The legacy of a unique union leader

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Associate Editor Maureen Kelleher’s brief history of Teachers for Chicago, a program that ushers career-changers into Chicago classrooms, sent me riffling through back issues of Catalyst. The impetus for the program, TFC’s Fred Chesek told Kelleher, was John Kotsakis of the Chicago Teachers Union. John’s death from a massive heart attack, at age 55, stunned the school reform community. As Catalyst wrote at the time, he “was more than the CTU’s voice of reform. He also was its arms and legs, ceaselessly making the rounds among school, union and foundation offices, as well as reform groups, to promote a new agenda for the union, including Teachers for Chicago, the CTU’s Quest Center and the New Standards Project.” He also was on the ground floor pushing for the “re-engineering” of central office and for small schools. He did all this as the CTU president’s special assistant for educational issues.

I was surprised by how far back I had to go—five years—to find our article on John’s death. Since then, the seeds that he helped plant have taken root—some more strongly than others but an impressive legacy nonetheless. Teachers for Chicago, an ingenious program that manages to meet everyone’s needs—union, School Board, universities, individual schools and adults who want to teach—has produced more than 600 teachers. Student learning standards have been written, refined and taken shape in the form of tests and lesson plans developed by Chicago teachers—recent developments whose value is yet to be determined. The city has dozens of small schools.

The Chicago Public Schools has begun to adopt other ideas that John advocated, including the mentoring of new teachers and, in very limited form, teacher peer review. Judging from an Opinions piece he wrote for Catalyst in 1993, however, John likely would continue to be frustrated by his profession’s standing. His advice then included:

“Create a mandatory peer review program for all non-tenured teachers in their first two years. No one should reach tenure without undergoing careful scrutiny, adequate guidance, and constant support for improvement.

“Chuck the present teacher evaluation system. It is a meaningless and demeaning way to encourage excellence among teachers. … Instead, establish a process of collegial review allowing teachers to observe each other, discuss each others’ work and assess what they do. That’s the best way to reinforce a set of professional values, and it’s the best way to encourage people to work together.

“Revitalize the present dismissal process so that there are trained consulting teachers who can provide real help to those who are failing. … If there are unsatisfactory teachers who won’t take the help or accept the advice, then give them a dismissal notice.

“Set the standards for the profession by adopting the work of the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards. Trust the teachers to establish their own professional standards board and decide whether a colleague is competent or not. They will be sterner task masters than most principals.”

Even in the bad old days of stuck-in-the-mud administration, John Kotsakis made a pivotal contribution to the cause of school improvement in Chicago. It’s almost painful to think what he might have accomplished now with an administration that revels in bold action.

ON THE AIR, ON LINE “City Voices,” the public affairs show broadcast every Sunday morning on WNUA-FM, 95.5, has moved forward a half hour. It now begins at 6:30 a.m. The Catalyst edition, focusing on school change in Chicago, is heard the second Sunday of the month. … Catalyst has revamped its site on the World Wide Web to provide more teacher resources and make it easier to find education-related phone numbers, statistics, policies and laws. Check it out at www.catalyst-chicago.org.