Guest teaching can be a grueling, kick-you-in-the-stomach kind of experience. But CTU member Michelle Correa got her start teaching as a guest teacher and she wouldn’t have had it any other way.
“I feel very lucky to have been introduced to teaching as a guest teacher,” she said. “It’s a hard job — no doubt about it — but that’s how I fell in love with the chaos of the classroom.” Guest teachers are what used to be called substitutes.
It helped that she began her teaching career at the same Waukegan middle school she attended as a child, a school she loved, with wonderful teachers who supported her.
Completely at home
“I don’t think I would’ve pursued a career in education if it hadn’t been for substitute teaching at Daniel Webster Middle School,” she said. “I loved everything about it. Teaching from the same desk I used to stare at as a kid, taking my class into the same library with the same librarian I used to have. I remember feeling completely at home and it made me look forward to going into work everyday.”
Born in Evanston, Correa’s family moved back and forth from Chicago to Copacabana, Columbia, for the first 10 years of her life. Some years, she would begin school in Columbia and finish the grade at Joyce Kilmer Elementary School in Rogers Park.
While Correa didn’t like the constant moves as a child, now she appreciates the experience of attending school in two different countries. “By the time fifth grade came around, my teachers knew the drill,” she said. “And I had amazing ELL support.”
Eventually, Correa and her mother settled in Waukegan. After high school, she attended the University of Illinois Chicago, earning a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and gender and women’s studies in 2011. She earned her school counseling degree from National Lewis University in 2019.
After subbing in Waukegan, she worked for a year as an ELL teacher in Zion before moving to her current school, Christopher House, in 2015, also as an ELL teacher. She became the school’s counselor in 2019 and created its first counseling program, a source of great pride for her.
Christopher House, in the Belmont-Cragin neighborhood, had been a non-union charter school. But in 2020, when the administration tried to force educators and students back to full-time in-person school, during a COVID surge, staff reached out to the CTU and, with the union’s help, began organizing.
“During this time, the only place and people we felt support from was CTU,” she said. “We tried advocating against the reopening via letters and emails and during meetings, but our admin and leadership refused. It wasn’t until we started organizing with CTU that our voices were heard.”
Advocating for their students’ safety during the worst of COVID led to the successful unionization drive at the school. Members at Christopher House voted almost unanimously to join CTU in June, 2021.
“This was something I and my colleagues had joked about for years — it seemed like such a far-fetched dream,” she said. “But being unionized has changed everything in our school from our CEO, to our CFO to multiple administrators. And it eliminated the fear and favoritism that ran our school for as long as we could remember.”
Building union power
Now, members at Christopher House are negotiating their first union contract as part of CTU’s coordinated charter contract campaign. The union is working to build power by coordinating negotiations with 13 charter operators representing 35 schools across the city.
Correa herself has become a committed, active CTU member. She chairs her school’s safety committee, is a member of the bargaining team, serves on the CTU-ACTS coordinating committee and on the union-wide new organizing committee. She and a colleague presented their organizing story at last year’s Labor Notes conference.
“CTU is now an enormous part of our school culture and a big part of my life,” Correa said. “We wear red on Fridays, we organize rallies and walk-ins and we engage in acts of solidarity to support all our union siblings because we understand, on a very personal level, that an injury to one is an injury to us all.”