Life in Limbo: A Look Inside the ATR Purgatory

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Polo Colon, 63, is wearing a spiffy brown suit–accessories include suspenders and a matching fedora. He orders camarones fritos, aguacate, and maduros (fried shrimp, sliced up avocado, and fried plantains)–all in Spanish, of course. He points to the small park outside the diner window, and describes the diversity and convenience of his neighborhood – Bushwick. He grew up in the area, attended Bushwick High School, and raised a family of his own there. Bushwick is his stomping grounds, he said. 

Just last week, Colon– a teacher in the New York City public school system since 1971–was asked to sign in at the middle school he was teaching at for the week rather than slide his attendance card across the board. For someone outside of the public school system, different ways of clocking in may seem meaningless, but it is telling of the hierarchy within the school’s staff: teachers with a permanent job assignment at a school can merely slide their card into the “present” box, whereas visiting teachers must sign in. 

“I told her [the secretary] that I’m only doing this for her,” he said.

For Colon, someone who has been a teacher for over forty years, being asked to “sign in” isn’t customary. But as a teacher in the Absent Teacher Reserve pool, the practices he would normally be awarded are expired.

Colon is one of approximately 800 ATRs roaming the New York City public school system. These teachers are no longer treated with respect – not by the United Federation of Teachers, and not by the Department of Education. The ATR pool is comprised of fully licensed, fully certified teachers who have lost their permanent job positions, typically because of school closures. They find themselves roaming from school to school on a weekly basis, essentially being assigned the work of a substitute teacher.

These teachers, who have devoted years of their lives teaching students in New York City’s public school system, are treated as dispensable and are reminded of their expendability everyday.

 

*****

The absent teacher reserve serves as an intermediary between the guarantee of a permanent position and actually being laid off. Teachers in the ATR pool receive the same salary and benefits, but their new job description fits that of a substitute teacher. They are no longer employed by one public school, but are employed directly by the Department of Education, and float from school to school on a weekly basis.

In 2011, Mayor Bloomberg jeopardized the jobs of over 4000 teachers, with his contested policy of shutting down “failing” schools.” Through bargaining between the United Federation of Teachers and New York City’s Department of Education, the Absent Teacher Reserve was created in 2005, for teachers who found themselves in the “rubber room”– either unable to find a permanent job because of a closing school or because they were targeted for termination.

Sam, who chose to use a different name, has been a teacher in New York City for twelve years. One year after he transferred to a different middle school, it was shut down, and he became an ATR. “I’ve been an ATR for three years, and with this colocation situation, where the DOE uses one building for three to five schools, the original school loses teachers because it loses space for its students,” he said.

 Many of these ATRs are just like Colon, who has been a teacher for over forty years–teachers who have devoted years teaching, and are now unemployable.  This is because of the Department of Education’s “fair market funding formula,” according to Norm Scott, a former New York City public school teacher. Scott, now retired, worked as a public school teacher from 1967 until he officially retired in 1997. Even after that, he continued to work in New York City public schools until 2005, coordinating robotics programs at schools in his district.

 “You could have a school full of $100,000 teachers, or full of $50,000 teachers. What Joel Klein (the former Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education) did was penalize schools by limiting the number of teachers with these salaries and put a penalty on schools that hired these people,” Scott said.

 Sam described the ATR position as a way to “deprofessionalize the profession, to weaken job seniority, and job security,” with, what is often, “a humiliating rotation.”

***** 

Colon began his career as a teacher in 1971, as an assistant preschool teacher at a daycare program in Harlem. “I just enjoyed it,” he said. “As a musician, I could do music and art with them–I just love watching children develop and helping them to develop.”

Soon after, Colon got married and had two daughters. Because of his family, Colon decided to further pursue his career in education. He became certified in Early Childhood and Early Childhood Education (degrees for teaching in preschools and elementary schools) and he earned a Common Branches License for teaching core subjects. He even completed the School Administrative Supervision and School District Administrative licenses for principal certification.

 In 1989, Colon began working at P.S. 120 in Bushwick. After seventeen years of working there, in 2006, he launched an investigation against the school’s new principal, Liza Caraballo. He accused her of violating the No Child Left Behind Act and the New York City Health Code.

 After the incident, Colon was assigned to a rubber room in downtown Brooklyn. He explained that the rubber room was full of teachers who had been charged with various things and were on their way to termination, but were still employed by the DOE.

The room was set up like a cafeteria, with long, six-person tables. Teachers could spend weeks or months there, but in many cases they were stuck in the rubber room for years. Since there were no students to teach, and no assignments to do, teachers would sit at the tables and either linger and waste time, or try their best to be productive.

“People wrote books–actual books,” said Colon. One woman, he explained, got a PHD, allowing her to get another teaching license.

Colon spent three years in the rubber room, seeing his colleagues come and go. He is finally able to work in schools again, and as an ATR, he is given weekly assignments,  never in one school for too long.

*****

Marc Epstein taught history at Jamaica High School in Queens for 16 years, and in the 2011-2012 school year, he received a letter from the Department of Education informing him that he–alongwith half of his fellow teachers at Jamaica–were now a part of the Absent Teacher Reserve pool.

Epstein, who has continually written about violence in public schools, wrote a piece called “New York City Ronin Teacher,” which, after being published in the Huffington Post, found its way onto the blogs of ATRs, ATR community pages, and the websites of education reformers.

“At the end of the day the teacher-ronin [ATRs] are expendable. After all, when you go to the movies and buy popcorn, does it matter who puts the popcorn in the box, or if there is a new person behind the counter every three weeks?” Epstein wrote.

Sam recalled when he was told he would become an ATR. “It was a really curt debriefing. ‘Okay, we’ve lost some numbers, we had to let some people go,’ – that’s how it went,” he said. “it was a debriefing but it was a little too curt for my taste.

Feeling like a substitute teacher is inevitable for an ATR. Teachers aren’t even able to make their own classroom lesson plans.

“100k a year to do nothing,” said Colon. But he remains optimistic because he loves his students.  “I see myself as a specialist that comes in. I have to impress on [students] that I’m not just a sub.”

One of Colon’s greatest concerns as an ATR is that he finds the DOE takes no issue in violating its own health and safety codes. For the last few weeks, he has been teaching in middle schools, for which he does not have his license. He has reached out to the DOE and UFT in regards to the matter. All of his complaints have been ignored.

“We often get put into things that are outside of our licensed area,” said Sam, in reference to his weekly rotations. “We’re either doing the best we can under challenging curriculum if we’re working outside of our licensed area, or we’re bringing lessons that have been made up already for the grade level.”

However, ATRs also face struggles outside of the classroom.

“A lot of us struggle with the idea of being a substitute. Substitutes don’t have multiple years of experience, and aren’t entirely certified unless they’ve retired already,” said Sam. “But students don’t really refer to us as that–staff does. So we take that as a professional slight.”

*****

Since the implementation of the ATR policy, forums and blogs have popped up all over the internet, not only criticizing the creation of the absent teacher reserve pool, but condemning Bloomberg’s idea of education reform. NYC ATR and NYC Rubber Room are two of the more well known blogs that cover news from the absent teacher reserve pool, and allow teachers in the pool to communicate with their fellow co-workers in the same situation.

Teachers in the absent teacher reserve pool do not have their own classroom, their own students, or their own community. And they have resorted to the internet to–a majority of the time–anonymously sending in accounts of their struggles in their new positions, just to cope.

Colon is not bitter despite what he has been through in his final years as a teacher. He is optimistic and is looking forward to finally retiring in Spring 2013, so he finally has time to pursue his musical interests.

However, the future for other ATRs remains bleak. The DOE recently implemented more teacher evaluations, especially for ATRs, which the UFT has supported. Norm Scott, who has worked alongside ATRs, explained the tension within teachers in schools.

“You walked into a school [as an ATR] and you were branded as being a loser,” he said. “They created this ATR system for teachers who could not get jobs and they vilified them. Each year it was a competition with the next round of ATRs, so people are being attacked as incompetent teachers.”

New York City’s Department of Education has hosted several job fairs, advertising them specifically to the ATR community. However, the job fairs are not only for ATRs, but for anyone interested in a teaching position. Sam, who is still stuck in the system, emphasized the union’s failure to support teachers in his situation.

 “We go to these job fairs and its really a show. What goes on is that they hire quite openly and are very solicitous towards the people who are just finishing up their education studies and they literally give a cold shoulder and left handshake who have fifteen and twenty years in the school system,” said Sam.

“We have gestations of being sold out not just by the city, but by the union,” he said. “What they should be doing is respecting the contract.”

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