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Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Lawless NYC Department of Education

Bloggers have noticed that there seems to be a disconnect between what has happened to the lawfully bargained rights of teachers and the "law". This is a necessary and important discussion which has been ignored for 10 years as political cliques try to hide the immense harm that has befallen teachers, parents, and children under Mayor Bloomberg and the NYC Department of Education. Read my comments after the blog post below.

One of the newest additions to the outcry about this mess in NYC is below, from a great blog named "Accountable Talk":

Some Legal Questions

Accountable Talk
You've probably heard that a judge barred Governor Cuomo from stealing $250 million from NYC schools to satisfy his ego. The judge correctly ruled that children should not be punished because the city and UFT failed to reach a deal. This, to me, brings up a question.

Why isn't the UFT using the courts to prevent Cuomo from imposing an evaluation system on NYC teachers? Obviously, I'm a teacher and not a lawyer, but it seems to me there's a strong case here. Our contract, which was collectively bargained, is still in force and there is no provision in it for a new evaluation of any kind. Since when does the state have the power to unilaterally alter a contract because it doesn't like the terms? The few law courses I took emphasized the fact that contract law is pretty solid in this country. Has that changed? How can the state, which has a stake in the outcome of this dispute, simply choose to override a valid contract signed and agreed to by both parties?

Furthermore, any evaluation system imposed on us would be in direct opposition to the Triborough Amendment to the Taylor Law, which states that a collectively bargained contract must stay in force until a new contract is signed. How can the governor just vacate that law? If he does, would that invalidate the rest of the Taylor Law as well, and allow teachers to strike without penalty?

If Cuomo can force this contract alteration on us, what would stop him from passing a law mandating a 50% cut in salary for all city workers if he wishes to? It's the same thing. Collective bargaining itself is threatened if the state decides that it can simply alter contracts it doesn't like.

I'd appreciate the opinion of any lawyer out there on these questions. I think the courts would enforce existing contracts and tell the Gov. to stick his power grab. So, how about it?


Anonymous said...
The UFT is supporting these changes in law.
Mr. Talk said...
That is true. However, if a bad system is forced on us, it might be possible to overturn it in court. Individual teachers could sue on the grounds that they were illegally fired while covered under the 2007 contract that should still be in force.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

NYS Supreme Court Judge Manuel Mendez Says NYC Cannot Deny $260 Million To Schools

Judge Manuel Mendez (back row center) With The Young People's Chorus
My opinion:
Judge Mendez vacated the six-month suspension without pay decision made by Arbitrator David Hyland against my dear friend Chris Asch. In my opinion, Mendez is one of the best judges in our Court System right now.

Betsy Combier

Judge Says State Cannot Withhold Aid to City Schools Over Teacher Evaluation Impasse
State officials, for now, cannot stop $260 million in aid from flowing into New York City’s schools as a penalty for the city’s failure to iron out a plan for evaluating public school teachers, a state judge ruled this week.
The preliminary injunction was a blow to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s promise to withhold the money after the Bloomberg administration and the city’s teachers’ union missed a Jan. 17 deadline for developing an evaluation system for the 75,000 teachers, which is also a core element of the state’s winning a lucrative federal grant.
Though the financial penalty was intended to motivate the two sides to act, they did not, and the judge, Justice Manuel J. Mendez of State Supreme Court in Manhattan, issued a ruling on Tuesday barring the state’s education commissioner from deducting any school aid due the city until the matter is decided in court.
Justice Mendez, in a four-page decision made public on Thursday, ruled that “innocent children,” particularly the neediest among them, could be hurt by financial cuts, as the plaintiffs had argued. He also agreed with the plaintiffs’ central argument that the matter revolves around a child’s constitutional right to a sound basic education.
“This decision is a substantial victory for all of New York City’s students,” said Michael A. Rebell, a lawyer who filed suit against the state on Feb. 5 on behalf of a group including nine parents and their children. “The judge clearly indicated that the state’s irrational penalty places innocent children at academic risk.”
State Supreme Court Justice Manuel Mendez delivers remarks during his swearing-in ceremony at Isabella Geriatric Center at 515 Audubon Ave.

Reaction to the decision underscored the bitterness over the issue, first outlined in 2010 state law.
Catherine T. Nolan, a Democrat from Queens and the chairwoman of the State Assembly’s education committee, called the ruling “tremendous,” adding, “No one should ever use formula-driven aid to punish kids.”
A spokesman for the state attorney general’s office, whose lawyers had argued the case, declined to comment. Dennis Tompkins, a spokesman for the education commissioner, John B. King Jr., said it would be “inappropriate to comment” now, given the department’s role in the process. And Matthew Wing, a spokesman for the governor, noted that the judge’s ruling was a preliminary injunction and said that the state would appeal.
Mr. Rebell said he was prepared to fight any appeal.
Micah Lasher, the executive director of StudentsFirstNY, an education advocacy organization, pointed out that Justice Mendez had indicated that there were other ways to ensure that evaluation plans were put in place without lashing the issue to financial penalties. But he said it was unclear if the decision might affect districts around the state where such penalties could be sought.
“The ruling is a huge deal, potentially jeopardizing a key part of the evaluation law affecting not just the city, but the whole state,” Mr. Lasher said. “But the governor could use the opportunity to figure out how to make teacher evaluations permanent without putting funds at risk.”
In a statement, Howard Wolfson, a deputy mayor in the Bloomberg administration, laid the blame at the union, the United Federation of Teachers, saying, “We’ve said all along that students should not be penalized for the U.F.T.’s failure to negotiate.” He added, “Our goal has been and continues to be a fair and effective evaluation system.”
Dick Riley, a union spokesman, replied: “If the mayor had not blown up the teacher evaluation deal, this lawsuit wouldn’t have been necessary.”

Appellate Division Grants Michael Thomas' Appeal To Obtain OSI Report Under FOIL

Matter of Thomas v New York City Dept. of Educ.
2013 NY Slip Op 01026
Decided on February 19, 2013
Appellate Division, First Department
Published by New York State Law Reporting Bureau pursuant to Judiciary Law § 431.
This opinion is uncorrected and subject to revision before publication in the Official Reports.

Hi Betsy!

I think you might find the decision discussed below useful!  Misconduct by administrators is frequently covered up by OSI or SCI.  The agencies do not substantiate the allegations and then refuse to release the investigation reports under FOIL--claiming that disclosure would be an "unwarranted invasion of personal privacy."  The decision at least requires the agencies to submit the reports for an in camera inspection!

Mike Thomas

Decided on February 19, 2013 
Mazzarelli, J.P., Andrias, DeGrasse, Richter, Clark, JJ.
9018 113739/11 

[*1]In re Michael P. Thomas, Petitioner-Appellant, 


New York City Department of Education, et al., Respondents-Respondents.

Hagan, Coury & Associates, Brooklyn (Paul Golden of 
counsel), for appellant. 
Michael A. Cardozo, Corporation Counsel, New York 
(Elizabeth I. Freedman of counsel), for respondents. 

Judgment, Supreme Court, New York County (Geoffrey D. Wright, J.), entered April 9, 2012, denying the petition seeking to compel respondents to disclose documents requested by petitioner pursuant to the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL), and dismissing the proceeding brought pursuant to CPLR article 78, unanimously reversed, on the law, without costs, the proceeding reinstated, and the matter remanded for an in camera inspection of the requested documents to determine if redaction could strike an appropriate balance between personal privacy and public policy interests, and whether respondents otherwise assert applicable FOIL exemptions.
Petitioner is a public school teacher employed by the Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics (MCSM), which allegedly receives funds under Title I, Part A of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), reauthorized as the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (20 USC § 6301 et seq.). In August 2010, pursuant to the "No Child Left Behind Written Complaint and Appeal Procedures" adopted by the New York State Education Department, petitioner filed a complaint against the administrators of MCSM alleging that: "1. the [school's] 2009-2010 Comprehensive Educational Plan (CEP) was not developed with the involvement of parents and other members of the school community as required by Section 1114(b)(2)(B)(ii) of Title I, Part A of the ESEA; 2. required components of a schoolwide program that address the needs of at-risk students were not implemented as required by Section 1114(b)(2) and Section 1118 of Title I, Part A of the ESEA; 3. Title I funds were misappropriated and were not used to implement the components of a schoolwide program as required by Section 1114(b)(2)(A)(ii) of Title I, Part of the ESEA; and 4. the 2010-2011 CEP did not exist as required by Section 1114(b)(2)(B)(ii) of Title I, Part A of the ESEA."
Respondent New York City Department of Education (DOE) referred the complaint to its Office of Special Investigations (OSI). After OSI found the allegations to be unsubstantiated, petitioner filed a FOIL request seeking the investigative report and related documents.
DOE's Central Record Access Officer (CRAO) denied the FOIL request pursuant to Public Officers Law § 87(2)(b) on the ground that all of the OSI records were exempt from disclosure because they related to unsubstantiated allegations of misconduct and their release [*2]would constitute an unwarranted invasion of the personal privacy of the employees in question. Respondent Michael Best, General Counsel of DOE, denied petitioner's administrative appeal, finding that the CRAO's determination fell "well within the bounds" of the Committee on Open Government's published advisory opinions denying FOIL requests in the context of unsubstantiated complaints, and that redaction of identifying details would not protect the personal privacy of the subject individuals because petitioner filed the underlying complaint and therefore knew the identity of the persons whose details he would have DOE delete.
The No Child Left Behind Written Complaint and Appeal Procedures expressly contemplate FOIL requests for Investigative Reports, stating as follows: "Does the State Education Department maintain a record of all complaints/appeals? Yes. Copies of correspondence, related documents, investigative reports, and summary reports involved in the complaint/appeal resolution will be maintained by the State Education Department for five years. Records will be made available to interested parties in accordance with the provisions of the New York State Freedom of Information Law (Public Officers Law Sections 84-89)."
Pursuant to FOIL, government records are presumptively available to the public unless they are statutorily exempted by Public Officers Law § 87(2) (see Matter of Fappiano v New York City Police Dept., 95 NY2d 738, 746 [2001]). "Those exemptions are to be narrowly construed, with the burden resting on the agency to demonstrate that the requested material indeed qualifies for exemption" (Matter of Hanig v State of N.Y. Dept. of Motor Vehs., 79 NY2d 106, 109 [1992]).
Public Officers Law § 87(2)(b) permits an agency to deny access to a document, or portion of a document, if disclosure "would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy." "What constitutes an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy is measured by what would be offensive and objectionable to a reasonable [person] of ordinary sensibilities" (Matter of Beyah v Goord, 309 AD2d 1049, 1050 [3d Dept 2003] [internal quotation marks omitted]).
"Public Officers Law § 89(2)(b) says that an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy includes, but shall not be limited to seven specified kinds of disclosure. In a case, like this one, where none of the seven specifications is applicable, a court must decide whether any invasion of privacy . . . is unwarranted by balancing the privacy interests at stake against the public interest in [the] disclosure of the information" (Matter of Harbatkin v New York City Dept. of Records & Info. Servs., 19 NY3d 373, 380 [2012] [internal quotation marks omitted]). However, the section does not create a blanket exemption. Public Officers Law § 89(2)(c)(i) provides that "[u]nless otherwise provided by this article, disclosure shall not be construed to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy pursuant to paragraphs (a) and (b) of this subdivision: . . . when identifying details are deleted."
The federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (the NCLB) states as follows: "The purpose of this subchapter [20 USC § 6301 et seq.] is to ensure that all children have a fair, equal, and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education and reach, at a minimum, proficiency on challenging State academic achievement standards and state [sic] academic assessments" (20 USC § 6301). Based on the theory that poverty and low scholastic achievement are closely related, Subchapter I, Part A, of the NCLB, titled "Improving Basic Programs Operated by Local Educational Agencies," provides federal grants-in-aid to support compensatory education for disadvantaged children in low-income areas.
Petitioner's FOIL request sought the investigation report relating to his complaint against the administrators of MCSM, alleging that, in violation of the ESEA, the school's CEP was not[*3]developed with the involvement of parents and other members of the school community, that required components of the CEP were not implemented, and that Title I funds were misappropriated. Issues involving the expenditure of education funds and the quality of education, and why a government agency determined that a complaint concerning a violation of federal law relating thereto is allegedly unsubstantiated, are of significant public interest.
Despite this significant public interest, respondents denied the FOIL request in its entirety, with respondent Best citing a published advisory opinion of the Committee on Open Government, which states that "records related to unsubstantiated allegations of misconduct are not relevant to job performance and, therefore, disclosure constitutes an unwarranted, not a permissible, invasion of personal privacy" (FOIL-AO-10399 [October 31, 1997]; see also FOIL-AO-12005 [March 21, 2000]). Acknowledging this policy, Supreme Court affirmed, stating in part that "[s]o long as the subject matter is quasi criminal in nature, as is the claim here, then the entire file of the investigation and the resulting findings, should be regarded as beyond the reach of [FOIL]."
However, advisory opinions issued by the Committee on Open Government "are not binding authority, but may be considered to be persuasive based on the strength of their reasoning and analysis" (Matter of TJS of N.Y., Inc. v New York State Dept. of Taxation & Fin., 89 AD3d 239, 242 n [3d Dept 2011]; see also Matter of Buffalo News v Buffalo Enter. Dev. Corp., 84 NY2d 488, 493 [1994]). There is no statutory blanket exemption for investigative records, even where the allegations of misconduct are "quasi criminal" in nature or not substantiated, and the ability to withhold records under FOIL can only be based on the effects of disclosure in conjunction with attendant facts (see Matter of Gould v New York City Police Dept., 89 NY2d 267, 275 [1996] ["[B]lanket exemptions for particular types of documents are inimical to FOIL's policy of open government"]). Indeed, the Committee for Open Government has issued "advisory opinions regarding agencies' obligations under FOIL and has concluded, inter alia, that unless exempted under FOIL, the DOI [New York City Department of Investigation] must reveal the names of DOI employees who conducted an investigation once it has concluded (FOIL-AO-9399), communications between the DOI and the Department of State are subject to disclosure (FOIL-AO-4766), closing memoranda' prepared by the DOI as a result of an investigation are presumptively accessible to the public (FOIL-AO-9399), and the DOI must disclose all written documents, including reports and memoranda if sought pursuant to a FOIL request (FOIL-AO- 3656)" (Murphy v City of New York, 2008 NY Slip Op 31926[U] [Sup Ct, NY County 2008] [DOI has no duty to ensure the confidentiality of its investigative reports, but, as a matter of law, is obligated to make available for public inspection all documents not specifically exempted under FOIL], affd 59 AD3d 301 [1st Dept 2009]).
For example, FOIL-A-9399, cited in Murphy, dealt with a request by the Daily News for closing memoranda prepared by the DO. The advisory opinion explained that "if a final determination identifies a person who is the subject of a charge or allegation and the determination is that the charge or allegation has no merit, I believe that an applicant would have the right to obtain the substance of the determination, following the deletion of personally identifiable details. The Daily News may be interested not only in those cases in which charges have been substantiated, but also those in which the charges are found to have been without merit, perhaps as a means of attempting to ascertain more fully how DO operates and carries out its official duties."
This reasoning applies equally to petitioner's FOIL request for OSI's investigative report [*4]and related documents. As the Legislature declared in Public Officers Law § 84, "[t]he people's right to know the process of governmental decision-making and to review the documents and statistics leading to determinations is basic to our society. Access to such information should not be thwarted by shrouding it with the cloak of secrecy or confidentiality."
FOIL-AO-10399, on which respondents rely, does not require otherwise. In that advisory opinion, which pertains to the disclosure of records related to an incident of alleged sexual 
harassment, the Committee stated as follows: "It is clear that public employees enjoy a lesser degree of privacy than others, for it has been found in various contexts that public employees are required to be more accountable than others. Further, the courts have found that, as a general rule, records that are relevant to the performance of a public employee's official duties are available, for disclosure in such instances would result in a permissible rather than an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy. Conversely, to the extent that records are irrelevant to the performance of one's official duties, it has been found that disclosure would indeed constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy" (internal citations omitted).
Here, the underlying complaint pertains to MCSM's administrators' performance of their official duties when using and applying federal funds, and in constructing and implementing the CEP. Accordingly, this matter should be remanded to the article 78 court for an in camera inspection of the documents to determine if redaction could strike an appropriate balance between personal privacy and public interests and which material could be properly disclosed (see Matter of Molloy v New York City Police Dept., 50 AD3d 98, 100-101 [1st Dept 2008]; Kwasnik v City 
of New York
, 262 AD2d 171 [1st Dept 1999]). The court should also determine whether portions of the documents may be exempt from disclosure as intra- or inter-agency records that are not statistical or factual data (Public Officers Law § 87[2][g]; see generally Matter of Gould v New York City Police Dept., 89 NY2d 267, 275 [1996]).

Teacher Michael Thomas is Removed From Manhattan Center

Whistleblowing the NYC BOE is a dangerous action to take, as Michael Thomas found out.
Another whistle-blower sent to rubber room
by Jim Callaghan, NY Teacher
Jun 5, 2008 3:59 PM

"In the Soviet Union, the government silenced dissidents by placing them in psychiatric institutions; in New York City, the Department of Education silences teachers by placing them in 'rubber rooms.' I am fortunate that students and teachers speak for me."

- Michael Thomas

When teacher Michael Thomas reported irregularities in the grading of Regents exams and the way Title I funds were spent at his school, he never expected to find himself banished to a Temporary Reassignment Center, a 'rubber room.'

He never expected the executive board of the school's PTA to send a letter to every parent spreading a malicious rumor about him.

Thomas never thought that those executive board members would use the group's name to smear his reputation as an exemplary teacher, one who is admired by students.

Principal David Jimenez has told some people at the school, the Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics, that he never saw the letter. He has told others that he did, in fact, see the letter. Two phone calls to his office by the New York Teacher were not returned. An e-mail message to Steve Koss, the president of the PTA, one of the signatories of the letter that tarnished Thomas, was not answered.

The good news for the beleaguered Thomas is that his colleagues understand the kangaroo-court mentality of Chancellor Joel Klein and his deputies and have rallied to his side, staging several demonstrations outside the school and writing letters on his behalf.

Nearly 50 teachers marched in front of the school on May 20 with signs that read: "Stop the insanity. Speaking truth to power should not be a removable offense," and, "Stop interfering with union activities," and, "Teachers have a right to due process. Close the rubber rooms."

In addition, more than 500 students staged a protest over his abrupt transfer by walking out of their classes.

Thomas, a 19-year veteran of the school system who was selected as a Math for America teacher, served in the Peace Corps in Africa for three years. He has never had an Unsatisfactory rating. Students in his classes consistently received the highest scores on the Regents exams.

For the past two years, he has been trying to change the administration of Title I targeted assistance by the city and state. He claims that the policies prevented the school from spending all Title I funds and said that the school has lost $417,000 in federal funds.

Thomas said that Jimenez was a new principal in September 2007 and blames him for the loss of the funding, even though Thomas tried to tell him to use all Title I funds correctly.

Also, in October 2007, a math teacher just two months short of becoming tenured was given an U-rating by an assistant principal. Thomas claims Jimenez ordered the rating before the class was even taught. He wrote a letter protesting the rating and had it signed by tenured teachers in the department, which angered Jimenez.

Meanwhile, Jimenez - who allegedly took no action when informed of the scoring irregularities on the Regents exams - is still in the school, making decisions that adversely affect the lives of teachers. In this he is following the path of the principals at John F. Kennedy and Susan Wagner high schools: meting out retribution against teachers who reported problems with Regents.

In an attempt by Jimenez to get him off the DOE payroll, Thomas was ordered to undergo a psychological exam at the DOE Medical Bureau, which took place on May 1. According to Thomas, a doctor asked him to reply to allegations made by Jimenez. The only medical question the doctor asked was if he was 'sleeping normally.'

Thomas hired a world-renowned psychiatrist, Dr. Alberto Goldwasser, to accompany him to the Medical Bureau, which found him medically fit to teach.

As a back-up to his psychological gambit, Jimenez invented new accusations, including accusing Thomas of "corporal punishment." In Joel Klein's world of due process, proof is not required to remove a teacher from the classroom.

On April 16, Thomas and three other teachers at the school wrote to the office of Richard Condon, the special commissioner of investigation, asking for a probe of misconduct by Jimenez and Charles Kwan, the assistant principal for mathematics. The teachers claim that Kwan ordered the re-grading of the January 2008 mathematics Regents but he said that 'only certain papers' were 'rescored.'

The PTA letter maligning Thomas drew a strong criticism from Chapter Leader Lise Hirschberg, (pictured at right) who called it "an attempt to repress union actions and student protests regarding the reassignment of Mike Thomas." She said it was "a biased and false account that could have calmed parents but instead inflamed students and defamed teachers. It is inconceivable that anyone would view the mailing as appropriate."

At a minimum, Hirschberg said, "the chapter is expecting a retraction mailed to all parents. The administration and the PTA executive board must be held responsible."

Hirschberg said the PTA board responded to the issue by "voting to remove the teachers from the PTA and block them from voting in their second attempt at an election of officers. The first election was invalidated."

Thomas said he is "blessed to have the continued support of the teachers and students of Manhattan Center." He said the last two months have been "extremely difficult, having endured three investigations, a psychological exam, the removal from my school after 19 years and a defamatory letter distributed by the PTA president."

When he thinks of quitting, Thomas added, "My colleagues always convince me that this is a fight we must win together."

The students, he said, "have seen through the lies of the administration and are trying to save the school they love," adding that the school administration "is perceived as an occupying force, not as a part of the school community. Whatever the outcome of my case, the administration has already lost."

Friday, February 22, 2013

Failing Schools Become Dysfunctional When Put On The List For Closure

David Hedges


Dedicated To the Rights of ATRs 

(Absent Teacher Reservists) in NYC


What's wrong with bagging groceries?

A failing school becomes a dysfunctional one after it learns it is slated to be closed.  They take the failing principal out and replace him or her with someone worse: an inexperienced one who had been excessed from a school that had previously failed, become dysfunctional, and closed.

Everybody  makes mistakes, but the lesser experienced principals can be counted on to make the more foolish ones.  Many of them become principals because they were Assistant Principals in schools that were failing and have already closed.  What they bring to the job defies the imagination of the sane.  The replication of the familiar, failure as the comfort zone?

FACT:  I was assigned to cover a class within my license.  The teacher had been injured in an automobile accident back in November, almost 5 months ago.  The students have been getting a different English teacher every week.  Sadly, the principal could have reassigned a senior member of the staff to cover the class since that teacher only teaches one class per day, but he didn't think that far ahead.

I met with the principal before starting this long term assignment and shared my lessons and ideas for addressing the fact that the student hadn't had a regular teacher (most of them are juniors and will need to take the ELA Regents Exam) in months.  The plan was to develop writing skills through a unit on how to apply for a job.  The course would cover reading the help wanted section in the newspaper, writing a resume, a cover letter, and speaking and presentation skills that would be useful at the job interview.

To start the unit off I asked students to study a very long list of occupations- something to give them an overview of the kinds of careers they might like to pursue.  To break it up I included a "WordSearch" puzzle.  They were to select the job that interested them and then try to find it on the word search grid.  "Search for the career in the grid after you find it on the list."  That gave me the time I needed to set up my SmartBoard PowerPoint presentation.  Students talked about all the possibilities life could offer!

I initiated a class discussion about what kinds of jobs would be available to high school students who hadn't any work experience.  I want them to encourage them to apply for jobs that they wouldn't be rejected from on the basis of their lack of work experience.  We discussed how to compensate for lack of experience with a surplus of positive thinking and constructive energy.  For example, suppose you see a sign in the local grocery store or super market advertising for a job as "bagger."  You decide to apply.  The manager says the job was just filled and she'd forgotten to take down the sign.  What do you do?  Do you walk away or do you find something positive to say that shows how serious you are about the job?  The class decided that it would be a waste of time just to walk away.  Better ask the store manager if the job of assistant bagger had been filled.  If two can work together bagging groceries, twice as many customers can be checked through, doubling profits.  The class went to work creating a cover letter for "assistant bagger" and stressing the advantages of the new post.  The power of positive thinking!  The idea is that work, or a job, isn't an activity that you take something away from in the form of remuneration in exchange for your time, but a place where you can make a difference and a contribution.  Your discover what your value as a person is through the task you have and the attitude you bring to it.  There is no such thing as a bad job, just a badly done job.  

Two days after the lesson and the progress made by the students, the principal, you know, one of those I.A, principals who are assigned to close the failing school... inexperienced, except as an assistant principal in a school that had already failed and been closed... So, said I.A Principal called me into his office, closed the door, and began interrogating me, pressuring me to confess my crime, for it seems, according to his word,  there had been complaints about my lesson.  From whom?  What about?  Students?  (Doubtful, since they were totally engaged!)  Another teacher?  The one who had been upset with me because I hadn't erased the board fast enough as she settled into the classroom to teach her one class, and were there more than two students in the room?  We will never know for sure, perhaps the principal was  just exercising his dysfunctional discretion?  He said to me that it is inappropriate for students to consider applying for a job as bagger, let alone assistant bagger at a super market.  I am not really sure why not.  One of my favorite students worked everyday after school, first as a bagger, then as cashier.  In fact, the example, since it came from the students, was most useful.   If anyone found it insulting or demeaning, it wasn't anyone who was present in my classroom.  In an upper class private school, I can imagine the head master calling one of his young teachers into his office to remind him that the parents of the students, who pay his very generous salary with the very high tuition costs, might not appreciate their children learning about job opportunities in areas where their lessers are employed, but supermarket work, like the fast food service sector, is a rite of passage.  

Again, maybe it was just the ghost of a dysfunctional school that haunts them after they've already failed and are being closed.  Failure becomes a comfort zone when it is repeated so often.  After all, whatever we do in life, the more we do it, the better we get at it.  That is true with developing skills, but it is also true with being a jerk.  The more a person acts like a jerk, the better they become at being a jerk.  Don't you find?

Then again, maybe the example of the supermarket checkout bagger hit a little too close to home.  Some of the untenured faculty and administrators may be  projecting their fears onto this example- a specter of a future position as assistant bagger.  Unfortunately, they didn't understand the lesson:  Even if your job application is rejected, don't be dejected, come back with an optimistic retort:  Show 'em spunk!

Of course it's humiliating when your school fails, is closing, and becomes self-destructive and dysfunctional.  Humiliation is one of those things that when it goes around, comes around.   

In any event, the principal took a particularly humiliating tone with me:  told me I was not allowed to go back to the class and told me to go sit in the teachers' lounge. 

When a school has failed and is being closed, it turns into an auto-destructive, dysfunctional setting- all at the tax payers expense!  And in the meantime, the students don't get to develop their skills about how to compete for any job, even an entry level one.  We all had to start somewhere.  Why make kids feel self-conscious about starting out at Keyfood? 
Mr. Principal, were you afraid of what people might think if a teacher dignifies the job of bagger at Keyfood?  When children learn to walk, if they cared what other people think, worried about other people laughing at them or criticizing them each time they fell down, then the whole human race would still be crawling, wouldn't we?

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Assailed Teacher: ATR and Loss of Identity


by The Assailed Teacher
Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis is about what it means to lose one's identity in an impersonal world.

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.