Karen Soto

Photo of CTU Delegate and Executive Board member Karen Soto.

When thinking about her union, Karen Soto likes to reflect on a quote from CTU President Emerita Karen Lewis, who often said, “the only way people will walk all over you is if you lay down and let them.”

As Waters Elementary School delegate and a CTU Executive Board member, Soto is determined that CTU never lay down. “We’re always gonna stand up and do what’s right for our students and our school communities,” she said. 

Born on Chicago’s North Side to parents who immigrated here from Guatemala, Soto is keenly aware and proud of her working class background — and her union.

Grateful to CTU

“To this day, I don’t know where I’d be if I wasn’t a teacher. This profession and our union lifted me out of poverty,” she said. “To this day, I am genuinely grateful to CTU.”

But Soto credits her children with inspiring her to become a teacher. When they were young, she was working as an administrative assistant and the family struggled to make ends meet. She was determined to provide a sustainable income for her family, but also wanted a career of which her three children would be proud. 

“I wanted to do something my kids would be proud to tell their friends about. And, in the Latino community, being a teacher is a very big deal,” she said. 

Soto grew up in the North Side’s Lincoln Square neighborhood, where she now teaches at the same school she attended as a child. She began teaching at Waters Elementary, her second CPS school, in 2008 and has been there ever since. 

The neighborhood has undergone tremendous gentrification, pushing working class families out as more affluent upper middle class families moved in. Waters has seen the same transformation and Soto understands her school now has resources many others long for. 

“I know I’m very fortunate. But I think we have to understand that we are all part of CPS and we need to think about how we can make it equitable for all students,” she said. “All kids should have the books and supplies they need and a safe and supportive learning environment regardless of what zip code they’re in.” 

NBCT

As a National Board Certified Teacher — she received certification in 2019 and renewed it this year — Soto believes in a play-based classroom and self-paced learning. 

“I think it’s important to make sure students have time to explore their own learning and that their classroom has everything they need to make their own discoveries,” she said. “But what I am most proud of as a teacher is when I get students who think they know everything then realize they can still learn something from me.”

As an executive board member, Soto has been helping to craft the proposals for our next contract. Ensuring schools have what students need to learn well is a priority, she said. That means heating and cooling systems that work well throughout the building — including the gym — and fine arts, such as painting, dancing, drama and music for all students.

“For too long, people have lifted fine arts as special things that only certain schools could have,” she said. “But for many students, the arts are an avenue to escape from their environment. So, it’s important that we advocate for the resources all children need to feel they have a chance.”

For example, Soto is a fan of house music and in collaboration with Mr. Tony Technics, a well known DJ, has developed a class on it for students and educators. “House music was born in Chicago. It’s a part of our history, but people don’t give it enough credit,” she said. The Quest Center will offer the class in May.  

Appreciate educators

Making sure the next contract demonstrates the city’s appreciation for its educators is another high priority. “In the simplest terms, I want to make sure we have a contract that pays us well and recognizes the experience we have,” she said. “We do a lot of work that isn’t always recognized and, frankly, isn’t always paid.” 

Thinking back to the eve of the 2012 strike, when Soto first became a union activist, she remembered how the thought of going without a paycheck scared her. For support, she leaned into her union siblings, who were feeling the same. The excitement of seeing the sea of red shirts also helped ease her mind.

At the time, Mayor Rahm Emanuel was pushing the narrative that the CTU and its lazy teachers were this big, bad enemy at fault for the district’s flaws, instead of the deep-seated systemic racism and inequities that are the real culprit. 

“A lot of times you hear people talk about our union as if it’s this abstract thing,” she said. “But we’re just moms, teachers, even former CPS students, who are willing to stand up, talk about and fight for what our teachers and students all across this city need.” 

There’s nothing so scary about that.