March 31, 2008

Surviving limbo: a handbook for ATR subs

You'd think that the union would have figured out a way by now to give all us excessed teachers who ended up in the Absent Teacher Reserves a little support. Information, I mean. Helpful hints on how to get through the day. A trick or two.

If the union is so gung-ho on staff development (and it really is), wouldn't it have been an excellent time to give us some? It's not as if any of us ATRs got any training in how to be a sub when we went to school. We didn't student sub like we student taught.

The fact is union management hasn't bothered, and I'm not all that surprised. Weingarten only got around to calling a meeting for the ATRs last November, months after all the excessing took place and only after a whole lot of people banged on a whole lot of doors to force her hand. If the truth be known, neither the BoE nor the UFT seem much interested in helping us out. Both camps would prefer if we'd just slink away.

So, in the absence of any tangible support from either of these, I thought I'd put together a little handbook for ATRs of my own. Unlike Joel Klein, who had virtually no experience running schools or classrooms when he became chancellor, my earlier teaching experience (20 years' worth, in fact) had some value in my new ATR job. I've assessed the trouble spots and can write something up that might possibly shorten the learning curve for fellow travelers.

Here's the first draft, and I expect there to be additions and changes as I grow into my new job. Because I have no illusions: this is what the last part of my teaching career will be looking like.

Maybe others will offer some suggestions. Maybe even the UFT Legal Department could contribute some pointers about contractual obligations and loopholes. I know for one thing there's a stinking issue of parity: regular teachers get to have per-session activities, but ATRs are pretty much barred from these. An ATR can't commit to the school he's working in, and the principal who has just given him a one-way ticket out of the place sure isn't going to grant him an ongoing activity after school. It's a NoWin-NoWin situation for ATRs, and the union has begged the issue.

So, without further ado:



1. You are an inconvenience to your administrators and are essentially being tolerated. Do not try to be a goody-goody or get them to like your work, because bottom line, they don't actually want you on their budget.

2. Do what is educationally sound at all times. That's the only way you'll be able to sleep at night.

3. You are a place holder, not a place filler. You are in someone else's room doing what you can with someone else's lesson for someone else's students, a situation which lasts for the duration of that person's absence.

4. Know that you the only person in the building being asked to "wing it," and no ed school ever taught you how. In the wonderworld of BloomKlein, your job specification has just shifted, and whether you like it or not, you're now a Jack-of-All-Trades, particularly in the HSS with all those specialized classes. Either enjoy, or . . .

5. Detach. Students might be cold-hearted, either unwittingly ("Hey, Miss, did you get downgraded or somethin'?") or purposefully ("F— you. You not a real teacher.") They can also be delightful, like the girl at the bus stop who shouted enthusiastically to her friend: "Hey, there's my substitute!" You are neither a sub-order of teacher or fabulous. You are doing your job to the best of your ability under volatile circumstances.


1. Class registers. Oh, how the intruder types love subs, and what a run-around they can give you.

2. Pens, pencils: but get collateral if you lend them, because they'll walk out with them and when they remember to return them, you've moved to another room.

3. Wordfinds, math puzzles, crossword puzzles, scrap paper. There'll be days when the teacher has left you nothing, and when kids are bored enough, some will take whatever you're handing out.

4. Chalk, eraser, dry erase pens. Don't rely on the teacher's supply.

5. List of school phone numbers, like for security, guidance counselors, the program office.


1. Have kids sign in on a separate sheet. Bubbling comes later, at your convenience and when you've had a chance to reflect over the legitimacy of the signatures.

2. Assign work immediately. Better still: write the assignment on the board before they get there and don't even open your mouth. Teens respond better when they're not being told by you to do anything.

3. Announce that you'll help anyone who needs it.

4. Then help a few of them, or at least look at what they're doing over their shoulder. Send a message that you're not just a disinterested bystander. It will convince some of undecided characters to crack a book.

5. Standard behavior for immature classes is to test the sub, and they can be merciless. So, it's now time to annotate that sign-in sheet. Look really serious when you do this, as if the mark you're giving them really means something. Tell one person he gets a check because he's working, another a half-check for not working so hard, or NW for No Work at all. Give your own marks for anything you can think of: being disruptive, intruding (contact Security to remove these kids), breaking school rules (don't contact Security for these because you'll annoy them, but you can write the student up later and let other people handle it).

6. A malicious child can really hurt you, but remember this. There are Chancellor's Regs on abuse to protect the student, but you won't find any regulations for the kind of abuse substitutes are frequently subjected to. In BloomKlein, teachers are abusers, students are . . . well, just kids.

7. Put the room in good order when you leave and the work in a neat pile. It's like wampum: you're trading a bit of effort for a bit of good feeling, and you'll be needing as much of that as you can get.

Part IV: DOCUMENT EVERYTHING, for example:

1. When no assignment has been left for you
2. The kids who enter late
3. When kids sign the attendance sheet, then cut out
4. Dangerous items left around the room (broken glass, formaldehyde, etc.)
5. Ripped books
6. Security not arriving if you've called them
7. An AP or principal walking into the room, for whatever reason
8. A kid's tirade of vulgar, aggressive words. It might get worse before it stops, but it will stop, especially when the rest of the class sees the humor (i.e., the stupidity) of it.


March 24, 2008

Welcoming The Chancellor's New Clothes

There's a new edblog in NYC with a whimsical name, and it's gone full throttle against BloomKlein's strategies for getting some people out of and other people into the teaching force.

Check out the incisive post on the NYC Teaching Fellows program called "Indoctrinated and In Shambles," which deconstructs bits from the NYCTF overview, website, eligibility page, and success statistics PR. The earlier posts run up to that one very smoothly.

They're just getting started over there, but I expect they'll be laying bare a whole lot of stuff the emperor — oops, chancellor — would prefer people never to know.

March 23, 2008

Legislating on what you don't know much about

Do you get the feeling that legislators really don’t know what they’re doing anymore?

I’m not talking about the smorgasbord of sex scandals we’ve been treated to, or the logjams in Albany or Washington that indicate our elected officials don’t spend much time staff developing themselves in the basic skills of governance.

I’m talking more about how good these people are at judging what’s best for the profession of teaching: where are they getting their facts, and do they have the time, interest, or skill to really assess what their advisors are telling them.

At Lobby Day up in Albany a couple of weeks ago, a whole bunch of us went in to speak to our local assemblyperson, who, like many others, was not even in the building. Instead, we got to talk to — for want of a better word — a kid, an aide in his early 20s, whose face showed he hadn’t a clue what we were talking about. He took no notes, remaining alert, tense and frozen. He was probably praying he’d be able to respond intelligently to a couple of our points and remember a handful of things he could report back to his boss on. It was decidedly uncomfortable, for him and for us, who had given up a day to make the trip.

I don’t trust that elected officials know enough about education to legislate it, and I don’t know how we can get them to absorb what they need to know about teaching in underfunded schools and hostile environments.

Jennifer Medina’s reported in the NY Times last Tuesday that the Assembly passed a bill the week before that would keep school districts from linking teacher tenure to the test scores of students. Not bad for starters, but she went on to mention that the School Board Association director thinks legislation to toughen tenure standards keeps getting “watered down.” The rules on tenure passed last year, applying to teachers hired after this coming July 1st, say that tenure decisions must include, among other things, “an examination of how well teachers use data.”

I can’t imagine any legislator knows how to use data in the classroom. What I can imagine is how people whose business it is to use data try to persuade them that data is essential to good teaching.

Here’s an example of data in the classroom from when I was in high school some 45 years ago, before computers were invented and way before BloomKlein and their ilk could squander $80 million on computer projects like ARIS.

A teacher gave a test. No one got 100, even the best and most reliable students. He took the highest score and raised it to 100, then put all the others up the same number of points. Looking us square in the eye, he then told us that (a) he had misjudged our capabilities, and (b) he was disappointed in us. We got the point that it was not so much the mark that counted, but that our standards for ourselves were too low. Now, that's what I call a good use of data!

We don’t need test data to tell us how to teach. We need the time to assess our students’ work and speak to them individually about it. We need the time to look over their shoulders, offer comments in the margins of their papers, read over the details of what they write and the computations they make, we need time to correct their spelling and their grammar.

This does not come from legislation on the use of data. This comes from legislation on class size and making sure that when teachers are in school, they’re helping kids acquire skills instead of doing data entry and custodial duties or attending staff development sessions of negligible importance.

March 15, 2008

Grading the schools on terror

As long as everyone’s going around designing “grading” systems for schools – first Klein, now Weingarten — I’ve decided to make one up myself.

I see it this way. When the staff lives in fear, they can’t do a good job. Simple as that.

So, for starters I paid a short visit to the Homeland Security website to see how they’ve set things up over there. One thing I’m sure to borrow from them is that nifty little color alert chart that grades our fear levels from “Low” to “Severe.”

In some schools, you just know the principal is plain out crazy. They’ve been around for a while and have managed to circumvent the contract in almost every way. Even when RW goes over to rein these guys in, it doesn’t much help. Their vision of an educational workplace is simply not ours, and they just don’t care whose lives they’re stomping on. Those schools get a “Severe" alert.

You’ll find “High” risk of terror in some of the schools where they’ve just installed a Tweedle, one of those leadership people who haven’t come up through the ranks and probably just got out of grad school. They’re either totally new to the job or still feeling their way, so they haven’t been able to establish a record of unmitigated terror as yet.

A school with an “Elevated” level of terror means that you heard that someone down the hall got sent to the rubber room last week and no one knows why.

“Guarded” means that everyone should be looking over their shoulder, but particularly in the direction of a chapter leader who’s cozy with the principal.

I guess there are a few schools left with a “Low” risk of terror attacks, but only the Tier I people know what it’s like to be in one of those.

Someone created a widget I’m thinking of borrowing, so you could plug a Real Time Terror Warning Badge box right into your own computer. Wouldn’t it be nice to know before you leave for school in the morning how much terror you can expect from admin when you get there.

“While there continues to be no credible information at this time warning of an imminent threat to the homeland, the department's strategic threat perspective is that we are in a period of increased risk.”

That's from the DHS website, but it sure feels the same way in schools. When teachers are seen crying after administrators have had words with them, when you hear someone’s been disciplined by a principal or AP even in front of students, when a teacher, or a secretary or a guidance counselor comes right out and tells you they can’t stand it anymore and this will be their last year, that they’ve had it, that they’ll never be around long enough to make good on the 55/25, then you know you’re in a terrorized school.

I know someone who got to be chapter leader for the first time about seven years ago. After a year of collaborating with her scalawag of a principal, she's had a rocky trip ever since: excessed twice, harassed (until the union jumped in and stopped it), and marginalized. She says the threat of being given a U-rating based on nonsense or sent to the rubber room on a trumped-up charge is always on her mind. With 20 years in the system, consistent satisfactory ratings and commendations, there’s never a day, she says, that she enters a school building without thinking: What bad thing is going to happen to me in here today?

I call that terrorization of the workplace, and I believe it is one of BloomKlein’s biggest legacies.

Re-read Mary Hoffman’s "Jack Welch is My Daddy", in which she talks a whole lot about how the CEO brought his “big stick” methodologies to Klein’s Leadership Academy.
This fall, the opening episode of the documentary about the Leadership Academy featured scenes from the ceremony for the first class of graduates. . . . Jack Welch played a role in the proceedings. When I saw him at the podium I wondered: would he wish the graduates luck? Tell them they could continue to call on him for advice and support? Thank them in advance for the years of public service they were about to embark upon?

“Get rid of your negative people,” he said.

. . . And who might those people be? Probably anyone who expresses skepticism about any aspect of the new curriculum. The official term used by the instructors at the Leadership Academy is “pushback,” and students role-play methods of dealing with it. A Joel Klein statement made in the course of the documentary is also instructive in this regard: he said one way the new principals could gauge their effectiveness was to ask themselves “ much you are changing the system, and how much the system is changing you.” In other words, “good” graduates will not be altered from the missionary outlook the Academy has instilled in them; “bad” ones might allow themselves to learn something on the ground, even from people who don’t have the Academy’s seal of approval.

This is what some of us long-term educators are up against. We know pretty much what works in the classroom, but the autonomy and prep time it needs to get it done have been taken away. Every single time we do some "pushback," we run the risk of Klein's legacy, that you're not gonna be a happy camper if you speak up.

Andrea Gabor, in Strategy+Business, also reported on a tidbit of Jack Welch, who was addressing a class of principals at the Leadership Academy:
Jack Welch is pacing the floor of a large, window-less conference room in Brooklyn. Occasionally leaning against a table, the straight-talking former chief executive officer of General Electric Company alternates between haranguing and cajoling his audience of 60 or so middle managers. “Your job is harder than running a company,” Mr. Welch tells them. “’Cause running a company, you have all the bullets in your gun. Well, you have sort of a water pistol, I guess.” He pauses. “And it’s out of water.”

The room erupts in laughter.

“But you’ve got to find a way to put water in that pistol anyway,” Mr. Welch continues, almost shouting. “And eventually, put bullets in your gun.”
Does this kind of language have anything to do with education? Should teachers be afraid of what their principals will do to them next?

The BoE takes great care to protect students from verbal abuse (A-421), which they’ve defined in part as language "that tends to cause fear or physical or mental distress" and "tends to belittle or subject students to ridicule." But they've done diddlysquat to protect its lower level employees from similar kinds of mental distress and abuse.

There should be a method — and the union has really let this go on way too long — whereby abusive, terrorizing principals can be brought up on charges of Staff Abuse and put under immediate investigation. Witnesses could be summoned, statements from colleagues taken. Maybe it wouldn’t be feasible to detain these administrators in a rubber room, but certainly a representative agreed upon by the UFT and the BoE could be installed to watch over the culprit for a while until he stopped hurting people. That would send a message, wouldn’t it.

Maybe we’ve become too used to terror in the workplace, and maybe, if the union stopped collaborating for a moment, there’d be ways to turn this around.


New from the lab: It's been a few days since this post first went up, and we're working towards a way to add the names of schools that are particularly dangerous to teachers. You should be able to know what you're in for before applying for a new job. Click on the alert to see the animated version we've been working on, and when you get to the new link, click on the buttons.

efore closing, I'd like give a shout out to the boys at the DHS, whom I've linked to above: How y'all doin' today?

March 3, 2008

Have you heard . . .

There's a merger a-brewing, GHI and HIP, and it's bound to hurt us.

You can get your feet wet on this issue over at Ednotes, but be prepared for a whole lot of bad news.

March 2, 2008

What's all this about arbitration?

Everyone and his uncle knows that the grievance system we had a couple of years ago was dismantled by the present contract.

In its place, a denial at Step I means that the grievant and UFT rep get to face off at Step II against the Chancellor’s rep (who runs the hearing), the principal (most likely phoning in from a remote site), and reps from the district and Human Resources.

At this point the whole thing, which seems pretty much rigged against members in the first place, comes to a complete halt unless the UFT grievance team comes riding in like knights in shining armor to take the case forward to arbitration.

I’ve had an overwhelming urge in recent weeks to re-acquaint myself with Article 22.C of the contract, which constitutes the arbitration process being practiced these days.

The essential points are these:
— A denied Step II doesn't, as mentioned above, go automatically to arbitration;

— You can’t get to the arbitration stage without going through the other steps (obviously), unless it’s a class size or group size issue or for some reason the Chancellor’s office missed the deadline at Step II;

— The notice of arbitration filed by the UFT gives a brief statement of the issue and the provision in the Agreement that’s been violated;

— The panel of arbitrators includes 7 people already agreed upon by the UFT and the Board to serve for renewable one-year terms. There’s a process for not renewing the services of any of these arbitrators at year’s end, and if a replacment arbitrator isn't installed in time, no problem: the same “normal” number of dates have to be scheduled in any case (in another process);

— The parties stipulate the facts beforehand where possible;

— They agree to make expeditious decisions and will not normally file briefs or order transcripts;

— The American Arbitration Association’s voluntary arbitration rules relating to the hearings, fees, and expenses apply;

— The arbitrator can’t go against or modify anything in the contract, cannot make any decision “involving Board discretion” in the contract (unless he feels the Board disregarded something in it, discriminated against the individual, or acted capriciously), and can’t interfere with the Board’s by-laws, etc.;

— The decision the arbitrator is final and the parties must abide by it;

— The arbitrator can determine a remedy, including back pay, but not a monetary penalty;

— The Board agrees to apply the arbitrator’s rulings in all similar situations, and UFT agrees it will bring no new grievances or continue any old ones that are similar to those already resolved by arbitration.

At the same time all this is going on, Article 22.D says that the Board can continue acting against you until the final decision comes down. Moreover, the UFT can't pursue a grievance on anything outside the contract without your consent (there seems to be a typo in that clause: D.2.: “in behalf”), and you get to retain any rights granted by other protections, like Section 15 of the NYS Civil Rights Law and the State Ed Law.
(Actually, I’m not sure about this last item, because that Section 15 seems to contradict the paragraph in section C.c., which says the arbitrator’s decision is “final”:

§ 15. Right of appeal not to be denied. . . . a citizen shall not be deprived of the right to appeal to the legislature, or to any public officer, board, commission or other public body, for the redress of grievances, on account of employment in the civil service of the state or any of its civil divisions or cities.

But, heck, I’m not a lawyer.)

What really made me look into this whole issue of arbitration more deeply was the an article by Stephanie Mencimer in the March/April issue of Mother Jones called “Don’t Tell it to the Judge,” which gives some background into what she calls an “arbitration trend” in this country.

She says that after the Supreme Court ruled in 1984 that Congress had created a “national policy favoring arbitration,” there was a dramatic increase in mandatory binding arbitration. That’s not our problem here, since we're not dealing here with mandatory anything, but what she says about arbitrators is very disturbing:
Justice Hugo Black once observed [that] arbitrators can be “wholly unqualified” to oversee complicated cases. Indeed, private arbitrators aren’t required to follow the law or established precedent, or even issue written decisions. Many have legal backgrounds, but there is no standard dictating that they be lawyers or credentialed in any way — yet their decisions can’t be appealed.

In a series of decisions, Mencimer says, courts have ruled “that an arbitration decision can stand even if it’s legally wrong and causes ‘substantial injustice.’” Furthermore, “courts shouldn’t review arbitrators’ decisions even when they are ‘wacky,’” and people challenging arbitration awards in court “ought to be sanctioned.” WOW.

If there is a national trend toward arbitration, it doesn't seem to be a positive thing, and we need to be vigilant.

Perhaps UFT management is being deliberately obscure on our grievance/arbitration process, not to mention way short on documentation, so that they can continue to play games and make private deals with the other side. In any case, there’s a whole lot of stuff we’re not being told much about . . .

. . . Like if it’s true what I heard, that the UFT and the Board have to agree on winning roughly the same number of cases.

. . . Like the names of the arbitrators, and their backgrounds. In the past, we used to go up against people we knew: the superintendent and their creepy little hit-people that came into the building from time to time. Tell us some more about these people, on the UFT website if you'd like, and prove to us you’re taking this seriously.

. . . Like the "normal" number of cases that grievance teams in each borough are taking to arbitration, perhaps even broken down by category.

. . . Like if the parties are supposed to stipulate the facts beforehand “whenever possible,” what reasons might there be for not being able to do this.

. . . Like if the parties would “not normally file briefs or order transcripts,” when would doing such things be actually appropriate and called for.

. . . Like when Leo Casey a couple of years ago — having already admitted that the UFT only takes the strongest cases to arbitration because of scheduling restraints (probably to keep the stats higher as well) — defended the UFT’s record of successful results this way:
As a general rule, the UFT has a very strong win rate at arbitration, with victories in well over half of the cases we take. This is considered a very high union success rate within the industrial relations field. Most of the credit for that rate belongs to our UFT grievance department, but it also indicates that the DOE is pursuing cases which should have been settled without arbitration, because the position on their side simply lacked merit. (Oct. 12, 2005):
then it follows that if many of the Board’s cases “lacked merit” way back in 2005, what must it be like now in this current free-for-all, where principals and administrators are having a field day with immoral and improper attacks and are being shamelessly backed by chancellor’s lackeys. Let's hear whether with all the increasingly aggressive, malicious, union-bashing, and possibly discriminatory Board practices going on, the union has started to balk at the limit on the number of cases they can take to arbitration.

. . . And another thing for Casey. He said back on Oct. 4, 2005 that the UFT was attempting to streamline things: "by eliminating a redundant step in the grievance process, in which the superintendent invariably ruled against the grievant, we have made some progress in this area.” Well, I was told by someone in the union only recently that the chancellor’s reps at Step II are ruling against members practically all the time, and that grievants should actually expect denials at that level. So, I’d like an update on the “progress” Casey thought the union was making , with some figures please, because it seems to me we’re just being blown out of the water by a higher level of blowfish.

. . . And lastly, if the arbitrators’ rulings must, as it says in the contract, be carried forward and applied to similar cases now and future, I’d really, really like to see a list of these rulings on the UFT website, so we all can figure out the substance and extent of this new era of post-contractual law.