Students’ Agency and Education: Nervous Conditions and the Chicago Teachers Union Strike

Reading about the Chicago Teachers Union strike in the New York Times and on the Chicago Tribune website, I realized that the education of the students was foregrounded often by parents and politicians who were against the strike, but also by teachers and supporters of the strike. The lack of self-agency that students have within the education system became apparent to me and reminded me of Tambu’s lack of agency in Nervous Conditions.

The particular connection was the issue of access to quality education for children of low income families.In Nervous Conditions, were it not for the influence and the money of Babamukuru, Tambu would not have been able to go to the mission and if not for the excellent educational environment of Babamukuru’s house, Nyasha’s book cache, and the mission’s training she would not have been able to go to Sacred Heart. Although, in the United States today, integrated pre-K-12 education is available for all children – male or female, black or white, rich or poor, the quality of education still varies in the way of exclusive access to high quality education reminiscent of Nervous Conditions. Children who would be in situations like Tambu’s (impoverished) in the U.S. are not guaranteed the best education and cannot attend most private schools due to high tuition costs and rarity of scholarships. Now that states face budget cuts, schools are actually becoming very unequal places.

A central issue of the Chicago strike according to the Chicago Tribune article (linked here) is that public schools, due to the limited budget of the Chicago government, are not receiving enough funding. Because of this, teachers are being laid off with no guarantee of rehire and the school day was lengthened without a significant raise for teachers. I heard from those for and against the strike, that the heart of the matter was about supporting the best interest of the students. What is that best interest?

There were no interviews with students in the articles and the lack of agency that children who fall victim to government budget cuts and teacher strikes was seldom touched upon as a major issue – I think it should have been an article “Teachers Strike, Mayor Disagrees, Parents in the Middle: What do the kids think?”.

If one does believe that the Chicago Teacher’s Union went on strike for the children and not just for better pay, school environments for themselves, fairer performance reviews, and job security, then I suppose that the strike is a symbolic action of adults standing up for children and giving their interests agency.

“This is not about money. It’s about working conditions and class sizes that haven’t changed in 35 years,” said Karen Krenik, a preschool teacher at De Diego Academy (New York Times).

This quote in the NY Times article points to the intersectionality between teacher’s conditions and students’ conditions, which I believe makes students’ rights a large part of strikes and I believe that politicians should watch the anti-union rhetoric that tries to stigmatize teacher’s union strikes as solely related to teachers (esp. when the purpose of teaching is to serve students). The rhetoric like: “I want our kids to have the skills they need for the jobs of tomorrow and that means put our kids first and put the teachers unions behind” said Romney campaigning in Ohio (New York Times), is what I believe should be avoided and does nothing for the voiceless children Romney is referring to. Whereas, in the U.S. today politicians and teachers speak up while claiming the best interest of children, in Nervous Conditions, adults rarely stood up for Tambu’s education, except for Maiguru when she crossed her arms and influenced Babamukuru to let Tambu attend Sacred Heart, “I don’t think Tambudzai will be corrupted by going to that schoo,l” (pg. 184).

However, if one believes that the teachers are not striking for the best interest of children, as Mayor Rahm Emanuel expressed this week, then one might view the mayor, who called for the end of the strike, as standing up for the children of Chicago’s learning– so that they can just go back to school.The symbolism in Rahm Emanuel, the mayor of Chicago, chastising the strike, but then having children enrolled – not in public, but – in private school is one that seems to represent the dissonance between the rhetoric of politics and the choices of politicians. I think the paradox of the placement of public official Emanuel’s children in private institutions points to where the truth in educational inequity lies: power, agency, voice, and privilege.

I think that someone should write a book about U.S. education that takes on the style and structure of Nervous Conditions (point of view, narrative style, and character types) to explore this issue of agency and education further.


Chicago Tribune

Carey, Nick. “Thousands of Chicago teachers take to streets on first day of strike,” The New York Times. September 12, 2012.

Dangarembga, Tsitsi. Nervous ConditionsOxfordshire: Ayebia Clarke Publishing, Ltd,  2004. Print.


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