“I joined CPS not to be a union member, but to purposefully help the kids.”
Joseph Ocol teaches math and started chess clubs he coaches at Earle STEM Elementary School in Englewood, one of Chicago's toughest neighborhoods. For choosing to be with his students over participating in the Chicago Teachers' Union's one-day strike on April 1, Ocol was expelled from the union and now faces possible termination. Ocol joined Dan & Amy with an update on his status.
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Dan Proft: Good morning, Dan and Amy. Well, we were one of the first to bring you this story and develop it. This is the story of CPS, Chicago Public School math teacher and chess team coach, Joseph Ocol, who works at Earle STEM Academy in the Inglewood neighborhood. Rough neighborhood, high crime area, children from low income homes, and he’s done the unthinkable. Amy Jacobson: What’s that? Dan Proft: He’s started a chess team at the school – this is recently, within the last year, or two years, very recent – and because he prioritized his students over the Chicago Teachers’ Union he was expelled from the Teachers’ Union. He skipped the Union’s one day show protest. Amy Jacobson: Oh, the day of action. Yeah, that was April 1st. Dan Proft: The show strike on April 1st, and he did so because he was coaching his chess team. Coaching his chess team, so he didn’t want to do the walk around the Thompson Center with a sign about socialism, or whatever, and strike from his job. He just wanted to do his job. Well, he received a correspondence, via certified mail, from Chicago Teachers’ Union chief executive officer Karen Lewis, and that expelled him from the union. Now he wonders if he will continue to be employed by Earle STEM Academy and the Chicago Public School system. Amy Jacobson: We should remind people that you and other of our listeners raised thousands of dollars to send this group, this chess team, to Washington DC. Dan Proft: Yeah, they had an opportunity to go to DC, they were invited by Congressman Danny Davis, and so they needed to raise money to get there, and so thanks to generous AM560 listeners, we raised a bunch of money, sent it over to Earle STEM Academy. And I know they did – I’ve spoken to Joseph Ocol – I know they did go on that trip to DC, and we’ll talk to him about it right now, because we’re joined by math teacher and chess coach at Earle STEM Academy, Joseph Ocol. Joseph, thanks for joining us again. Appreciate it! Joseph Ocol: Hi, good morning, Dan and good morning to the listeners to your radio station. I want to take this opportunity to thank you for bringing me to your show this morning and giving me the opportunity to share with you the news. Dan Proft: Yeah, well, we’re pleased to have you on again, and so, why don’t we start with your current situation, before we get to the chess team. So you’re kicked out of the Chicago Teachers’ Union – hooray – and now what happens, or what are you concerned may happen, with respect to your continued employment at Earle STEM Academy? Joseph Ocol: It’s sad, but I have been expelled. I’m just concerned about the kids. I’m also concerned about my job and the future where I really would like to be with the kids and continue with the program, especially in Inglewood, where there are a lot of challenges. So I’m praying that I’ll still be able to surmount these challenges, to be able to continue my advocacy for helping the kids. Because there’s so much talent in Inglewood, there’s so much talent. These are children of poverty, but many of them are very talented kids. Dan Proft: They need opportunities and they need mentors like yourself. Have you got any indications from the principle or anybody in the administration about your employment status at the school? Joseph Ocol: Not yet, but I’m bracing for the worst scenario. But I still continue to receive bullying – I would call it bullying tactics and dirty picks from certain union bullies. I think they will never stop until they get rid of me from CPS. Amy Jacobson: Yeah, I’m sure they want you to resign, but since you’ve been expelled from the union, does your seniority, are you down to the bottom of the list, then, and you possibly might not come back next year because of budget cuts? Joseph Ocol: I hope to come back, but I leave it to God. It really breaks my heart if ever I would not be able to return. I hope to find another way where I can still continue my advocacy to help the kids. Dan Proft: I just want to go back to something. I think most people listening to this are going to find this just unfathomable. You started a chess club to teach children in elementary school the game of chess, and you’ve turned these children from chess novices to on their way to being grandmasters. They’ve been very successful during your time as their coach after starting these teams, and the response from the union and perhaps some of your colleagues at the school is what you describe as bullying tactics. Can you help us understand why they don’t appreciate what they’re doing? Joseph Ocol: I think it’s more about their loyalty to the union. I see it in another way. I would like to say that I became a teacher; I joined CPS not to be union member but purposefully to help the kids. I think that’s my role; that’s the role of a teacher, to be with the children. And last April 1st, when there was no other teacher, I decided to be with the kids, because the day before, the kids were telling me I should come on April 1st, because they will be coming. I just could not think of a better reason to say, “Yes, if you come then I will come”. So that’s when I decided to cross the picket line and be with them. Amy Jacobson: Are you concerned about your kids’ safety over the summer, because they don’t have the safe haven of school, they don’t have the afterschool chess program you provided for them? Joseph Ocol: Oh, I wish to thank you and Dan and everybody, all the donors, because we still have some money for the summer project, and we’re coming up with the summer project for the kids, and actually, I’ve been getting a number of applications, kids coming to me. They says they want to start [learning? 00:07:14] chess. I said let’s have a summer program. So we’re having a summer program run through, hoping that I’ll still be around, and we’re going to have mentors among these kids. You know, mentoring is a good way – I would call it the least expensive way - to master a skill. You teach the skill, you master the skill, and I plan to develop mentors among these children. Dan Proft: Just give us a little bit of the forward look for you. If you’re relieved of your teaching job, which is just going to be an incredible occurrence, what can you still do? Are you still this iris of continuing to at least coach chess there? Will they even allow you to do that? Will you have to continue the program off-school/off-site? What’s next to you? I know you need to be employed and work like anybody else, but you say you’re planning for the worst case scenario. So what’s that plan look like? Joseph Ocol: I would still like to be with the kids, if I’d be given that the fortune would be so. Of course, I will have to apply for a job, another job, but I would like to have a job where I can be more effective, and what’s effective if not teaching them, especially in math and in chess? Dan Proft: Your experience, what does this tell you about the Chicago Teachers’ Union and about how CPS is run? Joseph Ocol: I just feel that the Chicago’s Teachers Union should not bring the kids in the middle of whatever fight they want to pursue. I think the kids should be the ones to benefit. They should not be put in the middle. And that’s a hard decision for any teacher, whether or not it’s about loyalty to the union or dedication to the kids. To me, dedication to the kids comes first, over loyalty to the Union. Dan Proft: And with respect to today’s protest rally, whatever it is that the Chicago’s Teachers Union and their members are doing downtown, will you be participating in that? Joseph Ocol: No, actually, we’re excited to meet Mayor Emanuel and the rest of the members of the city council today. Amy Jacobson: Really? Joseph Ocol: So it’s all preparing, because we will be recognized by the city council, so everybody’s excited to be there. Dan Proft: Alright, so they’re going to be honored by the city council today, and their chess coach and math teacher. Amy Jacobson: For their accomplishments. Dan Proft: And the team, right, the kids, that’s great, and the chess coach and math teacher is facing expulsion from the system because he won’t abide the union. Amy Jacobson: You need to bring that certified letter to Mayor Emanuel. Can you please do that for us? Dan Proft: No paradox there. Alright, Joseph Ocol, continue your great work as long as you’re allowed to. I’m sure you’re going to find an outlet for it, regardless of what happens at Earle STEM Elementary school where you teach math and where you coach chess. Joseph, thanks again for joining us, appreciate your time. Joseph Ocol: Thank you very much!