Sylvelia Pittman

Photo of CTU member Sylvelia Pittman.Sylvelia Pittman was worried about her boy. One day, when her son was in fourth grade, he went behind his parents’ backs to get his ears pierced after school, while they were at work. His willingness to make major decisions unilaterally, on unsupervised time, frightened her. She worried that, as a Black boy, she could “lose him to the streets,” unless she strengthened their bond.

She already worked in education, as the director of a child parent center, but her work day ended at 6 p.m. So, to gain more time to connect with her son, she left that job to work as a guest teacher at Hefferan Elementary, her son’s school. She looks back on it as one of the best decisions she has ever made.

True calling

“Becoming a teacher started out as a very pragmatic decision for my family, but I feel like I truly found my calling,” she said. “One of the things I like the most about teaching is helping young people find their voice and understand it’s not just what you say, but how you say it that’s important.”

Born and raised between Louisiana and Mississippi until age 11, Pittman’s parents eventually settled in Saginaw, Michigan. After high school, she returned to the south to attend Jackson State University, a Historically Black University. She earned her bachelor’s degree in Childcare and Family Education there and also met the love of her life, her husband, with whom she moved to Chicago.

After earning her degree, she taught at Hefferan for five years, while working toward her master’s in education. After that, she moved to Nash School of Fine and Performing Arts, where she now serves as a math interventionist.

When Pittman began at Nash, the school was not a performing arts school. Still, she helped produce plays, dances and art shows for the students and eventually Nash became the first elementary performing arts school on the West Side.

Arts exposure

Pittman believes exposure to the arts is important for all students, but especially for the Black and Brown students Nash serves. “We give them a way to explore their talents and their gifts and see how those things could take them further in life,” she said.

Teaching for Pittman has been rewarding and challenging at the same time: rewarding because educators help transform lives but challenging because of the lack of resources CPS provides to schools on the West and South Side of the city.

Witnessing those inequities first hand is one of the reasons Pittman became a union activist. At the urging of then-CTU-Organizers Brandon Johnson and Christel Williams, she stepped up to serve as Nash delegate in 2011. She helped organize her colleagues through two strikes and the fight for COVID safety protections during the pandemic.

Fight for funding

Now, she is dedicated to the fight for full funding and for a contract that transforms our schools. She attended a recent lobby day in the state capitol for We Care participants and has enrolled in this year’s Summer Organizing Institute.

Pittman said her top priorities for the next CTU/CPS contract are restructuring the middle school day and providing more bilingual resources for schools, like hers, that have welcomed newcomer students and families.

Nash used to be 98% Black with one or two Latine or white students, she said. But in the last year, the school’s Spanish speaking population exploded with no extra resources to serve them. The school has welcomed some 65 newcomer students, most of them needing bilingual services as well as social and emotional support.

Yet, this year, Nash employed only one Spanish-speaking educator and she does not have a bilingual endorsement.

Making the most of what they have

“We do the best we can, using a lot of Google Translate. It’s just never enough,” she said. “But the students light up any time they hear you trying to speak their language.”

The newcomer influx also has caused class sizes to balloon, with kindergarten, first and second grade topping out at 30 students or more, another issue Pittman said must be addressed in our new contract.

When not teaching or working on a union campaign, Pittman also finds fulfillment in a new acting career. At school, she had always worked behind the scenes but three years ago began auditioning for on screen roles. Since then, she has appeared in four movies.

“I’d always been behind the scenes, but I thought if I can coach, I can probably act,” she said. “For me, it’s a creative outlet, a way to escape from what I do every day. I get to lose myself in the character and don’t have to be Ms. Pittman the teacher.”

With 23 years of service to CPS students, Pittman is beginning to imagine the next chapter of her life. “Even after I retire, I will still be fighting for those who feel their voices aren’t or can’t be heard,” she said. “I’ll always be a warrior for those who don’t know how to fight.”