said. “I only wish people knew how easy it is to participate and make a difference.”