CHICAGO – Today, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen GJ Lewis released the following statement during a news conference about her remarks in a speech before a group of social justice teachers in Seattle last month. The remarks, videotaped and posted on the internet, were subsequently edited by an anti-public education, anti-labor group and sent to the media to stir controversy. Posted on the same website that promoted sensational, doctored footage featuring civil rights advocate Shirley Sherrod, the edited video sparked the interest of credible media who subsequently ran the footage on local and national television networks.
“Over the past 48 hours much has been made about remarks I made during a presentation at the Rethinking Schools: Northwest Teaching for Justice Conference in Seattle last month. In addition to talking about the critical issues that impact our schools, 120 seconds of my 35-minute speech included comments about well-known personalities and civic leaders with whom I have disagreed over the years.
“As you know, neo-conservative, anti-labor and anti-public education bloggers — with a history of distorting and misrepresenting the truth — seized the opportunity to create a pseudo- firestorm around my comments in order to distract from our work at the Chicago Teachers Union. One such blogger created a viral video, edited for dramatic effect, and then distributed his skewed video to the media and others in the blogosphere in an attempt to smear my character.
“With that said, let me be emphatically clear. Some of what I said was inappropriate and insensitive. No one should ever resort to personal attacks. I have often been on the receiving end of negative, hostile and profane remarks. You should see some of the emails I get—and that’s when I’m not saying things I shouldn’t. Sometimes I even poke fun at myself, as you saw in the video. People seem to think that as public figures we are immune to the things that are said about us in the public or by the media. The editorial cartoons aren’t supposed to sting. The commentaries and cheap shots on talk radio aren’t supposed to matter. The stinging observations filtered by news anchors, columnists and talking heads should not cause alarm. The little jokes told about us at dinner parties shouldn’t cause concern for this sort of thing are just a part of the game.
At the end of the day—words hurt.
“Think about the more than 400,000 school children who are told every day they can’t pass the test; aren’t graduating; their teachers are all bad; their parents are ill-equipped; their neighborhoods are filled with crime, violence and despair; and their schools need to be shut down, consolidated or given over to private interests. Words hurt.
“I’ve spent more than 20 years as an educator and only a year as Union President. During that time I’ve watched as my colleagues and I have been blamed for all that’s wrong in public education. I guess we are supposed to just sit there and take it. Suffer silently. Take whatever is given to us and do not put up a fight. During much of that time, educating our children has been the responsibility of city leaders. Under the ‘education mayor’ and school CEOs, with no backgrounds in education, our children have been neglected.
“When the powers that be get tired of beating up on educators they attack the parents and sometimes the students themselves. Never is the finger pointed at the policies or the people that make them.
“Just this morning I saw several stories about the actions of “bad teachers,” including one teacher more than 1,000 miles away, who wears “flip flops” and was accused of asking her students to “rub her feet.” Other teachers are highlighted because of criminal improprieties and lapses in moral conduct and judgment. Look, we get it. There are bad people in every profession—all it takes is one overzealous cop; one ambitious prosecutor; one hungry reporter who fudges on the facts; or one politician on the take who doles out contracts to his friends to ruin it for us all. YES, I GET IT.
“What’s fair is fair. But these isolated incidents do great damage to the hundreds of thousands of dedicated teachers who serve our communities each and every single day. With that said, the 120 seconds of my speech highlighted on the video posted on Andrew Brietbart’s website is just another example of a distortion of facts and the vilification of educators. Look at the entire video—and in context. Do not use this 120 seconds of poor humor to cast judgment on our entire body of work or our fight to end the structural inequality in our schools.
“What I said should not be taken as an example of what a teacher is or is not. I was speaking as an individual, as the leader of a Union; as a person who is part of a coalition that has been in a hard and mostly unpublicized fight against some very powerful forces.
“Teachers work long hours; we pay for school supplies out of our own pockets; and contrary to lies and myths, we are not paid for summer vacations. Many teachers work second jobs just to make ends meet. These teachers are who I speak for. These teachers have said over and over that they want a clear, un-bought and unafraid voice to speak for and fight for them.
“This is why I ran for president of the Chicago Teachers Union. And quite, frankly, that is why I won. I came from the rank and file—and I have no fear of saying what needs to be said in order to protect the interests of our students and the people who teach them. I have never shied away from what I think and maybe that is one reason why I stand here today.
“Yet, it is apparent, after reviewing my remarks that I have built up a huge wall of frustration. I should have not let that frustration get the best of me and I should have never engaged in a personal attack against anyone. It won’t happen again.
“I have apologized and now we can move on from a year of distractions to real conversations about public education. I also apologize to America’s teachers and paraprofessionals—and as your voice; I know how hard you work to remove the stereotypes and stigmas attached to our profession. But I implore you to look at the entire 35-minute video and to listen to the entire speech so you can make a decision for yourself without the filter of rightwing pundits and anti-public education, media-savvy operatives.
“Last, to answer at least one question offered by one local news station–no, I will not step down from my office. I’m a fighter and we are in this for the long haul.
“Thank you and if there are any questions, I’d be happy to answer them.”
The Chicago Teachers Union represents 30,000 teachers and educational support personnel working in the Chicago Public Schools and, by extension, the students and families they serve. CTU, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers and the Illinois Federation of Teachers, is the third largest teachers local in the country and the largest local union in Illinois. For more information visit CTU’s website at www.ctunet.com