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Losing It

Education is on a roller coaster recently, with unexpected twists and turns seemingly improvised on the spot by Mayor Michael Bloomberg. First, 4,400 teachers were going to receive pink slips. Then, the mayor unilaterally declared teachers would receive no raises for two years, and that layoffs would thereby be averted.

His declaration spat in the face of the Taylor Law, which “requires public employers to negotiate and enter into agreements with public employee organizations regarding their employees’ terms and conditions of employment.” Though the mayor has no legal right to unilaterally declare a conclusion to ongoing negotiations, the New York Times declared it was a “sensible choice.” Gabe Pressman called it a “wise decision.”

Then, wise decision or not, Mayor Bloomberg surprised us by reconsidering yet again. Apparently, he may give teachers pink slips anyway. Even if he doesn’t, the draconian budget cuts he’s imposed will mean fewer elective classes for kids, larger class sizes, and widespread “excessing” of teachers, dumping them into the Absent Teacher Reserve and forcing them to scramble for a rapidly decreasing job pool. Teachers have every reason to be nervous.

Having lost my job this way four times, I know exactly how they feel. At that time, there was no ATR pool, and no paycheck unless I found something else. The first time, I had been teaching four months at Lehman High School in the Bronx and wasn’t all that invested in it.

I’d had no training whatsoever, and had found the job via a subway ad. After I’d taught nine days, I was observed. My assistant principal said I didn’t know what I was doing. “I told you that when you hired me,” I protested, but it didn’t matter. However, the city was so desperate for teachers that year they simply shuffled me from Lehman High School to John F. Kennedy High School.

When I got to JFK, the AP for organization told me they didn’t have any jobs for English teachers. He asked me what else I could teach. Social studies? No, they were all booked up. Music? Yes, they needed a music teacher right away. They gave me two classes of guitar, and three in Survey of Music (with 50 students each). What should I do in those classes?

“Fake it until you make it,” suggested Carl Benjamin, the music AP. It was the first practical teaching advice I’d ever received. But after three semesters, I was let go. I found out when I arrived the first day of school in September. This was very inconvenient, as I’d just enrolled to get my master’s in English from Queens College. Fortunately, I hadn’t yet paid.

To hell with crossing bridges to the Bronx, I decided, and went to the hiring hall in Queens. A secretary showed me a room full of tenured teachers in folding chairs. “I’ve got to place every one of those teachers before I even think about you,” said she.

I called the teachers union. “We’re sorry,” a rep told me. “We know it’s bad now, but when you’re a senior teacher you’ll be glad.” Then I’d be able to sit in that room and wait, I supposed.

I put on a suit and walked into every department of every high school in Queens. The special education AP at Hillcrest High School hired me. The woman at the hiring hall made her sign a pledge to have me teach only English. Minutes later, the AP assigned me to teach math. In fact, I got two classes in the regular math department. Two kids complained I wasn’t doing my job, but rather was forcing students to work out all the problems on the board themselves. The math AP observed me and told me that was exactly how he wanted the course taught. Who knew?

I was glad he liked my class, because I was able to use him as a reference a few months later when I got dumped again. After another visit to every high school in Queens, I landed at Newtown High School where they had me teach English as a second language. I felt lucky to know what ESL was. Fortunately, it was one of the five preps Principal Robert Leder had assigned me, a new teacher with no experience, at Lehman.

“You’re going to teach ESL,” my Lehman AP had announced.

“What’s ESL?” I asked. The job was mine.

At Newtown, I started to love teaching newcomers. But I wasn’t licensed, and they couldn’t keep me. I got an offer to be appointed, for the first time, teaching English at Springfield Gardens High School. I turned it down, took a weekend job playing guitar in the World’s Worst Wedding Band, and began working toward a master’s degree in applied linguistics at Queens College.

This set me on a path to be a real ESL teacher. So being fired (or “excessed”) worked for me. Of course back then I didn’t have a wife, a daughter, or a mortgage.

Lucky as I may have been, I don’t delude myself. Many of my colleagues were not so fortunate. If Mayor Bloomberg thinks firing, or even “excessing” teachers won’t drive them away from the profession in droves, he’s the one deluding himself. If “Children First” is anything more than an empty slogan, he’ll drop all thoughts of doing so.

I’ll be at City Hall with the UFT on Wednesday at 4 p.m. for a protest against school budget cuts. I urge everyone who cares about kids, teachers, or education to join us. Let’s tell Mayor Bloomberg this is an emergency, and he needs to do the right thing.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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