With two parents who were New York city public school teachers, it is no surprise that Josh Lerner became a teacher, but neither was it certain.
Lerner grew up in Staten Island, New York, and New Jersey in a family of educators and union members. His mother was a career New York City elementary school teacher and a proud member of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). His father also taught in New York schools for a time. His grandmother was a school cafeteria worker and his grandfather a member of the NYC Iron Workers Union.
“My inspiration to become a teacher came first and foremost from my mom,” he said. “In her, I saw a long career made up of day-after-day honest and hard work in service to others.”
But his path to Chicago Public Schools was anything but direct.
After high school, he wanted to become a psychologist and earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology from Brown University in Rhode Island. After graduation in 2007, he got his first taste of teaching doing college access work in Central Falls, a town outside of Providence, RI. There he worked at the local high school and community center, helping low-income students and families navigate the college application and financial aid process.
But the historic 2008 Barack Obama presidential campaign pulled him to Colorado where he worked as a field organizer for the future president. After that, he came to Chicago with his partner and earned his master’s in education from Dominican University.
Lerner started his CPS career teaching middle school math at Sabin Elementary in 2009, as the district faced a “doomsday budget.” Fearing his position would be cut, he accepted a job as a third grade bilingual teacher at Chavez Elementary in the Back of Yards neighborhood.
He worked at Chavez school for seven years before moving to Peirce Elementary, where he provides bilingual and ESL education as English Language Program Teacher and helps coordinate the school’s EL program. The school sits on the edge of the north side’s wealthy Andersonville neighborhood but about a third of the school’s students are from working class, Latine families.
During the pandemic, he and his colleagues worked to support 20 undocumented families at the school who were facing medical and financial challenges. And this summer, he has been joining colleagues providing support to new immigrants who have been living in police stations, waiting for spots in more permanent shelters. Members collect and sort clothing and other supplies and provide hot meals when needed.
“A trend across my teaching experiences has been working in bilingual education with newly arrived students,” he said. “Over the past year, our district has received so many asylum-seeking students and families, but our union has really stepped up and done inspiring and leading work to support them. I am really thankful to be a part of it.”
In September, Lerner and his family will be moving to Medellín, Colombia, where he will be researching the country’s immigration policies as a Fullbright Distinguished Teacher. The Fulbright award provides U.S. educators an opportunity to conduct research abroad on a topic of their choice for three to six months.
Lerner proposed his research project because his CPS school serves a growing cohort of Colombian and Venezuelan immigrants. He wants to learn more about how that country’s policies address education for newly arrived students. His proposal is still taking shape but he plans to be out of his CPS school from September through November.
“Colombia really stands apart from other countries in the region in the way it has addressed the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela,” he said. “The government there has provided temporary legal status to over 1.7 million Venezuelan refugees. I want to better understand policies toward housing and education for migrants in Medellin, and see what we can learn and implement here in Chicago.”
Lerner said that, like many CTU members, he became more involved in the union after the historic 2012 strike. He remembers picketing in the mornings on the corner of 47th and Ashland — with all the cars, trucks, and buses honking in support — then heading to mass rallies downtown.
“Every afternoon we would go to the Loop and absolutely shut it down,” he said. “We took on Rahm and the neoliberal education reform movement and through that experience I developed my own class consciousness and understanding of rank-and-file, multi-racial, and social justice unionism.”
The Chavez CTU delegate stepped down after the strike and Lerner stepped up. He has served as a delegate in one way or another ever since. Besides serving as Peirce delegate, he also serves on the union’s executive board and will chair the Citywide PPC as our union begins its next contract campaign.
One of the highlights of his teaching career was earning National Board Certification in 2014. And this spring he applied to renew his certification.
“It was through the National Board process that I made a commitment to myself to be a lifelong educator,” he said. “I came into teaching during a very high stakes testing regime, so it was very easy to teach a very narrow curriculum. The National Board process showed me what it was like to be a holistic teacher. That was really powerful.”
Lerner is committed to teaching for the long haul and looks forward to mentoring new teachers and helping develop new rank-and-file union leaders.
“One of the things I love most about teaching is that it demands that you keep learning and you keep developing. Everything from how kids develop literacy differently in Spanish and English to how to help a student brand new to the country make connections with their peers,” he said. “Working with people every day in a school building just completely expands your world.”