By Jo-Ann Demas
There is an alarming trend of teachers receiving an “Unsatisfactory” on their annual assessment. While a “U” rating is certainly humiliating, it can literally take food off our tables. What’s behind this trend and what can we do about it?
It used to be that a U rating was a rare event. In the last couple of years, U ratings have increased dramatically. Recently at the Queens United Federation of Teachers office, even the lobby security guard observed long lines of teachers waiting to get on the elevators to file for a hearing in regards to their U ratings. What’s going on? I spoke to several principals who were told by NYC Department of Education to start handing out Us. Some have chosen to ignore this verbal edict. Others have obeyed.
Who is being targeted with the Us? It varies: veteran master teachers have received Us. New developing and promising young teachers have received Us. All kinds of teachers are now getting Us. Let’s be frank: not all teachers excel at this job. We all know teachers who are neglectful and who text instead of teach. You can hear some teachers screaming through the walls, using the tactic of humiliation rather motivation. However, it is not our job as union members to inform administrators of other teachers’ activities. That’s called spying. Administrators know who these teachers are: they’re often among the groupies surrounding administrators! These teachers garner favors by spying and tattling. Calling attention to “brown nosers” can be self-defeating. If they also received Us, it would not make the situation better and we would be playing along with the DOE’s blame game. As union members we do not spy on each other. That’s not our job. Our job is to educate children. We made a pledge to protect them. If we have evidence of child abuse, we have a legal obligation to report that abuse whether the perpetrator is a family member or a teacher. This is the only instance where we can “break ranks” without guilt.
Let’s say a teacher needs a lot of improvement. The New York City Department of Education has a hand book which stipulates, in great detail, what the protocol is for boosting teacher effectiveness. The prescribed process involves plenty of professional development with immediate follow-up observation and consultation. This protocol is rarely adhered to. Observations become punitive rituals rather than professional development. Not all teachers who enter the profession are “really in to it.” Yet all teachers should have the right to due process should a U rating befall them. Most teachers truly want to improve and become better educators.
When we get the U, we lift ourselves up and we go down to the UFT office and officially file for a hearing. We are assigned a UFT defender. Several months later, there is a hearing at the DOE headquarters. We are in a small hearing room with our defender and a so-called “impartial” DOE hearing officer. Our administrators are not required to attend the hearing in person. Instead they participate via telephone conference. Each side files documents. Verbal defense of the documents goes back and forth. The tape of the proceeding and the documents are sent to the Chancellor’s office for a ruling. What happens next should not surprise us: 99.9% come back rubber stamped with the same U.
I faced this situation last year. I decided to initiate a lawsuit against the DOE for harassment. I went down to Court Street to buy the audiotape of the hearings. I asked the clerk, in passing, if anyone ever listened to the tape in the Chancellor’s office. He said, “No. Only if it goes to court.” So, after all that hard work with our UFT defender, the DOE is not legally required to listen to the hearing tape in order to make a knowledgeable and judicious decision! What this means is that principals have carte blanche and can give you a U for no justifiable reason at all. The DOE will back them up. The U rating becomes irreversible.
What to do? Take it to court. Get a lawyer. I found a principled labor lawyer who concluded that it is almost impossible to win a lawsuit against the DOE. Besides, a lawyer costs thousands of dollars. The stress of all this registered with my body: I got physically ill. A “souvenir” from childhood aka dormant chicken pox cells in my nerve endings presented themselves as the shingles. I had to assess my situation: I was in continuous pain and had to continue teaching. Could I also conduct a no-win lawsuit at the same time with a lawyer I couldn’t pay for? My situation is not unique. The DOE knows teachers can’t afford a lawyer. I mean, they underpay us. The DOE knows our union does not have the apparatus set up to defend its members at this stage. (More on that later.)
The initial focus of the U stamping is to humiliate and demoralize as in “The Scarlett Letter” a novel by Nathanial Hawthorne set in witch hunt-era New England. Fellow teachers observe the “Scarlett Letter” and feel intimidated to speak up in defense of others. A passive and fearful work force is the result. The union at the shop level, in practice, is rendered ineffective. But did you know that the U can take food off our tables? Yes, there is an economic impact of a U rating. Your salary is not affected. But your ability to earn extra money through per session jobs is. When you receive a U, you are not permitted to work per session. This is harmful in general. For new teachers, it is difficult because of student loans, weddings, new babies, mortgages, etc. For older teachers and those near retirement, a U rating restriction on per session directly affects pension. For the last five years of their careers, teachers can boost their annual average upon which the pension payment is based. This phenomenem probably saves the DOE a bundle: at our expense. U ratings check pension costs.
Upon retirement I learned how the U rating I received two years before still “took food off my table.” Retired teachers may apply as “Occasional Per Diem” teachers. My application as a substitute teacher was denied because I received a U rating in the last five years of my employment. I can show you the form letter.
The experience of receiving a U rating has left many teachers with feelings of abandonment and bitterness towards our union. Under the federal law Taft-Hartley, a union is obligated to fight for its members’ rights. This is called “duty of fair representation.” When we are left “hanging” after a hearing with a rubber-stamped U, the union, in effect, has failed in its legal obligation to defend us. This situation constitutes a violation of the New York State Taylor Law as well. The Chancellor’s Office is guilty of ruling arbitrarily without hearing evidence. The DOE attacks are vicious and our defense woefully inadequate. There has to be a union apparatus in place to defend members beyond the hearing. A union, in its essence, is a defense organization. Full due process must be guaranteed. This is what we pay union dues for. And we need it in writing in our contract. Now with the attacks on teachers taking the form of publishing test scores, etc. it is all the more necessary. We need to be vigilant, militant and organized. When we stand up for ourselves, we are modeling for our students how we don’t accept bullying. We absolutely must change things: the children are watching.