Every week they pass through my school. Sometimes they come one at a time, sometimes two or three at a time. Nobody knows how many of them there are. They are the best kept secret of the Department of Education and the United Federation of Teachers. The fact they exist in the first place is a testament to the collusion between our union and our bosses. Nobody wants to acknowledge their existence. There is a sense that both Walcott and Mulgrew just wish they would go away. These are the members of the Absent Teacher Reserve, ATRs for short. They are a category of teacher who best exemplify the cruelty of the bureaucracy in which we work.
A teacher can become part of the ATR pool for many reasons. Maybe the school in which they used to work was closed or "turned around" and the new, probably young and inexperienced, principal saw fit to give them the axe. Perhaps they were brought up on bogus charges like corporal punishment or incompetence and even the officer at their termination hearing could not find grounds to terminate them, although certainly not from lack of trying. Whatever the case might be, the "system" has decided that it is best they travel to different schools every week to plug holes in programs on a temporary basis. This is in lieu of teaching a full schedule of their own classes.
Not every member of the ATR pool is a teacher. There are also ACRs: those who worked as full-time counselors in other schools before the school was closed or before they were slapped with bogus charges. In that case, ACRs are not even allowed to cover classes because they cannot "legally" be in a classroom by themselves. Consequently, the ACRs usually stay in the teacher's lounge unless ordered to perform some sort of clerical job that probably does not even need to be done in the first place.
As chapter leader, I have met and spoken with my fair share of ATRs. I am happy to say that, according to most accounts, our administration treats them with more respect than most other schools through which they rotate. Throughout my dealings with the men and women of the ATR pool, I have been able to glean a thing or two about them as a group. By extension, I am able to glean a thing or two about the DOE and our union.
ATRs fall into one of three categories that oftentimes overlap: a) they are up there in years, b) they are outspoken and c) they are minority. To my recollection, I have never met or seen an ATR that did not fit at least one of these categories. Although I make an effort to speak to any ATR that comes through my school, I usually try to feel them out first. If it seems as if they do not want to be spoken to (by being on a cell phone, a computer or asleep on the couch) then I do not force my presence on them.
This does not mean that most ATRs do these things because they most certainly do not. Even if most or even all of them did, I am not judging them or blaming them for anything. I cannot imagine what they have been through or what they are still going through. If they wish to be left alone then they certainly deserve that right. There are colleagues that sometimes complain that ATRs are surly or standoffish. My opinion is that, if they do in fact possess these qualities, then it is the system that made them that way. Everyone reacts to upheaval and trauma differently. Becoming an ATR is nothing if not traumatic.
The ones that do seem open to conversation I approach with a light heart. I used to ask about the circumstances that led them to the ATR pool. However, I got the sense that some thought I was asking as a way to judge them. Now I basically ask about how their ATR experience has been and that is it. Through these conversations, there are a few very valuable lessons I have learned.
Most of these are ATRs are outspoken. They have strong opinions about how a school should be run. At their core, they have a sense of justice and fairness. Almost as a rule, they seem to be people who I would deem "skeptics", which is just another way of saying "critical thinkers". And they all want to teach. They all miss having their own classes and being able to build a rapport with their own students. Speaking to these ATRs, I have been able to learn possibly why some of the other ATRs come off as "surly". It is because they have been robbed of their identities and senses of self-worth. One day, they were well-respected teachers. The next day, they are extras for whom the system seems unwilling to find a role. I am amazed not at how withdrawn some of them are, but at how most of them have kept their spirits high in the midst of such injustice.
Franz Kafka's short novel Metamorphosis features a young man who wakes up one day to find himself as a bug. In the opening scene, Gregor Samsa is a functioning member of society helping to provide for his family. His father sleeps in the living room wearing his old uniform that, at this point, is dirty and disheveled. By the final scene, Gregor Samsa is an insect whose family hates him. His father's suit is suddenly clean and freshly pressed. Indeed, it is his father who seems the most bent on squishing the bug his son has become.
The novel is, among other things, about a man who has lost his purpose in life. As long as he has a purpose, Gregor is the star of his family. His father, a man whose best days are behind him, lies neglected in the living room. But once Gregor becomes a bug or, in other words, once he becomes useless, his family locks him away in his room until they want him dead. His father, finally regaining his sense of purpose as a breadwinner, wants Gregor out of the way the most. Maybe this is because he sees in Gregor the useless figure he once was and he hates it. Maybe he just wants Gregor out of the way before he can usurp his role as breadwinner again. It is a story meant to highlight how fleeting our roles in society can be, not to mention how conditional "unconditional" love really is.
The DOE and the UFT have treated ATRs as the bug version of Gregor Samsa. Mulgrew barely gives them a mention. Walcott floats hare-brained "buyout" schemes as a way to get rid of them. Both of these men would just prefer if these ATRs got the message and retired already. At the same time, many of our colleagues want to squish them, look down on them, pass judgment on them because they have no "purpose" in the system anymore. These ATRs must have done something to land themselves in this position, no?
On the contrary, I say that the ATRs play the most important role of all.
First, they represent the broken promises of our union. Our union leaders want a pat on the back because the ATRs still collect their paychecks. This is like our students wanting a pat on the back for coming to class on time. It is the least they can do. Protecting their positions, fighting for their dignity, sticking up for the idea that experience matters are not priorities at all for our union. If the union consistently fails to stick up for the dignity of the ATRs, what chance do you think we have of the union sticking up for the rest of us?
Furthermore, the tragic phenomenon of the disappearing black educator fails to register a blip on our union's radar. I believe that one of the reasons why both the DOE and UFT do not keep reliable statistics on how many ATRs exist in our system is because so many of them belong to minority groups. If it was made public how many black and Hispanic ATRs existed, the DOE would leave themselves open to a discrimination lawsuit. Instead the DOE, in collusion with the UFT, keeps everything hush. We have a black chancellor, how dare I even suggest that the DOE has an inherently racist teacher policy?
And the disappearing black educator is part of a much wider and much more disturbing trend overtaking the nation's schools. We are constantly being told that the students of the inner cities need "no excuses" education and centrally mandated "standards". These are just sterile ways of saying that the values of the communities from whence our students come have nothing of value to offer. It is best if well-to-do outsiders make all of the rules. Even worse, the reformers believe that the values of inner city areas are utterly deformed and in need of correction. As I have said before, reformers believe that our children need to be civilized more than educated. This civilizing is done by hired scab mercenaries from the Ivy League who model for our children the "proper" way to behave. In a system like this, we cannot have teachers who just might be from the same neighborhoods as our students. We cannot possibly have teachers who might be able to relate to their students as human beings. We cannot possibly have teachers that might show children that they do not have to hate themselves and hate where they come from to be a better person. Every time you see an ATR from a minority group, you are seeing this racist education reform agenda in action.
And what of the ATRs who maybe are outspoken people with a little grey in their hair who might or might not be part of a minority group? These are the teachers that the DOE and UFT fear the most. The DOE fears their salaries since that means less money for them to hand out no-bid contracts. The DOE fears their knowledge and experience. They are afraid that they will speak too loudly or too forcefully or too persuasively against the 25-year-old Leadership Academy principals who have been marching into our schools. These are the teachers who might expose the fact that the Academy produces "leaders" who do not know which is the proper end of the chalk with which to write (by the way, the answer is either end).
On top of this, these are the teachers who might just see teaching as an art form. They might think that every lesson and every student is different. They might believe that part of being a teacher is being an advocate both inside and outside of the classroom. This means that they might not see teaching as something that can be measured by test scores and mechanical rubrics. This also means that they might want their educational leaders to be educators themselves and not bean counters. In short, they will not teach their students in the robotic way mandated by things like "value added" and "Danielson". They will not model for their students how to get along in a filthy system. They are not the best teachers to train the low-wage, low-skilled workers and consumers of tomorrow. A system full of these teachers just might teach their students that a better world is indeed possible.
Finally, ATRs should teach the rest of us some empathy. Instead of assuming that they did something wrong or are just the dead wood of which the system cannot rid itself, the presence of ATRs should remind all of us that our own positions are tenuous at best. We are still able to come to our jobs every morning because the system allows it. One bogus accusation, one "C" rating for your school can throw your entire career into doubt. This wonderful identity of "teacher" we have built for ourselves is conditional. It is just as conditional as Gregor Samsa's position in Metamorphosis. The love that our students, colleagues and maybe even our families have for us is conditional. We too can be robbed of our identities and have people whisper about us doing something wrong or being incompetent. Instead of being so smugly secure to think we are in a position to pass judgment, we should be reminded of how insecure we are in our jobs. We should even be thankful that we still have positions and reflect that gratitude and goodwill on to the ATRs we meet.
This is the meaning of the march of the ATRs. Do not think that we have forgotten you. As far as this one lonely teacher is concerned, as well as many others, your presence is all too real. Thank you for keeping your spirits up. We will continue to fight to get you back in the classroom where you belong.