Nora Flanagan

Photo of CTU organizer Nora Flanagan.

Nora Flanagan’s experience as a roller derby skater has no doubt served her well as a high school teacher and as an organizer in Chicago and beyond (more on that in a bit). And it probably won’t hurt in her new position at CTU, helping to build and support our union’s anti-racist work.

Born and raised in Beverly/Morgan Park from a long line of South Siders, Flanagan recalled how 30 years ago, she noticed white nationalist groups taking hold in her South Side neighborhood. At the time, the community chose to ignore it, which in hindsight she said, was a mistake.

“I grew up at a time and place where organized white nationalist groups were taking root and becoming very visible,” she said. “At a pretty early age, I knew I wanted to fight against that ideology however I could, and I’ve been involved one way or another ever since — sometimes in very grassroots ways, other times as part of larger nonprofit efforts.”

After graduating high school, Flanagan earned her bachelor’s degree in secondary education at the University of Illinois-Chicago and began working for CPS in 1999. She later earned her master’s degree in curriculum, instruction and evaluation. 

“Part of me pursued teaching because I remembered that, in my worst times as a kid and a teenager, I had teachers who showed me kindness that likely changed my whole trajectory, and I thought maybe I could do that for others,” she said. “Part of me, too, leaned on my family’s working class sensibility and saw teaching as a stable union job that would allow me to raise a family and own a home.”

Flanagan began her teaching career at Lane Tech during “the Vallas years, when, as teachers, we were divided in every possible way,” but she loved it. She stayed at the school for 10 years before moving to Northside College Prep for another 15 years.

“I loved teaching because it was never boring,” she said. “It was new every day. There were frustrations, and some years were much harder than others, but it always felt like I was in the right career.”

Still, while her administrators kept telling her how lucky she was to be at Lane, she could see the systemic problems and inequities in CPS even as a new teacher and at a prestigious selective enrollment high school.

Then, a new chemistry teacher joined the Lane staff, became the union delegate and ultimately CTU president — and the rest, as they say, is history.

“I didn’t feel connected to my union starting out, but then Karen Lewis changed everything. She showed me why we need to be involved in union work, all of us,” she said. “Even after Karen and I both left for different schools, I watched what she was building, and I was so proud to support her. Then, Jesse Sharkey spoke at a Northside union meeting about how we could each get involved at CTU, too. He and Karen made it feel possible to have an impact, made it feel necessary, because we are our union.” 

So, when the delegate position opened at Northside, Flanagan was proud to step up to support her CTU siblings for several years, including during the 2019 strike and the pandemic. 

Over the years, she has also served on union committees and collaborated with CTU staff on anti-racist campaigns. She serves on the Illinois Holocaust and Genocide Commission and has created a toolkit for educators, Confronting White Nationalism in Schools, published by the Western States Center based in Portland, Oregon. Tens of thousands of copies of the toolkit are in circulation throughout all 50 states. 

So when the union approached her with a job, she was intrigued. 

“CTU leadership approached me about a possible position coordinating our union’s anti-racist efforts,” she said. “But the position has never existed at CTU before or in any other union we could find. That made it exciting but also a little nerve wracking.”

Flanagan’s official title is Project Organizer, managing the range of anti-racist efforts in and around the CTU. But, like everyone on the union staff, she plugs in whenever and wherever her expertise is needed.  

“We have a lot of great work happening to confront bigotry, decolonize curriculum, reflect on our teaching practices, protect our schools as institutions of inclusive democracy, and really understand our students and school communities better,” she said. “Those efforts often seem disconnected, or they get put on hold while we deal with more immediate needs like surviving a pandemic or supporting newcomers. But the truth is, and this is something we need to keep spotlighting, all of these needs are connected.”

On any given day, Flanagan might meet with the organizing department, research professional development opportunities or attend a school union meeting to hear member concerns. She also is collaborating with the CTU research department to analyze the impact of changing demographics on our student and teacher populations and track the efforts of groups attempting to dismantle public education.  

Now, about her roller derby days…

Flanagan played the sport competitively for five years while working full time and raising two young boys. She also has coached junior roller derby and was known to skate through the empty halls of her schools on PD days.

Roller derby, she said, changed her life.

“Roller derby is the most inclusive, positive, feminist space I’ve ever experienced. I played alongside skaters aged 18 to 50, with every kind of body and identity, every possible reason for playing, and I learned so much about myself and my teammates,” she said. “In roller derby, you have to plant your feet and fix your stance against players who are stronger, faster, and more experienced than you. And one of the most important things you learn is how to get yourself back up after you get knocked down.”

That’s definitely a useful skill for all CPS teachers.