A Chicago math teacher and chess coach expelled from the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) for skipping an organized strike in April fears he may have to pay an even steeper price.
“There’s a chance that I will lose my job,” Joseph Ocol told CBS 2 recently.
Ocol, who teaches at Earle STEM Elementary on Chicago’s South Side, wasn’t among strikers during the one-day union-organized protest against the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) administration and contract negotiations. Instead, Ocol opted to practice with his chess team.
“They sent me a letter, asking me to sign the form that I should give up my April 1st day, or if (I) want to contest it, I should submit a letter and for me to appear before a hearing, this June 6th,” Ocol told AM 560’s Dan Proft and Amy Jacobson last month.
Ocol said the hearing was scheduled at a time that was inconvenient for him.
“That would be about 6:15 p.m, and I will not be able to go, because it’s a Monday, and again, I promised the kids, after school, I’ll be with them as much as possible, even if I don’t get paid, because it’s something, to me, that I’d like to help the kids,” Ocol said at the time.
Chess is more than just a game, he said. More than 90 percent of the population at Earle STEM Elementary comes from families living below the poverty line. Considering the challenges students face, Ocol said his objective is to try to help students develop a way of thinking that transcends the actual board game.
“Chess is about life,” he said. “This is about saving lives, and that’s the reason, of all the activities, chess will be occupied there, because it’s not only the less expensive activity, it’s the most effective in developing critical-thinking skills, strategy/planning skills for the kids; let them be aware that every move that they make, as in life, has a consequence.”
The consequence for Ocol’s decision to be with his chess team during the strike resulted in his expulsion from the union.
“Mr. Ocol has been informed of his member privileges and is talking to us through media, which is unfortunate,” CTU said in a statement to CBS 2. “All members are well aware of what happens to strike breakers, and are informed by their own peers of the process for both suspension and reinstatement. CTU is a democratically led member-organization.”
CPS officials, however, did not share the union’s opinion and praised Ocol for his dedication to students.
“This is exactly the kind of professionalism that the Chicago Teachers Union should be holding up as a shining example of what it means to be committed to students,” CPS told the news station. “Instead, the opposite happened – and he was unjustly punished for his dedication to the people who matter most – his students. We hope he remains a teacher for years to come.”
Ocol started the chess team at the elementary school when he joined its faculty – a decision Ocol said caused resistance from some union members who “seemed not inclined to accept change.”
“Yes, and it’s more about the self-invested interest,” he said during his AM 560 interview. “They don’t want the school to succeed. They don’t want the kids to succeed. It’s something like a sort of conspiracy. So I talked with the principle – the principle was the one who invited me (to join the faculty) – so I said, ‘I’ll do what I can, even if I don’t get peer support.’”
Ocol said he didn’t mean to paint the entire faculty with the same brush because he noticed the behavior among “old timers.”
“I’m not talking about all the members of the faculty there," he said. "I’m talking about the old timers there who seem to think that just because they’re union members, they can just bully anybody and just take control of the situation."
Despite all the resistance, Ocol said he and the other teachers are simply trying to keep the kids first.
“The bottom line really is about the kids, but some people tend to disregard that and they tend to pretend that they’re helping when they’re not," he said. "They’re just the vibration of the peer support, the sort of conspiracy to sabotage. So we’re doing what we can, and the bottom line is we’re trying to help the kids."
The silver lining to Ocol’s story is that soon after the strike, the girls chess team won the national championship, and the boys won 5th place less than a year after the students began playing chess.
The Earle STEM Elementary School chess team currently has almost 40 members. The team will be recognized at the Chicago City Council meeting on Wednesday.