You may not know Xian Barrett. You may not even have heard of him. If you have, it may well have been through Lauren Fitzpatrick’s mid-July article in the Chicago Sun-Times, “CPS calls teacher’s mom to tell him he’s laid off.” Mr. Barrett, a 2009 Teaching Fellow with the U.S. Department of Education, is one of 2113 employees of Chicago Public Schools who was laid off at the time. 1036 of those employees were teachers, joining the 545 already laid off (along with 305 other CPS employees) due to the recent closing of 48 schools. That represents a total layoff of 6% of the CPS faculty, blamed on the expiration of a three-year period of pension relief. In the meantime, “the Board of Education voted to increase its payment to [Teach for America] from $600,000 to nearly $1.6 million, and to add up to 325 new recruits to CPS classrooms, in addition to 270 second year ‘teacher interns.’” (Fitzpatrick)
While Mr. Barrett achieved instant national fame due to the quirk that his principal called his mom’s phone number to fire him, his name was not unfamiliar in educational circles prior to that moment. He has been a strong voice advocating for students, one that recognizes that “putting students first” does not automatically mean putting teachers last, as too many school reformers seem to believe. He was the kind of teacher who would write in the aftermath of being fired without the due process his being tenured ought to guarantee him:
• “I feel fortunate to work with amazing students who communicate directly and frequently the difference my work makes, a supportive professional group of colleagues and the warmest community organizers and allies anyone could ask for.”
• “I always teach my students that our voices may not be the strongest; our writing might not be the most polished; we may be nervous and stumble; but our experiences are precious and must be heard and we are the only ones who can make that happen.”
• “I listened most deeply to the largest portion of my students and learned to support them in all the right battles: for student voice, against sexism, homophobia, ableism, and racism…” (Barrett)
I feel equally fortunate to work with amazing colleagues and students, and try to communicate those same values every day. One of the main differences between Mr. Barrett and me, then, is the context. Mr. Barrett worked in a system where the odds were stacked against him. Public schools are expected to churn out students who perform well on standardized tests regardless of the circumstances in which they work (for one example, please note that some of Chicago’s suburbs spent as much as $22,915 per student while Gage Park High School, where Mr. Barrett taught, spent $11,303 per student); encouraging and developing student voice is rarely on the radar. I, on the other hand, work in a school whose mission, built on feminist ideals, explicitly promotes the development of student voice, where working for social justice (from whatever perspective each individual person may be coming) is fundamentally integral to our work. I know it would be a gross overstatement to suggest that my school cares about students more than the Chicago Board of Education. But one may be forgiven for having that impression. In his most recent blog, Mr. Barrett also wrote, “I would ask each of you to pause to capture in your mind that one teacher or several that altered the course of your life. Now tear them from the fabric of your experience. What would it look like? How would you be changed? Our city inflicts that sadistic exercise on our impoverished students of color as a regular occurrence.”
What happened to Mr. Barrett – and what therefore happened to his students – is simply wrong. Our school draws on its feminist roots to provide a holistic and high quality education as part of our work to bring about social justice and true equity. The solution, as I was discussing one July morning with Kristoffer Kohl of the Center for Teaching Quality, has got to be for all of us to work until absolutely all students in this country, wherever they may be attending school, can have the same opportunities, where they can work unfettered with oustanding, courageous, and inspirational teachers like Xian Barrett. We can differ about the exact paths to achieve that goal. But the goal itself is inarguable.