Karen Lewis's statement on recent kerfuffle following Lewis's Seattle speech

A November 16 press conference at the Chicago Teachers Union took place during the same time the Chicago Board of Education was meeting a mile away, and Substance couldn't be at two places at once. Below is Karen Lewis's statement, as provided by the CTU, from that press event. As those who view the video can see, she delivered the statement as it was prepared. The URL for the seven-minute video (which is well worth watching) is:

STATEMENT FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE CONTACT: Stephanie Gadlin, November 16, 2011 312/329-6250 (office)

Chicago Teachers Union President says viral video is a another attack on teachers and public education

CHICAGO – Today, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen GJ Lewis released the following statement during a news conference about her remarks in a speech before a group of social justice teachers in Seattle last month. The remarks, videotaped and posted on the internet, were subsequently edited by an anti-public education, anti-labor group and sent to the media to stir controversy. Posted on the same website that promoted sensational, doctored footage featuring civil rights advocate Shirley Sherrod, the edited video sparked the interest of credible media who subsequently ran the footage on local and national television networks.

“Over the past 48 hours much has been made about remarks I made during a presentation at the Rethinking Schools: Northwest Teaching for Justice Conference in Seattle last month. In addition to talking about the critical issues that impact our schools, 120 seconds of my 35-minute speech included comments about well-known personalities and civic leaders with whom I have disagreed over the years.

“As you know, neo-conservative, anti-labor and anti-public education bloggers -- with a history of distorting and misrepresenting the truth -- seized the opportunity to create a pseudo- firestorm around my comments in order to distract from our work at the Chicago Teachers Union. One such blogger created a viral video, edited for dramatic effect, and then distributed his skewed video to the media and others in the blogosphere in an attempt to smear my character.

“With that said, let me be emphatically clear. Some of what I said was inappropriate and insensitive. No one should ever resort to personal attacks. I have often been on the receiving end of negative, hostile and profane remarks. You should see some of the emails I get—and that’s when I’m not saying things I shouldn’t. Sometimes I even poke fun at myself, as you saw in the video. People seem to think that as public figures we are immune to the things that are said about us in the public or by the media. The editorial cartoons aren’t supposed to sting. The commentaries and cheap shots on talk radio aren’t supposed to matter. The stinging observations filtered by news anchors, columnists and talking heads should not cause alarm. The little jokes told about us at dinner parties shouldn’t cause concern for this sort of thing are just a part of the game. At the end of the day—words hurt.

“Think about the more than 400,000 school children who are told every day they can’t pass the test; aren’t graduating; their teachers are all bad; their parents are ill-equipped; their neighborhoods are filled with crime, violence and despair; and their schools need to be shut down, consolidated or given over to private interests. Words hurt.

“I’ve spent more than 20 years as an educator and only a year as Union President. During that time I’ve watched as my colleagues and I have been blamed for all that’s wrong in public education. I guess we are supposed to just sit there and take it. Suffer silently. Take whatever is given to us and do not put up a fight. During much of that time, educating our children has been the responsibility of city leaders. Under the ‘education mayor’ and school CEOs, with no backgrounds in education, our children have been neglected.

“When the powers that be get tired of beating up on educators they attack the parents and sometimes the students themselves. Never is the finger pointed at the policies or the people that make them.

“Just this morning I saw several stories about the actions of “bad teachers,” including one teacher more than 1,000 miles away, who wears “flip flops” and was accused of asking her students to “rub her feet.” Other teachers are highlighted because of criminal improprieties and lapses in moral conduct and judgment. Look, we get it. There are bad people in every profession—all it takes is one overzealous cop; one ambitious prosecutor; one hungry reporter who fudges on the facts; or one politician on the take who doles out contracts to his friends to ruin it for us all. YES, I GET IT.

“What’s fair is fair. But these isolated incidents do great damage to the hundreds of thousands of dedicated teachers who serve our communities each and every single day. With that said, the 120 seconds of my speech highlighted on the video posted on Andrew Brietbart’s website is just another example of a distortion of facts and the vilification of educators. Look at the entire video—and in context. Do not use this 120 seconds of poor humor to cast judgment on our entire body of work or our fight to end the structural inequality in our schools.

“What I said should not be taken as an example of what a teacher is or is not. I was speaking as an individual, as the leader of a Union; as a person who is part of a coalition that has been in a hard and mostly unpublicized fight against some very powerful forces.

“Teachers work long hours; we pay for school supplies out of our own pockets; and contrary to lies and myths, we are not paid for summer vacations. Many teachers work second jobs just to make ends meet. These teachers are who I speak for. These teachers have said over and over that they want a clear, un-bought and unafraid voice to speak for and fight for them.

“This is why I ran for president of the Chicago Teachers Union. And quite, frankly, that is why I won. I came from the rank and file---and I have no fear of saying what needs to be said in order to protect the interests of our students and the people who teach them. I have never shied away from what I think and maybe that is one reason why I stand here today.

“Yet, it is apparent, after reviewing my remarks that I have built up a huge wall of frustration. I should have not let that frustration get the best of me and I should have never engaged in a personal attack against anyone. It won’t happen again.

“I have apologized and now we can move on from a year of distractions to real conversations about public education. I also apologize to America’s teachers and paraprofessionals—and as your voice; I know how hard you work to remove the stereotypes and stigmas attached to our profession. But I implore you to look at the entire 35-minute video and to listen to the entire speech so you can make a decision for yourself without the filter of rightwing pundits and anti-public education, media-savvy operatives.

“Last, to answer at least one question offered by one local news station--no, I will not step down from my office. I’m a fighter and we are in this for the long haul.

“Thank you and if there are any questions, I’d be happy to answer them.”

The Chicago Teachers Union represents 30,000 teachers and educational support personnel working in the Chicago Public Schools and, by extension, the students and families they serve. CTU, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers and the Illinois Federation of Teachers, is the third largest teachers local in the country and the largest local union in Illinois. For more information visit CTU’s website at



Lewis stands her ground Outspoken CTU president says she won't quit, despite criticism

By Joel Hood, Chicago Tribune reporter, November 17, 2011

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis was back at the lectern Wednesday to clarify some incendiary remarks and stamp out a firestorm of her own creation.

This time, the brash union leader was apologizing for jokes she made about U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan's lisp at a union rally that was captured on video and widely circulated online earlier this week. Lewis called Duncan on Monday to smooth things over with the former Chicago Public Schools chief, then defiantly told reporters Wednesday she is not resigning.

"Some of what I said was inappropriate and insensitive. No one should ever resort to personal attacks," Lewis said. "I should not have let the frustration get the best of me, and I should never have engaged in a personal attack against anyone. It won't happen again."

Lewis, 58, a longtime high school science teacher in Chicago, has become a polarizing figure a year after taking the helm as union president. From her outspoken disdain for Mayor Rahm Emanuel's education policies — she recently called Emanuel "anti-teacher" — to her public quarrels with CPS leadership and the school board over the contentious longer school day issue, Lewis has won both supporters and critics.

Some now wonder if Lewis' public persona will hamper the union as it prepares to sit down with CPS in what's expected to be a heated teachers contract renegotiation.

"She is who she said she would be ... but is it a liability? Maybe," said Barbara Radner, director of DePaul University's Center for Urban Education. "Really we're talking about confrontation or compromise. And in my opinion, it's time to be strategic and not argumentative."

Others say Lewis' toughness is exactly what Chicago's teachers need in a time of crisis.

"Karen and the union are in an uphill battle; teachers all over the country are under attack by very powerful people, including Rahm Emanuel," said Julie Woestehoff, executive director of the parents' advocacy group PURE. "Just taking the calm and measured approach is not going to fight off the slings and arrows that are coming at you.

"The fact is, Karen has been a big enough person to apologize and say when she screwed up. And you don't find that very often."

Lewis is no stranger to controversy. She initially supported a Senate bill aimed at stripping power from the union by making it easier to lengthen the school day without its consent, to dump ineffective teachers and to limit the union's ability to strike. Union members were outraged, and Lewis pulled her support from the ultimately successful bill, saying someone had sneaked in and changed it to make it tougher on the union.

Lewis openly feuded with Chicago Public Schools chief Jean-Claude Brizard and Emanuel over the longer school days and teacher compensation, accusing them of not caring about schoolchildren or their education. Invited by Brizard to participate on an advisory committee to study the issue, Lewis declined, a move that rankled some union members.

Despite opposition from some principals, parents and union teachers, Lewis pushed a legal case against the school district over the longer school days issue, winning a decision by a state labor relations board to seek court intervention to force schools to revert to their shorter schedules. The union later worked out a compromise with CPS to keep the longer school days in place.

Lewis' many public battles have alienated some union teachers and also former union members who've flooded online message boards or news outlets in recent weeks with sharp criticism. Some have labeled Lewis' comments "outrageous" and "disgraceful."

As the keynote speaker at the Northwest Teaching for Justice Conference in Seattle last month, Lewis said about Duncan, "Now, you know he went to a private school because if he had gone to a public school he would have had that lisp fixed."

Afterward, Lewis seemed to back off the statement, saying, "I know, that was ugly, wasn't it? I'm sorry."

Later in the speech, Lewis made jokes about her frequent use of marijuana while a student at Dartmouth College in the 1970s. Asked by reporters Wednesday what message those remarks send to school children in Chicago, Lewis said she wasn't trying to send any message.

"It's what happened," she said. "I simply told the truth about my past."

As a public figure, Lewis said, she knows better than anyone what it feels like when someone's criticism becomes personal.

"I have often been on the receiving end of negative, hostile and profane remarks," Lewis said. "You should see the emails I get. And that's when I'm not saying things I shouldn't."

But she made clear that she's not backing down.

"I have no fear of saying what needs to be said in order to protect the interests of our students and the people who teach them," Lewis said. "I have never shied away from what I think, and maybe that's one reason why I stand here today."


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