UFT Secretary Michael Mendel, at right, told Department of Education officials in an angry email that the union is unhappy about the way some schools are preparing for the likelihood of new evaluations.

Intimidating and inappropriate practices in some city schools that are preparing for a new teacher rating system could undermine the system before it goes into effect, a top union official has warned.

In an email sent Friday to Chancellor Dennis Walcott and his top deputies at the Department of Education, UFT Secretary Michael Mendel wrote that the union had recently received a spate of complaints about surprise observations by teams of administrators that seemed designed to make teachers uncomfortable.

“We have been told, increasingly over the last couple of days by our members from all parts of the city, that the DOE’s roll out of a new evaluation system has been a disaster and that it  has created a terrible atmosphere of fear around both the new evaluation system and the Danielson protocols,” Mendel wrote in the email, whose subject line was “I’m very Frustrated.”

Walcott’s email address was misspelled, so he did not get the message, according to a department spokeswoman. But the email came through for other top deputy chancellors. This afternoon, Mendel said he had not yet received any response.

The email, which the union described as “blistering” in a message to leaders at each school, is not the first that Mendel has sent in anger during the long lead-up to new evaluations. In October 2011, Mendel sent a similarly scathing email after the union received reports that some principals were using the Danielson model to observe teachers, even thought the union had not agreed to the change.

The current dustup also centers around observations. Mendel wrote that large groups of administrators have visited teachers’ classrooms without warning, made unreasonable demands, and then given scathing feedback. In an interview today, he said much of the criticism the teachers received had focused on minutiae such as the way they entered their lessons into a planning book.

Mendel said the reports had come from across the city, with more than a dozen complaints arriving after his email to the city. In one Brooklyn district, the union had received complaints from 11 schools, he said, and the report from another school was that all teachers had been told that their lesson plans were completed unsatisfactorily.

If principals had told the teachers that they would be observed and discussed the experience with them in a collaborative effort to prepare for new evaluations, the union would have had no objection, Mendel said today. “But if they do it this way where teachers are feeling intimidated, harassed, scared, put off — is it a good thing?” he said. “No. It is it a terrible thing, because it is turning them against the evaluation system.”

According to a decree by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s, districts that do not agree with their teachers unions on new evaluations by Jan. 17, 2013, will risk losing an increase in state school aid. For New York City, not reaching a deal would mean forgoing about $250 million in state aid. Both union and city officials say they are committed to working to reach an agreement in time.

“Our staff quite frankly have been having constructive discussions,” Walcott said last week. “I’m always an optimist so we’ll see what happens.”

A department spokeswoman said today that Mendel’s letter had not weakened the department’s resolve. “Mr. Mendel is more focused on internal union politics than on the important work of finalizing a deal,” said the spokeswoman, Erin Hughes. “Even through these cheap shots, we remain committed to reaching an evaluation agreement.”

But Mendel’s letter suggested that an agreement would be unlikely to end disputes over how city teachers are evaluated.

“I believe even if we reach an agreement, the present structure of the DOE and the past practice since Sept 2011 demonstrate that you cannot and will not roll it out successfully,” he wrote, adding that the current “network” structure has muddied lines of accountability for principals.

“I would suggest we sit and talk about a proper roll out,” Mendel wrote. “If this continues the new evaluation system is doomed for failure.”

Mendel’s complete letter to the department officials is below:

Titled: I’m very Frustrated.

We have been told, increasingly over the last couple of days by our members from all parts of the city, that the DOE’s roll out of a new evaluation system has been a disaster and that it  has created a terrible atmosphere of fear around both the new evaluation system and the Danielson protocols.

In many parts of the city teachers are being told that the new evaluation system is a done deal. In some cases they are being told that starting in Jan. there will no longer be pre and post observations. In many places 8 or nine administrators are working into a teacher’s room without warning, writing notes in the back of the room and leaving.

We have Network people and Talent Coaches saying things that are just wrong as well as intimidating. It’s going on all over the city so please don’t ask me for specifics. It’s so pervasive that specifics become meaningless. As you all know we have had to give you pieces of evidence that Principals wanted to put  in the file in violation of the contract. To your credit you did stop this when we brought it to you attention. Unfortunately the damage has already been done by the mere fact that the Principal put on the bottom of these observations “for the file”.

I believe even if we reach an agreement, the present structure of the DOE and the past practice since Sept 2011 demonstrate that you cannot and will not roll it out successfully. I do not attach any intentional motives on the DOE’s part. I am speaking from evidence city wide that has transpired. It is obvious to almost anyone involved with the DOE that the Network structure is an operational disaster. And I know that most of you and others in education from outside the DOE know it as well. I also know that it is almost impossible if not totally impossible for you to admit this.

I just want to remind you that we are still 100% committed to the new evaluation system – one that incorporates professional growth throughout a teacher’s career and a fair and honest evaluation process.

What should have happened was Principals telling the staff that we will learn this together in a non threatening way. We might come into your classroom in mass, 8 or 9 of us. We are just coming in to learn. After we leave one of us will go over what we saw or think we saw and see how you feel. Then we will rip up the observation. This is so we can all learn together in a professional atmosphere. We could even say if someone feels so strongly about not having 8 or 9 people come in at one time we would honor that. You get the idea. Learn together in a non threatening way. Unfortunately the opposite is happening in too many places. Anyway I would suggest we sit and talk about a proper roll out.  If this continues the new evaluation system is doomed for failure. And let’s be clear. This failure rests squarely on the DOE’s shoulders. No one else.

Michael Mendel
UFTSecretary/Executive Assistant to the President