It was one of those crisp New York autumn mornings when a student came to see me after class, her eyes big and watery. I was two months into my first year of teaching, so this didn’t come as a surprise; I had learned during that time that middle schoolers cry more than you’d expect. Bullying, dances, boyfriends, field trips, a rumor passed around in a note…it isn’t easy being thirteen. It’s even harder being thirteen in the South Bronx.
That the tears welled in the eyes of this particular student–we’ll call her M–was a surprise. M was an exceptional student, fastidious in her studying, a bright smile every day and held in high regard by the faculty and her peers alike. “Mr. Stanley,” she said, when I had sat her down, “It’s the social studies teacher. We aren’t learning anything.” And then, to emphasize her point, she sounded it out with emphasis: “A. N. Y. THING.”
The story she told, when I asked for elaboration, seemed hard to believe. Every day, M claimed, the social studies teacher, who was new to the school, sat behind her desk with a cup of coffee and a copy of the New York Times. Once a week she handed out worksheets, which were mostly ignored. The rest of the days were a veritable free-for-all: one group of boys played cards or dice in the corner, another swapped stories. As long as they weren’t fighting or throwing paper balls at each other, the teacher let them do whatever they wanted.
I had thought, at the time, that M may have had a bad class or two and was selectively remembering, but I remembered some of the advice our school’s exceptional principal gave me during my first week: “It doesn’t matter how silly a middle schooler’s problem is, if they feel like it’s the end of the world, treat it with that degree of seriousness before helping them broaden their perspective.” I told M that I’d look into it, knowing that if what she was saying was true, that problem wasn’t a silly one at all.
Over the course of the next week, I manufactured a couple of reasons to stop into the teacher’s classroom and the scene each time was exactly as M had described: nothing on the chalkboard, no textbook in sight, no evidence of meaningful learning happening at all. When asked if there was a lesson planned for the day, the teacher responded with “they have a worksheet.” If they did, they certainly weren’t being worked on. The laissez-faire attitude was what enraged me the most; the lack of any attempt to even pretend, when another teacher had arrived, that actual instruction was happening.
So I went to the principal. He listened, but instead of matching my outrage, he sighed and shook his head dejectedly. “This system is such a mess.”
He explained that the city’s Department of Education had required principals to staff open positions from what is now called the Absent Teacher Reserve, a pool of teachers who had been removed from the classroom for poor performance and unsatisfactory evaluations, disciplinary charges which were awaiting due process that could take years to resolve, or who had lost their positions as a result of school closings or position elimination.
“But surely there are great teachers who had been excessed,” I said, “Why did you hire her?”
His answer was grim: “I didn’t.”
At the time, before Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein’s landmark teacher contract ended the practice later that year, teachers in the Absent Teacher Reserve were assigned by the central office directly to schools. Principals rarely had any say.
Yet just because the city had decided to entrust their school leaders to make decisions over their faculty didn’t mean that the union was going to give up the enshrined protections they had accumulated over decades. That led to the Rubber Rooms and their kissing cousin, the Absent Teacher Reserve, where excessed, disciplined or low-performing teachers would sit in for eight hours a day to collect their full salary—at a cost that reached over $150 million dollars last year alone.
Recent reports indicate that after a rash of press and storm clouds over the city budget, Mayor Bill De Blasio plans to reinstate the forced hiring of teachers from the Absent Teacher Reserve. If a position is open, principals must hire for it out of this pool rather than from other sources – including new teachers.
Rather than leading from a place of political bravery and standing up to the unions that donated so heavily to his campaign, Mr. De Blasio will have students pay the cost instead. Reduced learning over reduced funds in the city’s coffers. Essentially, he is keeping a broken system broken to appease his benefactors over the interest of the citizens he purports to represent.
M didn’t learn the American Revolution or the Civil War that year. If this policy change goes through, M will be only one of the 1.1 million victims of Bill De Blasio’s cowardice.