Thursday, June 2, 2016

Q&A with Chess Master Ocol

Top Englewood Chess Coach Brings Home National Championship

By Jim Vail
Special to

Chicago News spoke to Joseph Ocol, a math teacher and chess coach, who defied the odds and brought home a girls national chess championship for a Southside school. He was just recently honored by the Chicago Board of Education for his accomplishment. He teared up when he spoke to the board of ed remembering a student who was killed. He is scheduled to visit the White House with his winning middle school girls team.

CN:  Can you tell us a little about your background?

JO: I came from the Philippines about 20 years ago. I have been a math teacher in the Chicago Public Schools for about 11 years. I decided to teach chess after school because it’s the least expensive and yet the most effective way to help the kids develop critical thinking skills. I earned an engineering masters degree along with education degree in the Philippines. I then became a math teacher.

CN: Were you a big chess player before?

JO:  I have been playing since elementary school, but I never competed competitively in order to earn ratings or make money. I was just playing for fun. In college I got the chance to mentor chess to earn some money.

CN: When did you begin teaching chess in CPS?

JO: I began first teaching chess when I worked at Marshall High School. I helped start a program at Faraday School right behind the high school. I then moved to Earle Stem School, and started a program there. After I introduced chess at Earle, their academic scores went up.

CN: What is it like teaching chess and math in a rough part of town? What are the challenges?

JO:  I wanted to be a part of doing something to help the others, especially students who see no hope in their lives. I wanted to try Englewood to make a difference in their lives. So I set up the program and we have about 20 kids who come on a regular basis five days a week for two hours. I volunteer my time to help teach them chess and help them with their math. The problem we have is it is expensive to go to tournaments and pay entry fees. You need money to enter tournaments so you can get ratings and to travel. We were lucky because the nationals were in Chicago this year.

CN: What’s the difference between schools in the Philippines and schools in Chicago?

JO:  The students here are very lucky, they still have support from the government. In the Philippines kids have to walk long distances, and swim across rivers and cross several kilometers just to go to school. There is a lot of support here that some kids here do not appreciate. Students here just haven’t seen how it is in other parts of the world.

CN: There were some stories in the media about your fight with the Chicago Teachers Union. Can you explain what happened?

JO: Well I wanted to be with the kids the day of the one day strike. The kids were asking if I would come and I said if you go then I go. I’m always with the kids. The problem with the fight between the union and the management is the kids are in the middle of the fight. The strike should be a last resort. What was the result of this one-day strike? Did it really convince management to give in? I don’t really see the benefit of a one-day strike. The union needs to come up with something for the kids during this time. After all, we are the teachers.

CN: But you do support the union when it comes to supporting well-funded schools that are good for all students?

JO:  Yes. I’ve had problems with teacher bullies at my previous schools. They tried to confiscate the money our chess kids were raising. The union should have helped us. I’ve been paying union dues for 11 years now. We should be united to solve conflicts between teachers.

CN:  So what do you think about the whole school crisis budget mess? Will there be a strike to get the funding the students and teachers need to properly run the schools?

JO:  It is unfortunate the funding problems. How do the kids travel, compete or even participate in after-school activities. But it’s not always about the money. As my late mother always said you leave one thing behind – a good name and a good deed. You can’t bring the money with you. It’s all for the kids, and that’s enough compensation for me.

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