view from inside

‘They talk about you like you’re furniture.’ Three teachers on what it’s like to be in the Absent Teacher Reserve.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / William J Sisti

Fighting to get hired. Teaching subjects they aren’t trained in. Feeling disrespected and stigmatized.

Members of New York City’s pool of unassigned teachers say there’s a lot that people don’t understand about their situation. Though there are about 800 educators currently in the Absent Teacher Reserve, their voice is rarely included in public debate over what to do about the $152 million pool.

The education department recently released figures that shed some light on who is in the ATR, and the numbers could fuel critics who say it’s full of undesirable teachers. About a third of educators entered the pool because of disciplinary or legal reasons, and they are more likely to be poorly rated than teachers citywide, according to city data.

But those figures don’t speak to the day-to-day experience of educators who travel between schools without a permanent position.

Chalkbeat spoke with three teachers to learn what it’s like to be in the much-maligned pool. Here are their stories.

“I do think it’s hopeless.”

Deborah Williams was a literacy coach working with teachers at two schools — one in the Bronx and one in Manhattan. But Williams felt she lacked the support and cooperation she needed from the principals she worked with. She wanted to go back into the classroom as a reading teacher.

Deborah Willliams

Instead, she was unable to find another position and wound up in the ATR pool. That was in 2006. Now, with 25 years of experience and a $110,000 salary, Williams said her relatively high pay makes it impossible to get hired permanently.

“The principals don’t even respond. It’s moot,” she said.

While she feels most qualified to work in early grades, Williams has taught high school English, bilingual students and even trigonometry. Williams said she spent five years at one elementary school teaching reading as an ATR. She pulled students out of class to work one-on-one and coached other teachers.

“I loved it there,” she said. The principal “treated me no differently than any other teacher.”

But Williams said the principal didn’t want to take on her salary, so she was never permanently hired. She still applies for jobs regularly, she said.

“I do think it’s hopeless,” she said. “I don’t think I’ll be hired because of my salary.”

Principals have balked at the cost of teachers in the ATR pool, who tend to be more senior and therefore earn more. Department figures show that teachers in the pool earn an average salary of $94,000 and have 18 years of experience with the city.

The education department recently announced it would help subsidize the salaries of teachers hired from the ATR, but only for the first two years.

‘It’s not fair to the kids and it’s not fair to the teacher.’

Leonard Robertson is a music teacher with a dozen years of experience in New York City classrooms, and multiple masters degrees in his field. None of those qualifications came in handy when he was placed in a Italian classroom last school year.

Leonard Robertson

Robertson doesn’t speak Italian. So facing a month-long assignment to teach high school students the language, Robertson turned to opera.

“How do you break it down to show children they can do this?” he asked himself. “Language has the same thing music has: Meter, it goes over time. You can do things with words.”

Robertson entered the ATR in 2013, after the music program at the Brooklyn Academy for Science and the Environment high school was cut. Since then, he has bounced from school to school, often substituting for teachers in subjects he has no experience teaching.

“It’s not fair to the kids and it’s not fair to the teacher,” he said.

Figures released by the education department show that only 74 percent of ATR teachers were rated effective, highly effective or satisfactory in 2015-16, compared to 93 percent of all city teachers. But Robertson said the evaluation system is stacked against teachers in the ATR, who are often teaching subjects outside of their expertise and given short-term assignments.

Professional development is almost nonexistent for ATR members, Robertson added. In fact, he said, teachers in the ATR are often subbing so that other teachers can go attend training sessions.

“I can’t compete if I don’t know what’s going on,” he said.

Randy Asher, the former Brooklyn Technical High School principal now tasked with helping the education department shrink the ATR, said teachers in the pool have access to trainings, often referred to as professional development or PD. But he conceded that it’s often not sustained or targeted to the teacher’s needs, since they are bounced from school to school.

“I don’t think it’s hard to get PD,” Asher said. “I think it’s hard to get constant PD on a regular basis.”

Robertson said he has received multiple “unsatisfactory” evaluations and been the subject of disciplinary complaints. But he largely attributes those to the difficulties of being in the ATR and feels he’s been unfairly targeted.

Under a new city policy, members of the ATR will be placed in year-long positions in schools that still have openings as of Oct. 15. The change will allow ATR members to engage in professional development and be evaluated by their principals, just like any other teacher in the building, Asher said.

‘They talk about you like you’re furniture.’

Kathy Perez has been teaching for more than two decades. But when she steps into New York City schools, that experience doesn’t seem to matter.

“When I go to work now, I don’t have a name. My name is ‘ATR,’” she said. “They talk about you like you’re furniture. I’ve heard conversations where I’m sitting there and they say, ‘Well, I’ve got the ATR here.’

“It’s like, ‘I’ve been in your building for a month. You can use my name.’”

Before Perez was first relegated to the ATR in 2009, she was a reading specialist in Queens. With a masters degree and certification in reading, she worked with struggling students, many of whom were still learning English. Her position was eliminated.

Perez found a new position at M.S. 72 Catherine and Count Basie in Jamaica, Queens. But Perez said she was pushed and trampled by students there, requiring surgery for her back and knee. She sued the education department and the city settled the case.

Then, Perez said, she was placed right back in the same school. She refused, and ended up back in the ATR. The stigma of being in the pool weighs on many teachers, she said, and makes it difficult to find another position.

“You’re not treated with any sense of dignity or professionalism,” Perez said. “You hear everywhere that you need to get fired and you need to just find a job. I’ll tell you something: I have a job. I go to work every day.”

Perez wants to find another position under her reading license. Otherwise, she would lose her tenure and seniority.

“I teach kids how to read, and I’m darn good at it and Iove it,” she said. “That’s where I want to be.”

Time crunch

Specialized high schools lawsuit could delay admissions decisions, New York City says in court filings

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Asian-American parents and community leaders gathered in Brooklyn to learn about a lawsuit against part of the city's plan to integrate specialized high schools.

New York City students may have to wait longer than usual to learn where they’ve been accepted to high school as the city prepares for a ruling in a lawsuit challenging integration efforts, according to court records filed Wednesday.

The city asked Judge Edgardo Ramos to rule by Feb. 25 on a preliminary injunction to block admissions changes aimed at enrolling more black and Hispanic students in the city’s prestigious but segregated specialized high schools.

A decision would be needed by then in order to meet the “latest feasible date to mail offer letters,” which the city says would be March 18 given the tight timeline around the admissions process.  The delay would apply to all students, not just those vying for a seat at a specialized high school. 

“DOE is mindful that a delay in the mailing of high school offers will increase anxiety for students and families, cause complications for those students considering private school offers, and require specialized high schools and non-specialized high schools to reschedule and restaff open houses,” the letter said.

A spokesman for the education department said the city will “communicate with families when a final offer date has been determined.” Letters were originally scheduled to be sent by March 4.

Filed in December, the lawsuit against the city seeks to halt an expansion of the Discovery program, which offers admission to students who scored just below the cutoff on the exam that is the sole entrance criteria for specialized high schools. The Discovery expansion, slated to begin this year, is one piece of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to diversify the elite high schools.

Asian-American parents and community organizations say the expansion unfairly excludes their children. Asian students make up 62 percent of enrollment at specialized high schools, but comprise only 16 percent of the student body citywide.

The suit calls for a preliminary injunction, which would put the Discovery expansion on hold while the case winds its way through the courts — and would disrupt the admissions cycle already underway for eighth-graders enrolling in high school next year. The process of matching students to specialized high schools was scheduled to begin this week, the city’s letter states.

The plaintiffs wrote a letter supporting the city’s timeline for a decision on the preliminary injunction, saying their aim is to stop the proposed admissions changes “before they can have the anticipated discriminatory effect.”

Hitting pause on the Discovery program expansion would mean the education department has to recalculate the cutoff score for admission to specialized high schools, consult with principals, work with the test vendor to verify scores, and generate offer letters to send to students, city attorney Marilyn Richter wrote in a letter to the judge.

The education department “has never made such a significant course adjustment midstream in the process before,” she wrote.

strike vote looming

Denver district, board members frame teacher contract negotiations as debate over values

PHOTO: Eric Gorski/Chalkbeat
Denver school board members get the latest on negotiations that have hit a turning point.

With time running out to strike a deal with the teachers union, Denver school district officials in a special board meeting Wednesday portrayed the unresolved issues in contract negotiations as a clash over values.

The hastily called meeting was primarily a briefing for school board members from the district’s chief negotiators and Superintendent Susana Cordova. But it was also a chance for the district — and a board that generally supports its positions — to seize the narrative.

Cordova framed the district’s stance as honoring core district values, including getting teachers into hard-to-staff jobs and high-poverty schools, and keeping them there.

Under negotiation is the district’s pay-for-performance system, called ProComp. It offers teachers a base salary and allows them to earn bonuses and incentives for things like high student test scores or working in a hard-to-fill position. The union would like to take some incentive money and put it toward higher base pay to lift the salaries of all teachers.

The district’s general counsel, Michelle Berge, on Wednesday said the union wants to take $10 million being used now to incentivize teaching in high-poverty schools and spread the money around “like peanut butter.”

Talks hit a sticking point Tuesday, with the union insisting the district embrace a salary table with its preferred structure for paying teachers by “steps” corresponding to a teacher’s experience and “lanes” representing education. 

The two sides have bargaining sessions scheduled for Thursday and Friday, and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association has pledged to hold a strike vote Saturday if an agreement isn’t reached.

Denver teachers have long said the pay-for-performance system is too complicated and unpredictable.

Cordova acknowledged the two sides are far apart on money. The money on the table for teachers now, she said, “is not enough.” But she said the two sides should reach an agreement, then work together to “fix the core of the problem” — how the state funds schools.

Wednesday’s meeting gave board members a platform as Denver inches closer to what would be its first teachers strike in 25 years.

Board member Jennifer Bacon said a system in which teachers don’t know what they are going to be paid — it can vary from year to year under ProComp — is “crazy.” 

“What are we really negotiating on to make teaching an idolized profession?” said Bacon, one of two board members who often push back against the district’s policies.

Member Happy Haynes said she put a higher priority on rewarding teachers who take hard-to-fill jobs and work in high-poverty schools.

“It isn’t just simply numbers moving around on cells on a spreadsheet,” she said. “There are values that we are articulating here.”

A teachers union representative did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Union President Henry Roman, however, has previously cited values in articulating the union’s stance.

“We know the district has the money to pay teachers a living wage,” Roman said in a statement last week, “and it’s time that they get serious about budgeting their stated values, so that we can have a deal by the 18th and prevent further stress on educators, students, and the community. Any further delay in getting a fair and transparent compensation system will only serve to aggravate the situation.”

On Friday, district officials presented a new proposal that would put an additional $6 million into teacher pay. That’s on top of the additional $17 million the district had already proposed, for a total of $23 million more. Taking into account a previously promised cost-of-living raise, the $23 million would increase teachers’ base pay by 10 percent from this school year to the next on average, district officials said.

Board member Carrie Olson, a former teacher, indicated the school district has more work to do to describe its offer.

“When I sit here, I know it sounds good, but I know that is not translating into the teachers in our schools,” Olson said. “The feeling isn’t, ‘This is a great deal.’”

That doesn’t appear to be lost on district officials. Cordova fielded teacher questions for an hour late Wednesday afternoon during a “telephone town hall” with educators after the district blasted them with robocalls informing them of the opportunity.

Teachers, meanwhile, organized informational community meetings at no fewer than three Denver schools Wednesday afternoon or evening, part of an effort to engage parents, said union vice president Christina Medina. In some cases, school administrators took part in those or previous meetings to discuss implications of a strike and explain the district position, she said.

“No one is more invested than parents,” said Medina, a teacher at Academia Ana Marie Sandoval elementary school in northwest Denver. “So connecting with them is important because they love our kids and we love our kids. It’s making sure we are on the same page. Making sure that teachers stay and we have great teachers in Denver.”