Tag Archives: Work

Exclusive! My Interview with Arne Duncan

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan sits down with the Assailed Teacher to answer the questions we all want to ask him.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan sits down with the Assailed Teacher to answer the questions we’ve all wanted to ask him.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is facing some heat for his “white suburban moms” comment. As part of his public relations damage control, Secretary Duncan agreed to an interview with me. Below is a transcript of the interview in its entirety.

AT: Good evening Secretary Duncan and thank you for agreeing to this interview.

AD: Thank you for having me. I must say, you are much more overweight and slovenly than most other public school teachers. Perhaps you should come down to Washington so you can get in a few rounds of basketball with me and the President, fat boy.

AT: You know, it is comments like this that have gotten you into hot water lately. This past Friday you claimed that some critics of the Common Core Standards are “white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — [are discovering] their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.” Would you care to elaborate on this Mr. Secretary?

AD: Certainly. See, some mothers just cannot bear to hear any negative news about their perfect little cherubs. Women, by nature, are irrational creatures with an overly optimistic view of their offspring. It takes someone like me, a man from the masculine financial world who now walks the halls of power in Washington, to tell them the reality. I made sure to look at the scores of the children of every single white mother who opposed the Common Core. Guess what? They are all from the suburbs and all of their scores suck. What I said might have been a bit brash, but it was true.

AT: Whoa! Let’s unpack that statement a little bit. First, I must say that your comments just now came off as incredibly sexist.

AD: So? Sexism is part of life. We want to prepare children for the 21st century. Guess what? Sexism exists in the 21st century. Look at Michael Bloomberg. This is a man who treats the women who work for him as his personal harem. He has been the mayor of the largest city in America for the first 12 years of the 21st century. Children need to learn that sexists can do anything, including become Mayor of New York or Secretary of Education.

AT: But your comments were incredibly racist as well. I mean, are there no minority mothers in the suburbs? Are there no white mothers in the cities? Are there no minority mothers anywhere who oppose the Common Core?

AD: Don’t be so quick to play the race card, fatty. Remember, I was appointed by the nation’s first black president and play basketball with him every morning. Everyone knows that these Common Core Standards were created to help minority children. In fact, all bold education reformers today care about minority children, unlike you fat, lazy teachers. No, no minorities anywhere oppose the Common Core. They all love and support it. Don’t you understand? With these standards, minority children in urban areas will have to be taught the same thing in the same way as white children in the suburbs. This ensures that all children, no matter their race, get a quality education. We don’t have to worry about ameliorating urban poverty or proving adequate resources to urban schools. It is enough for us to mandate every child get taught the same thing and, voila, equal education for all. It is so simple, I don’t know why we didn’t do it earlier.

"Perhaps you should come down to Washington so you can get in a few rounds of basketball with me and the President, fat boy."

“Perhaps you should come down to Washington so you can get in a few rounds of basketball with me and the President, fat boy.”

AT: From my understanding, we intend to determine if children are meeting these standards by subjecting them to standardized tests every year. In fact, your “white suburban moms” comment shows that you measure intelligence and the success of schools by test scores. Don’t you think testing only measures a very narrow conception of “intelligence”? Are you not afraid that the obsession with testing will cause teachers, parents and children to do nothing more than test prep for the 13 years they attend public schools?

AD: As I have said many times before, we are competing with the rest of the world. We live in a globalized economy. China is going to be kicking our butts soon if we don’t do something. That means we have to be more like China. Chinese students take many exams. They have a government that treats their people like disposable cogs in a machine. The only civil rights they have are the ones the Communist Party allow to exist. Those who protest or speak out against the government are systematically jailed, beaten, monitored or worse. These are recipes for success. Testing and test prep will ensure that public school students obediently follow orders. Reading informational texts, as the Common Core mandates, will destroy critical thinking and imagination. Why do we need those things in the 21st century? We don’t. Those things only lead the next generation to want to “Occupy Wall Street” or something. We want to prevent more Occupy Wall Streets in the future so we don’t have to have a Tiananmen Square. Do you catch my drift? So, yes, I concede the point that testing and Common Core narrows imagination and civic engagement. So what? Those are not necessary skills for the 21st century. Shut up. Fill in the bubbles. Believe everything that is written and don’t let your mind run too far. That is what our country needs to be successful. We will out-China China.

AT: And yet, by those very same measures you just mentioned, those white suburban children you criticized as being not so smart outperform children in most other nations. Our wealthy and middle class children do quite well on standardized exams when compared with the rest of the world. So what exactly do you mean that these white suburban moms are mistaken about the intelligence of their own children?

AD: Public schools are failing and that is that. I don’t have time to disaggregate test scores according to socioeconomic status. I am a busy man. In a few minutes, I am getting a massage paid for by the good people at Pearson. This weekend, I am going on a vacation funded by the good people at inBloom. Let the eggheads worry about things like statistics and research. I don’t have the time to go into which schools are failing and which schools are not. They are all failing. Everyone knows that. People on the right and left have all bought into the idea that public schools are pathetic failure factories with lazy unionized teachers like yourself. They need to be shut down and given over to the private sector. Pearson and inBloom and Michelle Rhee and the free market know how to run schools better than the government. I know because they told me. They told me with their money. They are all wealthy. You don’t get wealthy by being stupid. People with money are smarter and better than everyone else. Therefore, they should run the school system. If they did, then they could teach everyone to be wealthy and all of our problems would go away… Don’t look at me like that. I know what that look means. You think that my cozy relationship with the privatizers is causing me to say all of this. My response to you is: why do you hate America? Don’t you know the idea that our schools are failing is the one thing we can agree on as a country? Democrats and Republicans have been fighting it out on every single issue from climate change to healthcare to taxation. Are you not happy that we have this one thing that unites us all? Why do you want to cause division by casting doubt on the narrative that public schools are failing? They are failing. End of story. This message was brought to you by Pearson… Sorry, I get $100 bucks from them every time I say that.

"Shut up. Fill in the bubbles. Believe everything that is written and don't let your mind run too far. That is what our country needs to be successful. We will out-China China."

“Shut up. Fill in the bubbles. Believe everything that is written and don’t let your mind run too far. That is what our country needs to be successful. We will out-China China.”

AT: So, you do not believe that cushioning the ill effects of poverty or providing schools in poor communities with more resources before you heap irrational standards upon them is a more humane way to reform education?

AD: What kind of socialist garbage is that? Poor schools, poor communities, poverty in general, those are all excuses. Those are excuses poor people use to blame the system for their own failures rather than themselves. Those are excuses fat teachers like yourself use to explain away your own laziness and failures. This negative attitude and finger-pointing is exactly what is wrong with America. Turn that frown upside down. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Believe in the American Dream.

AT: So, you are saying that the rise in poverty that has taken place over the past 40 years is due to millions of Americans all of the sudden becoming lazy and negative? How about the stagnant wages and disappearing middle class? What about the fact that the average American worker is more productive now than ever before, yet also poorer now than ever before?

AD: See, this is an example of Americans being spoiled. Look at all of those fast food and Walmart workers who are trying to unionize. They don’t know how good they have it. I have traveled the world. I have seen people in other continents who live in houses without roofs, cities without sewage and countries without governments. All of these poor people in America who are complaining have roofs over their heads. They have access to public transportation. They can go to a hospital for healthcare. They urinate and excrete into toilet bowls. The fact that many of them excrete at all demonstrates that they all have food in their bellies, especially you fat boy. How great is America that everyone has the ability to excrete waste? How great is it that we can do so into a porcelain bowl? You can walk into any Starbucks and use their toilets. For absolutely free of charge, you can sit like royalty on one of their toilets and read the newspaper while doing your business. Heck, 99% of the time, it has free toilet paper, soap and water so you can clean up. You want to complain about poverty in America? You don’t know how good we have it here. You don’t know how good all of us have it here.

"How great is America that everyone has the ability to excrete waste? How great is it that we can do so into a porcelain bowl? You can walk into any Starbucks and use their toilets."

“How great is America that everyone has the ability to excrete waste? How great is it that we can do so into a porcelain bowl? You can walk into any Starbucks and use their toilets.”

AT: Should that really be the standard? The fact that people here don’t live in mud brick huts and use a hole in the ground as a bathroom seems like an awfully low standard. I thought you were all about raising standards? Why does that only apply to students, parents and teachers in public schools? Why does it not apply to the American way of life in general?

AD: You don’t get it. We are competing with the rest of the world. There are countries out there where people live like absolute paupers their entire lives. Americans should expect to do the same. You don’t see people in those countries complaining about their living conditions? They get by with what they have. We must imitate their model. That is what Common Core will do. It will train Americans to keep the “what ifs” out of their minds. It will prevent them from asking pesky questions. Don’t you know that most of the nations of the world have horrendous poverty and inequality caused by a greedy ruling class who only want more for themselves? We have the same thing here, only that there are people who want to unionize and “Occupy Wall Street”. We will never be able to compete with the rest of the world if the people in this country don’t accept their miserable lot. That is what Common Core is about. That is what Race to the Top is about. America will only race to the top once Americans accept the fact that they will always be at the bottom.


A Case for Teacher Tenure: The David Suker Story


PART I (Lessons from a Bureaucracy)

David Suker is a New York City native. When it came time for him to choose a college, this young white man opted for Howard University, one of the most prestigious black colleges in the nation. He disliked the de facto segregation in the schools he attended here in New York, so he placed himself in a completely different educational setting when he got the chance.

This type of awareness is rare for someone so young. It is even rarer for someone so young to allow this awareness to guide him in making such a major life decision. Two decades later, it would be this awareness and courage that got David Suker terminated from his position as a teacher in the New York City Department of Education.

Shortly after graduating college, David returned to New York as a newly minted history teacher. He sought to make an impact on the school system that was so repugnant to his sense of justice. It was 1998 and New York City’s school system was called the Board of Education. By that time, the Board had earned a reputation as an inefficient and incompetent government bureaucracy that had outlived its usefulness in the private sector worshipping decade of the 1990s.

But David Suker’s problems with the Board of Education were not born out of impatience with the fact that it did not operate like a sleek corporation. His problems stemmed from being a first-hand witness to the injustice it perpetuated. The booming economy of the 1990s caused a teacher shortage, which meant that David could have plied his trade in almost any school he desired. What does it say about his character that he chose to start his career at a juvenile detention center in the Bronx, a place even the most fearless teachers dare not tread? While the education reformers were meeting around oaken conference tables scheming over how to remake the school system in their own image, David Suker would be meeting with the most forgotten children in the city to help them remake themselves.

It did not take long for him to witness as a teacher the types of injustices in the school system that had so repulsed him as a student. The children he was teaching in the detention center were being routinely brutalized by the corrections officers. When David questioned why this was being tolerated, he was promptly reassigned to an offsite office in order to shut him up. A week later, a principal named Robert Zweig picked him up off the scrap heap, so to speak, and hired him as a teacher for a program known as Offsite Educational Services. He would help children in places like housing projects and drug rehab centers get their GEDs. Once again, David Suker would help give the forgotten children of New York City one last chance.

Like most teachers, David started hitting his stride after his fourth year or so of teaching. The students with whom he worked had been written off by the rest of the school system. They had one last shot at some form of graduation by getting their GEDs. David Suker prepared his students for their GEDs not through rote test prep but by helping them appreciate the art of learning. Instead of drilling them in how to game an exam, he helped them navigate the New York Times in order to demonstrate how reading helps make sense of the wider world. In a program that routinely helped a mere 15% of students get their GEDs, David Suker was able to help 100 students get their equivalencies in a span of 3 years. By 2004, David Suker had arrived as a teacher.

Unfortunately, he was not the only one who had arrived. As David was giving his kids one last chance at a better life, Michael Bloomberg was getting his first chance at killing New York City’s public schools. Bloomberg did away with the clunky Board of Education and replaced it with a supposedly streamlined Department of Education headed by himself. To ensure this new system would run like a corporate machine, he installed middle management types in supervisory positions all over the city. Principals, superintendents and even his chancellor, Joel Klein, would institute Bloomberg’s reforms without dissent or delay. For David Suker’s “district” of forgotten children, known as District 79, Bloomberg installed Cami Anderson as superintendent. Anderson was a darling of Joel Klein. She would later use the slash-and-burn method of school reform she learned here in New York City with great effect as Newark’s schools chancellor.

In order to establish her reformer credentials, Anderson sought to shake up this “failing” district. The children of District 79, the children who were reared first under “Giuliani Time” and then under Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk duchy; the children who had seen their neighborhoods gentrified; the children who had their social services cut year in and year out; the children who had been the biggest victims of Bloomberg’s crusade to turn New York City into a playground for billionaires; the children to whom David Suker had dedicated his career apparently were not making “adequate yearly progress” in filling out the correct bubbles on standardized exams. District 79 was ripe for “reform”.

The reform of District 79 could not follow the template that had been established in other districts. There were no charter schools looking to co-locate there. Charter operators like Eva Moskowitz do not exactly clamor to take on the types of students with whom David Suker worked. Instead of co-locating, Cami Anderson would “reorganize”. She consolidated the various incarnations of Offsite Educational Services into a handful of programs in order to run them on the cheap. To save even more cash she required every teacher in the district to reapply for their jobs, including David Suker. This was a way of circumventing tenure to get rid of expensive veteran teachers. Since the quality of David’s teaching was never in doubt, since he was not quite an expensive 15 or 20-year veteran and since Teach for America wunderkinds were not knocking on the door to teach in District 79, David was rehired by an independent panel of administrators, teachers and parents. This gave David a front-row seat to Anderson’s criminal shakedown of the forgotten children of District 79.

Helping Anderson shakedown the district was none other than Robert Zweig, the principal of Offsite Educational Services who had hired David Suker back in 1998. Zweig was Anderson’s inside man. He helped Anderson turn Offsite Educational Services, a typically utilitarian Board of Education moniker, into “GED Plus”, a typically Madison Avenue Department of Education moniker. It was an open secret that Zweig was in line to be promoted to Deputy Superintendent for his role in helping Anderson “reform” District 79. This meant that Zweig and his school were on the bureaucratic radar. Everything he did was being watched by Anderson, Joel Klein and possibly even Bloomberg himself.

This news did not bode well for David Suker. Part of being a great teacher is being an advocate for one’s students. If he did not have enough resources for his students, Zweig would hear about it. If students did not have access to proper facilities, Zweig would hear about. Other teachers at OES or rather, “GED Plus”, would also hear about it. David was a textbook example of the type of teacher tenure was designed to protect: the one who did not allow administrators to shortchange his children. His courage was a thorn in Zweig’s side, as Zweig would remind him every year by writing him up for one petty infraction or another. There was that time in 2004 when Zweig gave David a “U” rating for the year for being absent 11 times when the contractually allotted number of absences is 10. 11 absences hardly constitutes a case of gross absenteeism, and Zweig knew the 11th absence was due to David’s plane making an emergency landing on another continent, but he took the opportunity to give him a “U” anyway as a friendly reminder of who called the shots at OES.

However, friendly reminders were not enough anymore. Zweig had to show Cami Anderson that he inoculated his teachers against opposing her reforms. Instead of just being a schoolhouse rabble rouser, David Suker became a liability, someone who threatened Zweig’s coveted climb up the bureaucratic ladder. In 2007, when OES was in the process of being rebranded “GED Plus” and half the teachers stood to lose their jobs, the staff had an end-of-year meeting with Zweig where they applauded his many years of service. This applause was music to Zweig’s bureaucratic-climbing ears. Of course, only one teacher questioned the applause. Only one teacher asked why his colleagues were being fired for the “failure” of the program while the principal stood to be promoted. That teacher was David Suker.

At the last graduation ceremony for OES before its rebranding, some students hung up scathing cartoons they had drawn criticizing the program’s administrators. It was doubtless the students had been feeling the pressure of Cami Anderson’s reforms as well and were not happy about them. Principal Zweig saw the hand of David Suker behind this, since David was both a critic of these reforms and a popular figure among the students. Zweig had the assistant principal question David about it. Nobody in the administration bought David’s denials. It was clear that David would be a marked man when he returned next school year to work in GED Plus.

But nothing happened that year. In fact, the 2007-2008 school year was the only time David was not written up or given a “U” rating. Instead, Zweig was being investigated by the DOE for having an affair with one of his assistant principals. This assistant principal was also under investigation for a Youtube video that had surfaced of her rolling around on the floor in front of her students in an ambrosia-induced haze, ambrosia in this case being a cocktail of liquor and cannabis. These investigations meant they were too preoccupied to harass David Suker. By the end of the school year, Zweig learned he would not become Anderson’s deputy superintendent after all. Instead, he would get the special title of “Assistant” to the Superintendent and remain the principal of GED Plus. The uncovering of his schoolhouse love affair led to the dissolution of his marriage. One can imagine the type of mood Robert Zweig was in at this point. Someone was going to pay come next school year.

PART II (When the Conscience Calls)

In the summer of 2008, the Democratic Party was set to nominate its first black candidate for president at their convention in Denver, Colorado. Ever the history teacher, David Suker was there. As he was taking in the mountain scenes from the highway on his motorcycle, a big rig clipped him and sent him crashing onto the side of the road. The accident broke his jaw and gave him a serious case of road rash. Five days later, the school year started for teachers back in New York City. David Suker showed up to work that day with his jaw wired shut and covered in bandages from head to toe. His colleagues and doctors exhorted him to take some time off work so he could properly heal. A teacher without the ability to speak is like a major league pitcher without the ability to throw. So David placed himself on the disabled list until he was able to get back into the game.

Little did he know that his motorcycle crash was an adumbration for what would become of his career. David Suker turned the corner alright. Unfortunately, this corner led to a dead end.

Upon his return from the accident, David encountered a principal Robert Zweig with little appetite for controversy. Instead of allowing David to teach students, where he would surely find something else about which to complain, he put David on sentry duty in a stairwell of GED Plus. He would only be allowed to work with kids again once he passed a physical and mental evaluation by DOE doctors. David passed these evaluations, at which point he went back to work with the children of GED Plus. However, as soon as he was put back in the game, he was taken right back out again. David Suker was served notice that he was to report to the rubber room.

Why David Suker was rubber roomed at the start of 2009 was a mystery at first. Teachers in his position rarely discovered the allegations against them before they went to a termination hearing, the dreaded 3020a. Only later would David discover the supposed “misconduct” for which he was rubber roomed. It had to do with the way he dealt with two different students on two separate occasions. One was a troubled girl who started cursing out David Suker while filling out her GED application. David took her application away, threw it in the garbage and invited her back to try to fill it out again when she was in a less belligerent mood, which the girl eventually did. The second incident involved a girl who had threatened to kill any gay people in the room. She used her fingers to resemble a gun and started yelling “buck, buck, buck”. Not sure if there actually were any gay students in the room at the time, and not willing to take his chances, David asked the girl to leave so she could work on her own, which she did. These were the charges for which David Suker was rubber roomed for over a year. Even by the DOE’s malleable standards, these were frivolous accusations. This is why he was eventually returned to work without having to go through a 3020a hearing. This time he was sent to work at a site with more direct supervision, another “last chance” facility for students known as Bronx Regional.

David Suker was horrified at what he saw at Bronx Regional. Students who, by state law, were entitled to extra education services because they had learning or emotional disabilities were instead required to sign away their rights to those services. There was no library or independent study area for students who wanted to prepare for their GEDs. The administration had effectively segregated the school by race: students from the Dominican Republic occupied the 2nd floor and black students, both African-American and African immigrants, occupied the first floor. There was no investment by the school or district in curricular materials, which meant each teacher was on their own to teach whatever they saw fit in their subject areas. In short, these neediest of students were not provided with anything with which to make good on their last chance. It was as if the system was shutting the last door that was open to them.  This is what Cami Anderson’s reforms had wrought upon District 79. It was never easy for David Suker to remain silent before. It would be impossible for him to do so now.

So David did what he knew was right. During a panel sponsored by National Public Radio, he accused the DOE of “educational genocide”. The racial segregation he witnessed at Bronx Regional as a teacher was the flipside of the same segregation he saw in NYC as a student. The more things had changed, the more they remained the same. The only difference was that resources were dwindling and corruption was increasing in Bloomberg’s DOE. David would bring these points home to chancellor Dennis Walcott himself many times during his appearances at the Panel for Educational Policy. Appearances like these were part of what put David Suker on the DOE’s radar. The event that truly caused a blip, however, was Occupy Wall Street.

David’s trenchant stance against the DOE’s reforms was part of the dissenting spirit in the air of those days of Occupy. Towards the start of the 2011 school year, a handful of protestors started sleeping over in Lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park. On their third evening of protest, well before what they were doing had caught on, they were joined by David Suker. Over the ensuing weeks, David became a conspicuous figure in many of Occupy’s marches. As the Occupy movement grew, so did the skittishness of the NYPD. The police’s tactic of “kettling” peaceful marchers led to a surfeit of arrests. Among those arrests was David Suker himself. Expectedly, his name and face were plastered in the local newspapers more than a few times. These articles were printed on Friday, November 4. By Monday, November 7, David returned to his school to find out the DOE was, once again, placing him in the rubber room.

They were not going to release him this time. For all of the trouble he had caused during Cami Anderson’s shakedown of District 79; for all of the times he had accused the DOE of “educational genocide”; and for all of the times his name was printed in the media, they were going to make David Suker finally pay. While he was sitting in the rubber room, the DOE thatched together a bunch of minor unrelated charges. They were hoping the aggregate of these charges would result in his termination.

The first set of charges was in step with the DOE’s tactic of piecing together disparate frivolities to make the teacher out to be a menace:

“SPECIFICATION 1 : On or about September 16, 2011 Respondent followed teacher Yanira Rodriguez into the guidance office saying, in a manner causing her to feel threatened, words to the effect of may it be the last time you talk about me behind my back.

SPECIFICATION 2: On or about October 3, 2011 , Respondent acted in a disruptive manner during a staff meeting by leaving the room twice while a colleague, Guidance Counselor Jackie Rangel, tried to address a comment Respondent

made and making comments to the effect of

a. I do not appreciate people talking about me.

b. We have to protect our jobs. There are  administrators looking to get people out.

SPECIFICATION 3: Respondent was arrested  on November 2, 2011 and failed to report the arrest in a timely manner as required by Chancellor’s Regulation C-105.”

The DOE did not stop here. Usually at 3020a hearings, the charges are broken up into individual “specifications” of varying degrees of seriousness. But in the case of David Suker, the DOE came up with separate groupings of specifications, as if his transgressions were so heinous and frequent they defied a single list. However, the likelier scenario was the DOE looked at the charges above, decided they were not enough to warrant termination and invented more. With David languishing in the rubber room, the DOE dredged up their second set of specifications:

“SPECIFICATION 1: Respondent was excessively absent in that he was absent on the following dates:

a. September 15,2011 – Thursday

b. September 21 , 2011 – Wednesday

c. September 22,2011 – Thursday

d. September 23, 2011 – Friday

e. October 5,2011 – Wednesday

f. October 17,2011 – Monday

g. October 25,2011 – Tuesday

h. October 27,2011 – Thursday

I. October 31 , 2011 – Monday

j. November 3,2011 – Thursday

k. November 4,2011 – Friday

SPECIFICATION 2: On or about October 24, 201 1 Respondent, at Town Hall meetings held in the auditorium of the Bronx Regional High  School:

a. Acted in an unprofessional and disruptive manner by causing students to make excessive noise and be uncooperative

during a presentation provided by the  New York City Police Department.

b. Questioned publicly why the police were  in the building.

c. Publicly noted his dislike of the police.

d. Said that he had been arrested and beaten by the police.

e. Showed a scar on his head that he claimed came from being beaten by police.

f. Stated words to the effect that the school practices segregation.

g. Exchanged high-fives and raised fist gestures with students.

h. Brought his students to attend two periods of the Town Hall meetings instead of just the one as directed.

SPECIFICATION 3: Respondent was arrested on November 6, 2011 and failed to report the arrest in a timely manner as required by Chancellor’s Regulation C-I 05.

SPECIFICATION 4: On or about February 13, 2009, Respondent threw Student LG’s* GED test application into the garbage can and directed her to leave the room when she refused to participate in a game of Jeopardy. (*Students’ names to be provided prior to trial.)

SPECIFICATION 5: On or about February 15, 2009, Respondent refused to allow student LG to enter his classroom requiring her to work alone.

SPECIFICATION 6: On or about the dates below, Respondent directed Student EB* to work independently and did not permit her to remain in his class:

a. February 27, 2009

b. March 3,2009″

This grouping of specifications reads like a what’s what in the defiant career of David Suker. Everything for which the DOE had already harassed him were in there, from “excessive” absences to failing to report his arrests in a “timely manner”. Even the accusation regarding the two students for which he had already been rubber roomed resurfaced, a blatant case of double jeopardy. The cherry on top, however, was his supposed “disruption” of a “town hall” meeting. The meeting was actually an assembly in which the students of Bronx Regional listened to lectures from NYPD officers on the pitfalls of violence. This violence was the result of Bronx Regional’s segregation of Dominican and black students. The DOE alleged that, during the assembly, David Suker questioned why the police were in the building. He even displayed a scar he had received as a result of a beat down from a friendly NYPD officer. He then supposedly committed the most treacherous act of which a teacher can be accused: he exchanged “high fives” with his students. It is amazing how such vile behavior went unreported by the New York Post, complete with a picture of David Suker sporting devil horns.

Yet, these evil deeds still were not enough for the DOE. With David Suker languishing in the rubber room, they continued scrambling to find things that could get him out of the door once and for all. Even with a 3020a process incredibly skewed against the teacher, there still might not have been enough at this point to terminate him. Then in January, three months and 9 specifications into David Suker’s rubber room stint, the head of the Administrative Trials Unit (the group that brings charges against teachers), Theresa Europe, sent a letter to DOE investigators. The letter revealed that David Suker had a daughter who attended an exclusive public high school in Harlem. Apparently, the address that David listed was not where his daughter really lived. This was the basis for the final set of charges:

“SPECIFICATION 1: On or about 2001 to present, Respondent submitted false documents to the Department of Education which listed addresses where neither he nor his daughter, a student attending Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering, lived.

SPECIFICATION 2: On or about December 1, 2006, Respondent submitted false documents to the Department of Education with the intent to

defraud the Department by improperly obtaining admission of his daughter into the Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering.

SPECIFICATION 3: On or about October 4, 2001, Respondent submitted false documents to the Department of Education with the intent to defraud the Department by improperly obtaining admission of his daughter to a school she was not zoned for.”

These charges were an incredible stretch. High schools are open to students of all 5 boroughs of the city. David listed his daughter’s address as in the Bronx. These facts alone should have been enough for the hearing officer to dismiss this set of charges out of hand. However, the DOE went through the trouble of sending investigators to follow David Suker’s daughter. Investigators noted that she lived with her mother in the Bronx. They even noted the exact route she took to get to the train every morning. Stalking a young girl sounds like a charge over which a teacher would terminated. Yet, DOE investigators maintain their employment with the same exact type of behavior.

After this third set of specifications was drawn up, Theresa Europe’s office expedited David Suker’s case directly to the 3020a. The hearing officer was Eleanor Glanstein. She listened to the arguments of the DOE’s lawyer, Nancy Ryan, and David’s union-appointed lawyer, Steven Friedman. It turned out to be the usual kangaroo court. Glanstein gave Nancy Ryan tremendous latitude in bringing in last-minute “evidence” and witnesses, a practice that went largely uncontested by the union lawyer. Any reporter, pundit or reformer who believes teachers are protected by an impregnable wall of tenure should sit in on a few 3020a hearings. DOE lawyers act like schoolyard bullies. Arbitrators act like indifferent monitors who permit the bullying to take place. When the hearing ended in May 2012, David Suker knew he did not have a chance to keep his career.

The school year ended soon thereafter. David started summer vacation not knowing if he was going to have a job come next school year. The ante was especially high at this point since David’s wife was pregnant. It was a real possibility that, even before his son took his first breath, David would have no way to provide for him. Then, just as the 2012 school year was set to begin, David Suker learned his fate: termination. Glanstein’s written decision went through every one of the charges. She found David Suker guilty of the vast majority of specifications. The lynchpin of her entire decision was the matter of David’s daughter’s residence.

Needless to say, he was not about to let this decision stick. Like so many other wrongfully terminated teachers from the DOE, he took his case to the New York State Supreme Court. Throughout most of its history, the New York State Supreme Court has been reluctant to overturn the decisions of labor arbitrators for fear of compromising the arbitration process. Over the past few years, however, the courts have been overturning these decisions with unprecedented frequency. Even with terminations that get overturned, it is rare for a justice of the Supreme Court to question the DOE’s investigation. They assume arbitrators are correct in what they deem to be the facts of the case. They also assume that the teacher is guilty. At most, all a teacher can hope for is a ruling that the arbitrator’s penalty is “shocking to the conscience”. Fortunately for David, his case would be heard by a justice who saw through the entire witch hunt that comprised his termination.

Justice Alice Schlesinger’s decision is a devastating takedown of Glanstein’s termination, her guilty verdicts and the entire DOE investigation. The start of Schlesinger’s ruling (towards the bottom of page 11) suggests the not-so-impartial nature of David’s supposedly impartial DOE hearing:

“The ALJ recommended the penalty of termination. In doing so, she first summarized the number of charges for which she had found Suker guilty. She noted that they involved excessive absenteeism, unprofessional conduct toward a colleague, inappropriate and disruptive behavior at a school assembly, failing to follow correct procedures in dealing with two students in 2009, and failing to report one arrest in a timely manner. A necessary query here is whether the ALJ would have recommended termination if these were all the findings, in other words, findings related only to an assortment of unrelated conduct involving a politically charged assembly, an incident of rudeness to another teacher, taking too many days off without obtaining formal permission, failing by a few days in not reporting his arrest at a demonstration, and failing to follow correct procedures regarding two disruptive students almost three years before the Charges had been brought and which had earlier been investigated. I suggest the answer would have been no and that a lesser penalty would have been imposed, particularly since none of the above findings had anything to do with the quality of Suker’s teaching. If the penalty had been termination simply on these findings, it truly would have shocked the judicial conscience as being harsh. Even the very zealous attorney representing the DOE in her closing statement acknowledged this fact…”

In other words, the first two groups of specifications alone were not enough to terminate David Suker. They were a string of petty, unrelated charges that would have truly “shocked the conscience” if used as the sole grounds for his termination. The charges involving the disruptive students back from 2009, aside from being an example of double jeopardy, alleged that David merely did not follow the school’s ladder of referral for dealing with such students, hardly an offense for which a teacher should have their license revoked. This is a fact the DOE themselves realized when they released him from his first rubber room stint without penalty.

Instead, the arbitrator based her termination on the supposedly fraudulent address David Suker listed for his daughter. Schlesinger noted that the DOE lawyer’s plea for termination based upon this one charge took up seven pages of the hearing’s transcript. The lawyer characterized Suker’s conduct in this regard as “criminal”. Schlesinger, on the other hand, characterized these charges, and the termination upon which they were based, as a violation of his tenure rights.

The fact is that David did put down an address at which his daughter did not live on her application for elementary school. This was in 2001. The fact is that David did put down a false address for his daughter on her application to middle school. This was in 2006. He did this for various reasons, not the least of which was he did not have a stable residence. For David, it was a matter of picking an address and going with it. However, all of this should have been irrelevant to the DOE. Even if David had put down these addresses to intentionally deceive, he still should not have been charged for them. He could not be charged for them because the tenure law for NYC teachers states that the DOE cannot bring charges for anything more than three years old. The last time David provided an address at which his daughter did not live was 2006. These charges were drawn up in 2012.

At this point, David’s daughter was already enrolled in high school. Where David Suker or his daughter were living at that point were irrelevant since NYC high schools are open to students in all five boroughs. If this is the case, why in the world did DOE investigators stalk his daughter in the Bronx? Her place of residence did not matter at the time of the investigation. Perhaps these investigators should be brought up on charges of their own and required to be part of some sort of registry so their neighbors can know what types of creeps are living amongst them.

Justice Schlesinger summed up her decision with what she perceived were the real reasons for David Suker’s termination:

“As this Court stated earlier, the school’s leadership did not want petitioner Suker to remain there as a teacher. They did not like him or approve of his actions. They believed he was insubordinate, that he did not conduct himself properly, that he was getting arrested too often, and probably that he was not a team player. It is possible that much of that is true. But with the exception of the two episodes involving disruptive students, which had occurred almost three years earlier in 2009 and had not resulted in discipline, no one has claimed that David Suker is not a good and/or effective teacher.

Finally, it should be noted that the conduct spelled out in Charge 3, regarding a false address for his daughter, never involved Suker’s own school and never would have been discovered but for the DOE’S decision to target Suker to see if an investigation could find something to be used against him, which it did. But that “something” should not be a basis for terminating this tenured teacher, for the reasons already discussed.”

These words, and the entire David Suker story, encapsulates perfectly the reasons why all teachers everywhere need solid work protections. David stuck up for his students his entire career, even if it meant drawing the ire of his supervisors. He is the type of person determined to do the just thing, even if that thing is unpopular or dangerous to his livelihood. When his students were being beaten by corrections officers, he spoke out about it and was duly punished. Instead of being cowed by this experience with bureaucratic backlash, he continued to be an advocate. He was an advocate for kids who had no other advocate. When the reformer Cami Anderson came to town to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic that was District 79, she caused untold damage to the lives of the kids and their teachers. David Suker was not silent about these acts of education reformer criminality. For this, he paid with his career.

Education reformers are fond of saying how much they love poor children and how they want to help them. By the time David Suker was terminated, the DOE was thoroughly in the grasp of the reformers. Even though Anderson was off destroying the schools of Newark by 2012, Bloomberg acolytes still occupied every position of consequence within the system. They accomplished a feat by sucking resources away from the most underserved kids in the city. David Suker was systematically harassed when he protested against this. So while David is a textbook argument in favor of teacher tenure, he is also a textbook example of why reformers nationwide have made teacher tenure their biggest target. The reformers know what they are doing to our schools is an exercise in unmitigated brutality. Because of that, they need to shut teachers up so they can go about destroying the communities of poor people unabated.

We need to thank teachers like David Suker who refuse to lay down so the jackboots of school reform can trample over them. We need to thank them for using their own resources to lawyer up in order get their terminations overturned in an actual court of law, where a measure of justice can be served. We need to support them in their ongoing struggle against the witch hunts conducted by the Department of Education.

In the thick of last year’s holiday season, the DOE moved to discontinue the unemployment they were giving David Suker. They also sued him for the unemployment they had already given him. His son was born at that point. If not for the paychecks brought home by his hard-working wife, there is no telling what type of childhood their son would be having now. This is reminiscent of the Christine Rubino case, where she had to sell the house in which she was raising her two young children thanks to a wrongful termination by the DOE. They also tried discontinuing her unemployment. This is another reason why the DOE motto of “children first, always” is a cruel example of reformer doublespeak.

The battle is not over. The DOE is appealing Schlesinger’s decision. Let us hope it turns out like the DOE’s appeal of the Christine Rubino decision, where 5 justices saw through the charade of a sham DOE investigation and termination. Stay tuned…






Christine Rubino’s Spring Break


During this past school years’ Spring Break, I attended the latest act in the ever-unfolding drama of the NYC Department of Education versus Christine Rubino.

Christine was terminated in 2011 after some comments she posted on her personal Facebook page. The DOE’s arbitrator, Randi Lowitt, believed that this one incident made Christine unfit to teach forever, despite 15 years of spotless service. Facing financial and professional ruin, Christine hired the Teacher’s Lawyer, Bryan Glass, to appeal Lowitt’s decision to the New York State Supreme Court. Justice Barbara Jaffe found that Lowitt’s decision was “shocking to the conscience” of the court and mandated that Lowitt come up with a less harsh penalty.

Meanwhile, the DOE appealed Jaffe’s decision to the New York State Appellate Division. While the case was working its way up the calendar, Lowitt handed down her new decision: 2 years suspension without pay. This decision kept Christine in poverty just long enough so that she had to sell the house in which she was raising her two young children. I suppose it makes sense in some twisted universe somewhere for Lowitt to traumatize two young children for the sake of protecting countless other children from Facebook statuses they will never see.

Right after Lowitt’s new decision was handed down, the DOE’s appeal was ready to be heard by the Appellate Division. As opposed to the State Supreme Court, whose cases are heard by one presiding judge, the Appellate Division has a panel of 5 justices. I arrived relatively early and was able to listen in on some of the other cases being heard. The justices on the panel seemed fair. They were patient with people who did not have lawyers and asked pointed questions that showed they had not only listened to the arguments, but read the background of each case. How would they receive the Christine Rubino case? Christine’s future literally hung in the balance.

Christine’s case was called. Bryan Glass headed to the podium as did the DOE’s lawyer, Deborah A. Brenner. The litigants at the Appellate Division have only a few minutes to make their cases before the justices start asking their questions. Brenner started the case by painting Christine Rubino in the worst possible light. Not only had Christine said something bad on Facebook, she lied about it, tried to have her friend lie about it and did not show any remorse for her actions. Brenner basically summarized Lowitt’s original decision and justification for terminating her.

Bryan Glass pointed out that Christine did show remorse. After all, she had taken down the comments three days after she posted them, well before she knew of any investigation against her. He also called into question the idea that Christine tried to cover up the matter. As I have written here before, the DOE investigators pretty much browbeat Christine’s friend in the back of a DOE car (yes, they have those) until she said what they wanted her to say. The browbeating included threats of going to jail on Riker’s Island for lying to investigators, a bluff on their part since one cannot be prosecuted for such an act. Despite the fact that Christine’s friend had this horrifying experience on tape, Lowitt did not at all consider it when making her decision.

Once Glass had ended his presentation, it was time for the jutices to ask questions. The first few questions sought to clarify the timeline of events, like when the comments were made, when she was terminated, etc. It is difficult for me to remember all of the details now almost 6 months after the case. However, one justice in particular deserves to be singled out for a job well done.

Justice Sallie Manzanet-Daniels saw through Deborah Brenner’s disingenuous arguments. Throughout the previous cases I watched, Justice Manzanet-Daniels seemed to always sympathize with the underdog. She asked Brenner questions along the lines of, “why is termination the only penalty you’re willing to hand down?” Brenner stammered and reiterated the line of logic laid out by Randi Lowitt. Then Justice Manzanet-Daniels picked up on the matter of the supposed cover-up by Christine. She questioned why Randi Lowitt had not mentioned the audio tape of DOE investigators shaking down Christine’s friend in her decision and said that she would like to hear the tape. Brenner responded that the facts of the case are not before the court, just the arbitrator’s decision. Essentially, Brenner was instructing the justice on a point of law and procedure.

At that point, Justice Manzanet-Daniels became visibly ticked off. I am no litigator but I do know that it is not a good idea to try to instruct a judge on what should go on in their own courtroom, no matter how wrong one thinks the judge might be. Justice Manzanet-Daniels promptly closed the giant binder in front of her that contained all of the paperwork of the case and said something along the lines of “you’re right, it doesn’t matter”. She had probably made her decision right then and there. All of the justices had obviously seen the DOE’s case for the sham that it was, but Justice Manzanet-Daniels saw right to the marrow of things. What was revealed on the tape, as well as how the tape was not even part of Lowitt’s decision, was the Rosetta Stone of the entire DOE v. Christine Rubino fiasco, and Justice Sallie Manzanet-Daniels knew it.

Deborah Brenner was beaten from pillar to post by the Appellate Division. All of the justices, in one way or another, questioned the DOE’s rabid opposition to allowing Christine Rubino back in the classroom. All of them seemed to know that this case was about more than just a Facebook post. Yet, Christine Rubino herself was not so sure. After years of being vilified by the DOE and the media, she was not going to bank on anyone helping her get justice. It would be a long few weeks before the court’s decision was known.

When the decision finally did come down, it was not reported on by any of the outlets that had vilified Christine Rubino. Why would they report it? The New York State Appellate Division ruling 5-0 in favor of a teacher who had been wrongly terminated is not in step with the teacher-hating narrative they are trying to spin. That means that 6 judges in total heard the case of the DOE v. Christine Rubino, including Barbara Jaffe, Sallie Manzanet-Daniels and the rest of the Justices in the Appellate Division, and every single one of them sided with Christine. The only people who wanted to see Christine terminated were Randi Lowitt (who receives a DOE paycheck) and the New York print media (who will print any story that maintains their coveted access to Tweed and City Hall). People who have delved into the facts of this case objectively all come out on Christine’s side.

Despite the decisions by the Supreme Court and the Appellate Division, it is hard to say that justice was served. Most people in Christine’s situation would not have fought as hard as she did. They would have licked their wounds and moved on to try to make their way in another profession. Nobody would blame them for doing such a thing either. It becomes almost impossible to believe in yourself when the DOE, the media and the general public are all saying how horrible you are. Because of the efforts of these forces, Christine and her children had to live in poverty for two years. They had their lives uprooted. Christine now has to rebuild her public image. If not for an inextinguishable fighting spirit, Christine Rubino would have gone the way of countless other unfairly persecuted teachers.

This school year marks her return to the DOE not as a teacher but as an ATR. While she has won the first major battle in this war by getting back on the payroll, there is still a long fight ahead. Not only does she, like every other ATR, have to fight to get back into the classroom but she is probably due some major monetary justice due to everything through which she has been put. Whether or not Christine wants to fight these battles is totally up to her. Nobody would blame her if she stopped now.

In a particularly comical turn of events, the DOE is currently appealing the decision of the Appellate Division. However, they have to appeal it to the branch of the court system that handles appeals, which is the Appellate Division. The DOE is appealing the ruling of the Appellate Division to the Appellate Division. They would be wise to send a lawyer who is not going to lecture the justices about procedure. Then again, the DOE has never been known for their wisdom.

The DOE is afraid of defeat. They fear that they would not have the luxury to fire teachers for similar infractions in the future if Christine Rubino is able to ultimately win. If they could fire teachers for Facebook posts, what is to stop them for firing a teacher for a comment they make on a blog or something they say at the supermarket? Christine’s victory has limited their latitude as employers who like to fire people. Apparently, they have no problem with throwing more money into their obsessive quest to crush this one lone teacher who dared to fight them. At what point will they call off their legal dogs?

Whichever way she chooses to go, Christine Rubino has fought the good fight for herself and all other persecuted educators.

That Heroin Teacher

The physical impacts of heroin addiction. Physical impacts for a physical addiction.

The physical impacts of heroin addiction. Physical impacts for a physical addiction.

Would you want a heroin addict teaching your kids?

This is the way the New York media is framing the case of Damien Esteban. Esteban is the Brooklyn teacher who was caught with 20 bags of heroin last year during a search in a courthouse to which he reported for jury duty. He was arrested and the DOE terminated him earlier this year.

The DOE’s grounds for seeking his termination were the following: a) possessing heroin, b) being removed as a juror, c) failing to report his arrest to the DOE, d) entering into a one-day drug treatment program, e) being unable to regain the respect of his students and community after all of the negative publicity caused by this case.

Esteban sued the DOE for wrongful termination. The case went to the state Supreme Court to be heard by Justice Manuel Mendez. Mendez believed the DOE’s termination of Esteban was “shocking to the conscience”. It probably does not matter much anyway to Esteban, since his lawyer has stated that he does not want to work for the DOE again.

Justice Mendez made a decision that he most likely knew would be unpopular. Why did he make it? Look at the DOE’s grounds for termination.

a) 20 bags of heroin seems like quite a bit, something that could get a person slapped with “football numbers” at trial, meaning a lopsided sentence. Yet, the amount he had only got him a misdemeanor and the case did not even go to trial. This means that they were either very small bags or regular bags that just had residue.

b) Certainly, his being removed as a juror was understandable. What is not so understandable is why this was grounds for termination. This is the DOE’s classic tactic of throwing as many charges at teachers as possible in order to make something stick.

c) The DOE’s own arbitrator found that Esteban did, in fact, report his arrest to the DOE and threw out that charge.

d) The one-day treatment program was the sentence handed down to Esteban after his arrest. If the judge had reason to believe that Esteban was a hardcore drug addict he would have mandated a much longer stay in rehab. Heroin detox is a long and painful process. The fact that the judge did not order him into detox is proof that Esteban is not a hardcore drug addict, since he obviously did not have anything in his system that needed to be detoxed in the first place.

e) The DOE loves slapping teachers with this charge. The newspapers can run any false, embellished or reputation-ruining story and the DOE would seek to fire them for it. Despite the damage the media hit pieces may have done to Esteban’s reputation, there is no proof that it made his students or community lose respect for him. The DOE did not provide a shred of evidence for this at the 3020-a hearing.

Looking at all of the charges, as Justice Mendez did, it is easier to see why the court found Esteban’s termination to be “shocking to the conscience”.

Sure, I understand that many people, including teachers, still might not be convinced that Justice Mendez made the right decision. I believe part of the knee-jerk reaction to this case has to do with the way we treat drug addiction in this country: as both a crime and a moral flaw. Certainly someone of such weak character should not be allowed around our children.

My response to this is that heroin addiction is not so cut-and-dry. Addiction to all types of substances runs in my family, and the families of many of my close friends, so I have a certain level of experience with it.

Esteban and his family claimed he got hooked on heroin after he suffered an injury for which he was prescribed pain killers. As is often the case, he got hooked on the pain pills. Anyone who knows anything about prescription painkillers like Vicodin, Percocet and Oxycontin knows they are called opiates because they are made from opium. Opium is also what heroin is made out of. It is common for people to get hooked on pain pills and then, when their prescriptions run out, turn to heroin. This is probably what happened to Damien Esteban.

This is where people might judge Esteban for being a moral weakling if not a flat-out criminal. The fact of the matter is people develop a physical addiction to opiates. Going cold turkey when your prescription runs out is not an option. Cold turkey means becoming violently ill for several days. After the physical illness, which is basically anywhere from 3-10 days of hell, there is still the psychological hurdle. This is why rich celebrities stay in rehab for months on end and, even then, many of them relapse and have to start the whole process over again.

What makes it worse is the fact that people who are addicted have to keep it a secret from their families, friends and employers. They will certainly be labeled as weaklings, as nothing more than “addicts” and they will most likely lose their jobs and maybe even their wives/husbands. The United States is about 100 years behind the times when it comes to treating drug addiction, preferring to lock people up rather than treat it for what it is: an illness.

Considering these facts, it is a wonder how Esteban was able to get off heroin at all, let alone to do it in secret without the DOE or the general public knowing about it. It was not until after he got off the stuff that he was found out. At the end of the day, there is no evidence that his addiction interfered with his career or how he interacted with children. He had an illness, got treatment for it and moved on.

Still, after all of this, people will still label him an addict and a criminal. They will label him as such until they fall into addiction due to an injury or surgery or some other unforeseen circumstance. There is really no way to understand addiction until one has seen it up close. Until you have held a loved one in your arms who is shaking from opiate withdrawals, sweating and heaving for days on end, then you cannot understand.

Damien Esteban had an illness and nobody should be fired from any job for having an illness, especially when that illness does not affect your performance. It matters not to me what the popular opinion is on this issue. Oftentimes, the popular opinion and the humane opinion are totally at odds.

The Bullying Problem


It looks like it has happened again. Another teacher has taken her own life after being bullied in the workplace:

“The stepfather of a Bassett High School art teacher who committed suicide in July has announced plans to file a wrongful death suit against the district after claiming his stepdaughter’s death resulted from bullying by administrators.

A series of incidents led to Jennifer Lenihan taking a stress leave, which left her in such financial turmoil that she took her own life July 1, the day her mother went to give her money to help with rent, according to Manuel Jaramillo, her stepfather.”

Bassett High School is part of the Bassett Unified School District in Los Angeles County, California. You might recall that another bullied teacher who took his own life, Rigoberto Ruelas, taught in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Southern California, much like the rest of the country, does not seem to treat their teachers very well.

The tragic case of Jennifer Lenihan’s suicide seems to have certain things in common with the suicide of Mary Thorson. Both teachers reported regular harassment by administrators in front of students. Both teachers took their own lives while on leave from their positions. Both teachers’ families pinpoint the toxic work environment as the main reason why their loved ones were pushed towards suicide.

As someone who has had a front-row seat to the systematic bullying of teachers by administrators, I know the psychological toll it takes on the victims. Like most victims of bullying, they start to internalize the message that they are somehow flawed human beings. As some sort of hybrid of Stockholm Syndrome and a Manchurian Candidate, they begin to identify with the agenda laid out by the bullies that they are not deserving of a career teaching children. Jennifer Lenihan and Mary Thorson took their own lives while on leave from their schools. The timing might not just be mere coincidence. The fact that a teacher is not inside the classroom is solid proof that the bullies are correct about their fitness to teach. A teacher not in the classroom has all the minutes and hours to think, to allow that message to sink in, to internalize it and, eventually, to lose all hope entirely.

The bullying of teachers has sort of, by default, become my pet cause. It was the reason why I created this website in the first place. It is a particularly insidious form of bullying because it takes place inside of places that are supposed to be safe havens for children. The media, government and school districts have exerted much effort recently to stamp out the bullying of children in schools and on the internet. We know that children who are bullied wind up with deep emotional scars that could take a lifetime to heal, if they heal at all. While children should not be bullied at school or anywhere else, we will never be able to eliminate it if the adults in the building are bullying each other. How can the adults create a bully-free environment for their students if they do not know what it looks like?

Closer to home, we are witnessing another case of bullying with Francesco Portelos. I know Francesco and his case. He is currently locked in a heated 3020-a hearing, the procedure that tenured NYC teachers must face before having their licenses revoked. The charges against Francesco read like a sad comedy. Even by DOE standards, the infractions with which he is being charged are frivolous. One only has to look at the attempted hatchet job done on him recently by the New York Post to see this. Usually, the Post calls teachers perverts, incompetents, child abusers and drug addicts. But the worst the Post could throw at Francesco was this:

“Portelos, 34, allegedly made life hell for colleagues at the Staten Island middle school by slapping papers out of people’s hands, mass-e-mailing complaints and making false theft claims.”

Assuming this is all true, which it certainly is not, should this be grounds for termination?

But it is not true at all. If Francesco made “life hell for colleagues”, why would those colleagues elect him chapter leader while we was languishing in a rubber room? I cannot speak for all teachers but I certainly would not vote for a guy who slapped papers out of my hand.

The Post even went on to reveal, unintentionally of course, the real reason why Francesco is being victimized:

“Portelos was relegated to a succession of rubber rooms more than a year ago, after complaining that Hill broke DOE rules permitting parents and staff to review the school budget.

The technology teacher claims he was a “whistleblower” — and got back at his bosses by writing a scathing blog and streaming live video from rubber rooms to which he had been exiled.”

Heck, they even tag the article at the bottom with the term “Whistleblowers”.

The event that is Francesco Portelos is a product of the systematic bullying of teachers taking place in schools nationwide.  He is doing what everyone should do with bullies: fight back. It is easy for teachers to be cowed when they are written up by administrators for frivolous things or hit with retaliatory charges or have investigators come to their homes and ransack their garbage (which was done to Christine Rubino). But both Francesco and Christine fought back and both are winning.

It should not have to come to this. Teachers should not have to come to work in fear of what lies in store for them once they go through those schoolhouse doors. Not only does it distract from the already difficult job of teaching, it creates an environment of fear that automatically gets passed down to the students. We should not have to be put in a position where we have to waste time and brain power protecting ourselves against bullies. No person in any line of work should have to endure those circumstances.

While we can be heartened by the examples of Francesco Portelos and Christine Rubino, their stories are offshoots of a toxic climate imposed on our schools by the Bloomberg regime here in NYC and similarly odious school regimes nationwide. Now that Bloomberg is slinking out of office and a friendlier administration seems likely to take the reins, it is time for our union to take action.

That action needs to be in the form of an anti-bullying clause in the next contract. Bloomberg has allowed us to languish without a contract for the past four years, which means a new contract will be one of the incoming mayor’s priorities. I and many other teachers would forgo retroactive pay (which we probably will not get anyway) for solid protections against bullying. Administrators should face serious consequences for harassing teachers. Teachers should have viable avenues of protection if they become victims of administrator bullying. Schools should no longer be isolated fiefdoms where principals wield absolute power and destroy people with impunity.

This will take some organizing on our part. Something tells me our union leadership is not too keen on making this an issue at the next contract negotiations. I smell a petition brewing.

Speaking of petitions, here are a few you can sign right now over the internet:

Petition calling for Bassett Unified School District to do a thorough investigation into the bullying of teachers.

Petition to reinstate Francesco Portelos to the classroom.


Perhaps this might help with surviving the school apocalypse.

Perhaps this might help with surviving the school apocalypse.

Two of the keys to victory in this amorphous war over public education are being religiously practiced by the progressive Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University.

The first key to victory lies in their website. Every paragraph is festooned with reformy language. Their aims seem to be indistinguishable from those of Students First or any other privatizer-friendly “research council”. By speaking in glittering generalities in order to hide their agendas, the reformy crowd has thrown out the rope by which they will eventually hang.

Everyone is for “improved outcomes” and “bridging the achievement gap”. The incessant need for reformers to assure us of their genuine desire to accomplish these things have made these terms tropes with no real meaning. Any group, organization or movement can slip snugly under the covers of this rhetoric to hide their own respective agendas.

The public has become so accustomed to these terms that no organization who hopes to truly affect education policy can afford to not use them. “Closing the achievement gap”, for example, is an idea that a deft rhetorician can use to mean equalizing resources among all schools around the country, just like the reformers usually use it to mean boosting test scores.

In the end, all it really takes is for us to repeat and aver the purity of our intentions  using these terms as frequently as the reformy crowd.

Of course, this rhetorical approach should be coupled by truly progressive action. Annenberg recently kicked off an initiative called A+ NYC aimed at lobbying the mayoral candidates in the name of what parents want for public schools. They recently sent a battered school bus around the city to reach parents who wanted to share their voices.

Not surprisingly, the biggest concerns turned out to be the disappearance of extracurricular activities and over-reliance on testing. This is a far cry from the manufactured clamoring of parents for more charter schools. It goes a long way towards explaining why Eva Moskowitz and her ilk have to get signatures of out-of-district parents to petition for charter schools.

What really needs to be done, and what Annenberg seems on the verge of suggesting, is the creation of the idea of parents as voting blocs. Parents are used to having their names invoked whenever one group or another wants to push some sort of privatization or censorship. Yet, they have never truly been framed as a voting bloc.

A voting bloc needs to be united behind at least one common idea. For parents, “great schools” are not enough, since that is a trope and not an idea. This is where the reformers fail and from whence the next great school movement has to start. Parents as a voting bloc must be connected to the idea of a “better school day”. An idea like this, on which the Chicago teachers put their fingers during their strike, is general enough to unite a wide swath of parents while having enough specific connotations to mean something.

And these specific connotations would be decidedly at odds with the reformy agenda. Instead of equalizing “outcomes”, the focus needs to shift towards equalizing resources. What will be important is what we as a society put into the schools, not what we can get out of the schools in terms of trained labor, higher test scores and no-bid contracts.

Who would be able to argue against an idea that wants great schools for all children?

Discarding the vapid terminology utilized by the reformies is a mistake. Instead, true public school advocates have to flay the reformer beast and walk around wearing its skin.


Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis is about what it means to lose ones identity in an impersonal world.

Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis is about what it means to lose one’s identity in an impersonal world.

Every week they pass through my school. Sometimes they come one at a time, sometimes two or three at a time. Nobody knows how many of them there are. They are the best kept secret of the Department of Education and the United Federation of Teachers. The fact they exist in the first place is a testament to the collusion between our union and our bosses. Nobody wants to acknowledge their existence. There is a sense that both Walcott and Mulgrew just wish they would go away. These are the members of the Absent Teacher Reserve, ATRs for short. They are a category of teacher who best exemplify the cruelty of the bureaucracy in which we work.

A teacher can become part of the ATR pool for many reasons. Maybe the school in which they used to work was closed or “turned around” and the new, probably young and inexperienced, principal saw fit to give them the axe. Perhaps they were brought up on bogus charges like corporal punishment or incompetence and even the officer at their termination hearing could not find grounds to terminate them, although certainly not from lack of trying. Whatever the case might be, the “system” has decided that it is best they travel to different schools every week to plug holes in programs on a temporary basis. This is in lieu of teaching a full schedule of their own classes.

Not every member of the ATR pool is a teacher. There are also ACRs: those who worked as full-time counselors in other schools before the school was closed or before they were slapped with bogus charges. In that case, ACRs are not even allowed to cover classes because they cannot “legally” be in a classroom by themselves. Consequently, the ACRs usually stay in the teacher’s lounge unless ordered to perform some sort of clerical job that probably does not even need to be done in the first place.

As chapter leader, I have met and spoken with my fair share of ATRs. I am happy to say that, according to most accounts, our administration treats them with more respect than most other schools through which they rotate. Throughout my dealings with the men and women of the ATR pool, I have been able to glean a thing or two about them as a group. By extension, I am able to glean a thing or two about the DOE and our union.

ATRs fall into one of three categories that oftentimes overlap: a) they are up there in years, b) they are outspoken and c) they are minority. To my recollection, I have never met or seen an ATR that did not fit at least one of these categories. Although I make an effort to speak to any ATR that comes through my school, I usually try to feel them out first. If it seems as if they do not want to be spoken to (by being on a cell phone, a computer or asleep on the couch) then I do not force my presence on them.

This does not mean that most ATRs do these things because they most certainly do not. Even if most or even all of them did, I am not judging them or blaming them for anything. I cannot imagine what they have been through or what they are still going through. If they wish to be left alone then they certainly deserve that right. There are colleagues that sometimes complain that ATRs are surly or standoffish. My opinion is that, if they do in fact possess these qualities, then it is the system that made them that way. Everyone reacts to upheaval and trauma differently. Becoming an ATR is nothing if not traumatic.

The ones that do seem open to conversation I approach with a light heart. I used to ask about the circumstances that led them to the ATR pool. However, I got the sense that some thought I was asking as a way to judge them. Now I basically ask about how their ATR experience has been and that is it. Through these conversations, there are a few very valuable lessons I have learned.

Most of these are ATRs are outspoken. They have strong opinions about how a school should be run. At their core, they have a sense of justice and fairness. Almost as a rule, they seem to be people who I would deem “skeptics”, which is just another way of saying “critical thinkers”. And they all want to teach. They all miss having their own classes and being able to build a rapport with their own students. Speaking to these ATRs, I have been able to learn possibly why some of the other ATRs come off as “surly”. It is because they have been robbed of their identities and senses of self-worth. One day, they were well-respected teachers. The next day, they are extras for whom the system seems unwilling to find a role. I am amazed not at how withdrawn some of them are, but at how most of them have kept their spirits high in the midst of such injustice.

Franz Kafka’s short novel Metamorphosis  features a young man who wakes up one day to find himself as a bug. In the opening scene, Gregor Samsa is a functioning member of society helping to provide for his family. His father sleeps in the living room wearing his old uniform that, at this point, is dirty and disheveled. By the final scene, Gregor Samsa is an insect whose family hates him. His father’s suit is suddenly clean and freshly pressed. Indeed, it is his father who seems the most bent on squishing the bug his son has become.

The novel is, among other things, about a man who has lost his purpose in life. As long as he has a purpose, Gregor is the star of his family. His father, a man whose best days are behind him, lies neglected in the living room. But once Gregor becomes a bug or, in other words, once he becomes useless, his family locks him away in his room until they want him dead. His father, finally regaining his sense of purpose as a breadwinner, wants Gregor out of the way the most. Maybe this is because he sees in Gregor the useless figure he once was and he hates it. Maybe he just wants Gregor out of the way before he can usurp his role as breadwinner again. It is a story meant to highlight how fleeting our roles in society can be, not to mention how conditional “unconditional” love really is.

The DOE and the UFT have treated ATRs as the bug version of Gregor Samsa. Mulgrew barely gives them a mention. Walcott floats hare-brained “buyout” schemes as a way to get rid of them. Both of these men would just prefer if these ATRs got the message and retired already. At the same time, many of our colleagues want to squish them, look down on them, pass judgment on them because they have no “purpose” in the system anymore. These ATRs must have done something to land themselves in this position, no?

On the contrary, I say that the ATRs play the most important role of all.

First, they represent the broken promises of our union. Our union leaders want a pat on the back because the ATRs still collect their paychecks. This is like our students wanting a pat on the back for coming to class on time. It is the least they can do. Protecting their positions, fighting for their dignity, sticking up for the idea that experience matters are not priorities at all for our union. If the union consistently fails to stick up for the dignity of the ATRs, what chance do you think we have of the union sticking up for the rest of us?

Furthermore, the tragic phenomenon of the disappearing black educator fails to register a blip on our union’s radar. I believe that one of the reasons why both the DOE and UFT do not keep reliable statistics on how many ATRs exist in our system is because so many of them belong to minority groups. If it was made public how many black and Hispanic ATRs existed, the DOE would leave themselves open to a discrimination lawsuit. Instead the DOE, in collusion with the UFT, keeps everything hush. We have a black chancellor, how dare I even suggest that the DOE has an inherently racist teacher policy?

And the disappearing black educator is part of a much wider and much more disturbing trend overtaking the nation’s schools. We are constantly being told that the students of the inner cities need “no excuses” education and centrally mandated “standards”. These are just sterile ways of saying that the values of the communities from whence our students come have nothing of value to offer. It is best if well-to-do outsiders make all of the rules. Even worse, the reformers believe that the values of inner city areas are utterly deformed and in need of correction. As I have said before, reformers believe that our children need to be civilized more than educated. This civilizing is done by hired scab mercenaries from the Ivy League who model for our children the “proper” way to behave. In a system like this, we cannot have teachers who just might be from the same neighborhoods as our students. We cannot possibly have teachers who might be able to relate to their students as human beings. We cannot possibly have teachers that might show children that they do not have to hate themselves and hate where they come from to be a better person. Every time you see an ATR from a minority group, you are seeing this racist education reform agenda in action.

And what of the ATRs who maybe are outspoken people with a little grey in their hair who might or might not be part of a minority group? These are the teachers that the DOE and UFT fear the most. The DOE fears their salaries since that means less money for them to hand out no-bid contracts. The DOE fears their knowledge and experience. They are afraid that they will speak too loudly or too forcefully or too persuasively against the 25-year-old Leadership Academy principals who have been marching into our schools. These are the teachers who might expose the fact that the Academy produces “leaders” who do not know which is the proper end of the chalk with which to write (by the way, the answer is either end).

On top of this, these are the teachers who might just see teaching as an art form. They might think that every lesson and every student is different. They might believe that part of being a teacher is being an advocate both inside and outside of the classroom. This means that they might not see teaching as something that can be measured by test scores and mechanical rubrics. This also means that they might want their educational leaders to be educators themselves and not bean counters. In short, they will not teach their students in the robotic way mandated by things like “value added” and “Danielson”. They will not model for their students how to get along in a filthy system. They are not the best teachers to train the low-wage, low-skilled workers and consumers of tomorrow. A system full of these teachers just might teach their students that a better world is indeed possible.

Finally, ATRs should teach the rest of us some empathy. Instead of assuming that they did something wrong or are just the dead wood of which the system cannot rid itself, the presence of ATRs should remind all of us that our own positions are tenuous at best. We are still able to come to our jobs every morning because the system allows it. One bogus accusation, one “C” rating for your school can throw your entire career into doubt. This wonderful identity of “teacher” we have built for ourselves is conditional. It is just as conditional as Gregor Samsa’s position in Metamorphosis. The love that our students, colleagues and maybe even our families have for us is conditional. We too can be robbed of our identities and have people whisper about us doing something wrong or being incompetent. Instead of being so smugly secure to think we are in a position to pass judgment, we should be reminded of how insecure we are in our jobs. We should even be thankful that we still have positions and reflect that gratitude and goodwill on to the ATRs we meet.

This is the meaning of the march of the ATRs. Do not think that we have forgotten you. As far as this one lonely teacher is concerned, as well as many others, your presence is all too real. Thank you for keeping your spirits up. We will continue to fight to get you back in the classroom where you belong.