Our Union Called for a Cease-Fire. It's About Our Students.

Why the membership of the Chicago Teachers Union voted overwhelmingly to support a cease-fire—and how we see ourselves as part of a larger labor movement for peace and justice.

Dave Stieber

If you teach, your absolute worst nightmare is that something tragic happens to your students. Teachers don’t just think about students when they are in front of us; we think about them throughout each day and night. They are a central part of our lives. 

For too many of us teachers, we have also had to wrestle with how to respond when something tragic happens to our students. And tragedy strikes at a devastatingly regular pace.

When a young person steps into our classroom, the first thing we do is work to connect. That’s the best way students learn. When a student doesn’t live up to their own potential, we take it personally. We obsess about what went wrong.

Caring about students also means deliberately caring about the world we are helping them grow into. It has never been enough to only teach students when they are in the classroom; we have to advocate for them all the time.

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For too many of us teachers, we have also had to wrestle with how to respond when something tragic happens to our students. And tragedy strikes at a devastatingly regular pace. Losing one student is unbearable; I’ve lost damn near a classroom over my 17 years, from intra-communal violence, police violence and tragic accidents. Thinking about and seeing the pain their families experience is soul-shattering.

Fundamentally, educators are really only in this profession because we care so deeply about young people and the promise they hold — not in our communities, but across the globe.

Watching what is happening in Gaza has been soul-shattering too. Some 10,000 children have been killed since October 7; many are now without parents; some have been held hostage. Every one of them is someone’s child, someone’s loved one, someone’s student.

Some 10,000 children have been killed since October 7; many are now without parents; some have been held hostage. Every one of them is someone’s child, someone’s loved one, someone’s student.

I’ve been told directly that teachers need to stick to teaching, that international matters aren’t something we should talk about, and that educators don’t have any clue or right to comment on issues that may seem so far away.

But we know what it is like to lose students, to see young people suffer. Whether that child is in Chicago, Israel, Palestine or anywhere in the world, we don’t want anyone else to experience this pain. My partner encouraged me to finally start therapy because I lost so many students that I was no longer able to cope with seeing the empty desks, the social media eulogies, the funerals.

That’s why, for the first time in the history of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), we approved a resolution on November 1 to improve how we support students during world conflicts. That’s why we also approved another resolution, to add our name to a letter with other unions calling for an immediate cease-fire in Israel and Palestine. This decision wasn’t impulsive; our members met and thoroughly considered and discussed the various angles and issues. Our hundreds of delegates, all educators, further discussed and voted democratically. The support was nearly unanimous.

The Chicago Teachers Union (left, 2019) has called for a cease-fire in the name of the common good. The aftermath of Israeli airstrikes in Gaza is seen at top (2023) and right (2021). Photos from Getty Images

But I also need to note that, even though there was so much support, this decision wasn’t easy. Union leadership is in agreement with the resolution at its core, but it is naturally concerned about potential blowback — blowback we have seen come to so many people and organizations who have called for an end to the violence, blowback that our union has received because many on the Right are upset with what we’ve been able to achieve. 

The son of our president, Stacy Davis Gates, has become a target, and her parents’ home is under police supervision because of threats. Jackson Potter, our vice president, who is Jewish, has received antisemitic threats.

There’s also concern about how the CTU might be looked at going forward. Would elected officials stop supporting us in Springfield? Would they no longer endorse legislation we put forward? We had these internal discussions and thought about our values. As Potter said at a rally in Chicago in November, organized in part by Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow: As a fighting union dedicated to the adherence of human rights, our most important representative body voted overwhelmingly in favor of a cease-fire to stop the senseless bloodshed of innocents and call for the return of all hostages.”

As always, our students are watching us and seeing if we will teach about what is happening. They know we’re not robots, and they wonder what our values are.

A big part of our motivation is that we know our students are watching the same videos and seeing the same news on TikTok and Instagram as we are. We can’t pretend like the issue is not affecting their lives, and we can’t pretend like youth in the United States don’t overwhelmingly want the violence to end. As always, our students are watching us and seeing if we will teach about what is happening. They know we’re not robots, and they wonder what our values are.

For me, too, it’s personal. My dad is a Vietnam combat veteran who was often emotionally unavailable growing up. Only after the Iraq War started, in 2003, did he meet and work with other veterans who were speaking out against wars; when my own kids were born, he finally started sharing more about his experiences. When my kids played, screamed or were loud, it took him back to a place he does not want to remember.

The killing of children and civilians, the bombing of cities, hospitals and schools, is not honorable. Death no matter where it takes place is unforgivable and destroys generations. A family doesn’t ever really come back from tragically losing a loved one.

We remember that Palestinians expressed solidarity and showed support for Black Americans during various points in the Black Lives Matter Movement, and now we see more historically marginalized groups in America unequivocally standing up for Palestinians.

It’s beyond time our elected officials and President Joe Biden call for a cease-fire and stop military funding to Israel until that cease-fire holds.

It’s beyond time our elected officials and President Joe Biden call for a cease-fire and stop military funding to Israel until that cease-fire holds. After the historic United Auto Workers strike, Biden told the union, I want to thank you for your commitment to the solidarity, for exercising your right to bargain collectively … You made this happen.” But unions are not simply concerned with pay and benefits; we worry about everything that impacts the lives of our members. This includes housing, schools, safety and life. More than a decade ago, the CTU helped inspire unions around the country to bargain for the common good of our communities and humanity. This shift, to bargain for the common good, forced Chicago politicians to not only bargain over our pay and benefits, but to bargain about housing for our students, hiring social workers and nurses, and creating green schools free of lead and asbestos.

It is in this same vein that we look to events that impact students around the world. The labor movement is responding to the violence in Israel and Palestine. The UAW signed onto the same cease-fire letter as the CTU, and we are now collectively using our voices to call for an end to the fighting.

When the violence started, the overall response from labor was modest. Many rank-and-file members were vocally against the violence, but only a smattering of locals and only a couple of nationals — like the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America and the National Writers Union — came out forcefully against the war. With pressure from the rank-and-file, that chorus has grown louder — and continues to grow.

The American Postal Workers Union joined the call for a cease-fire and a whole host of local organizations — including several teachers unions, like the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel and the Massachusetts Teachers Association — have joined the call. We’re now finding it critical to put real action behind our words and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with other social and economic justice movements to end the violence.

Violence and murder anywhere is the same everywhere. If we are not OK with kids dying in Chicago, in our country and other countries like Ukraine, then we should not be OK with kids dying in Palestine.

Many elected officials are listening, though not nearly enough. Biden and members of Congress must listen to unions and the vast majority of the American public and demand a cease-fire.

Our union represents all races, genders, nationalities and ethnicities. We teach Jewish and Palestinian students and have Jewish and Palestinian members. We didn’t just decide to call for a cease-fire and get involved in global events haphazardly. We have long been working with and inspired by parents, community organizations, students and educators to improve our city. We know that, to be there for our city, we need to be there for students everywhere. We are inspired, too, by the youth who push for legislation to help Chicago and our young people, like the Peace Book, Treatment Not Trauma and Bring Chicago Home.

Educators are always inspired by, led by and encouraged by our students, and it is for these reasons that educators who represent the CTU voted nearly unanimously to endorse a letter calling for a cease-fire in Gaza.

Violence and murder anywhere is the same everywhere. If we are not OK with kids dying in Chicago, in our country and other countries like Ukraine, then we should not be OK with kids dying in Palestine.

Cease-fire now. Solidarity forever.

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DAVE STIEBER has taught high school social studies and poetry for Chicago Public Schools for almost two decades. He is a National Board Certified teacher with a master’s in Urban Education Policy. His partner is a Chicago Public Schools teacher and their two children attend Chicago Public Schools.

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