First Person

ATRs in the Teachers Lounge

Strange happenings … There are ATRs in the teacher’s lounge of my school. Let me explain.

As you probably know, starting this summer the Mayor put a freeze on hiring of any non-DOE teachers. So teachers who just moved to the city, as well as newbies out of any teacher prep program, including NYC Teaching Fellows and TFA, have all been left with no job prospects in the public schools. This is because of the ATRs, who are teachers who have been excessed — NOT fired — from their positions.  

Excessing happens when funding for a position closes up or a school closes down. Now, it is pretty difficult to fire a tenured teacher. It requires lots of documentation from the principal, multiple chances for the teacher to redeem him or herself, and there is strong legal representation for all teachers provided by the union, so even in the clearest of cases, it can take a few years. Many principals take the easy way out and simply dry up the position, thereby excessing the unwanted teacher. Often this is nothing more than a bad match between teacher and principal/school, and such teachers secure positions at other schools quickly. In other cases, the excessed teacher doesn’t find a position at another school, but continues to receive his or her salary from the DOE as per the contract — if you’re not fired, then you still have a job, even if that job is actually no job at all.

My school had a number of vacancies at the end of last year. We were able to hire a bunch of experienced NYC teachers who were fleeing their schools for the greener pastures promised by my school (I hope we’re delivering!). But a few positions remained open. My principal interviewed 37 ATRs. That’s right, 37. She said they were the most depressing interviews she has ever done, and that she “could not, in good conscience, hire any of them.”

Why were the interviews so bad?  Are these teachers really the dregs of the profession? Or is it that they’ve become all too comfortable being ATRs with no teaching position and do not want to go back to the classroom?      

Two weeks into the school year, we still did not have a math teacher for my grade. A string of subs covered the math class, while we attempted to wait the hiring freeze out.  

A few weeks later, the city decided to place all ATRs in vacancies throughout the city. We received three from a high school that was shut down. These three teachers, all middle aged, have 10-15 years of experience and get paid much more than I do However, they do not want to be at my school, and they know they are not wanted either. In the classroom, they behave like incompetent substitutes. No order, no real planning, no real teaching. Some have been rude to students on occasion. Students get rude right back to them (and you know how middle schoolers can be when they feel disrespected). It’s not good. 

Finally, we found a solution. The hiring freeze has been lifted in the area of special education. One of our special education teachers is certified to teach any middle school subject. She agreed to take over the math position, although she’s never been a head teacher before. We are now in the process of hiring a new special education teacher.  

Meanwhile, we still have the three ATRs … in our classrooms covering whenever someone’s absent, and on our payroll as the most senior people in the building.  

In the teacher’s lounge they are like refugees. It’s weird. I feel bad for them. They seem like they have come from a school that was, like many large urban public schools, more of a war zone than a learning environment. They seem almost traumatized, and ready to attack at any moment.  

One of the ATRs is covering for a special education teacher who is on maternity leave. If no teacher is absent, I can count on her to be in my room while I have my CTT class. (When she’s not there, I’m on my own … another story for another post.) She’s actually a nice woman who is trying to do a decent job. She observed in my classroom, while students busily did their work, then came to the meeting area to respond to a poem. She visibly relaxed and her facial expression changed when she saw my students’ real capabilities. Now she greets me in the morning and tells me whether she’ll be in my class or not that day. She asks me about the curriculum, and is trying to work more with the students. It’s nice to see the shift, but honestly, I feel like I’m training her, while she gets paid twice my salary. 

Another ATR as been assigned to teach an 8th grade advisory, since our (now) math teacher cannot, because she’s still in charge of all middle school IEP’s and needs time in her schedule for it, and I cannot because I am team leader and department chair and need time in my schedule for that. However, this ATR just hands out whatever materials we give him, and sits in the room and reads a book.  

So who’s responsible for this situation? I do not fault the mayor. It’s a smart business move to stop paying for teachers who have no positions, especially in a recession. However, given the turnover rates in high poverty schools, you know which schools had to take the ATRs instead of the usual TFA’ers (who can be just as inept, but are usually far more committed and faster learners). 

But who is responsible for these ATRs apparent low ability to teach? Look at the environment they must be coming from. Is it their fault they were teaching under horrible conditions and probably received no support? And, although, I believe principals need a real reason to fire a teacher, perhaps the union is at fault when the process for firing inept teachers takes years. Kids lose out during those years. And which principal gave these teachers tenure so many years ago? Were they different teachers back then?  

I feel like I’m in the twilight zone. Should I just “suck it up” and teach this woman what I know? Like I said, she’s actually a nice person who seems eager to learn. Should I train this man to run an advisory? My kids deserve that…

Ariel Sacks teaches eighth-grade English and serves as a team leader at a middle school in Brooklyn. This post originally appeared on her blog, On the Shoulders of Giants.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.