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?
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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.
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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.