Tag Archives: Teacher Harassment

Learning From a Bad Teacher

What can the bad teacher, John Owens, teach us?

What can the bad teacher, John Owens, teach us?

I know I am a bit late to the party with this review of Confessions of a Bad Teacher by John Owens. After I read it, I looked around to see what other people were saying about it online. Those who have a problem with the book seem to take issue with the fact that Owens was a teacher for a mere 5 months, meaning he did not stick around long enough to gain a big picture view of the Department of Education under Bloomberg. I say that this is one of the strengths of the book.

The book is an account of what any outsider might find if they cared enough to spend time in the public school system.

John Owens left a successful career in publishing to teach public high school students. Unfortunately, he ended up at one of those schools that represented everything wrong with the Department of Education under Bloomberg. It was a school located in the South Bronx that Owens calls “Latinate”. In reality, it was Eximius College Preparatory Academy. Owens’ biggest obstacle as a new teacher was his principal. He never names who his principal was but a basic Google search reveals that it was Tammy Smith, who was eventually fired for giving students credit for classes they never took.

Owens was hired as an English teacher. This fact alone should tell us something about the school. There is a flood of English and history teachers in the system. That means job openings in these subjects tend to be at schools with high turnover rates. According an Insideschools comment quoted by fellow blogger jd2718, turnover at Eximius was between 31% and 56% under Smith between 2006 and 2008. There is no reason to believe it was any lower when Owens was hired, which was probably a year or two later.

Smith told Owens to refer to the students as “scholars”. She envisioned the school as a “cathedral of learning”. The stain glass in this cathedral were bulletin boards, which had to be updated with new student work every month. The liturgy had to follow the workshop model and each hymn had to follow the strict timeline laid out by Pope Tammy I. Pope Tammy’s clergy were required to input a daily stream of data about their students. It was an unwritten rule that no less than 80% of the scholars in the cathedral should pass. Teachers whose students dipped below this number were subject to Tammy’s inquisition, including the dreaded “U” rating of which she was so fond.

Owens learned early on that what counted in Bloomberg’s DOE was appearance. The bulletin boards, workshop model, data and passing rates were all there to make the school and, by extension, the principal and, by further extension, Bloomberg, look good. Actually building a solid learning environment for students did not even figure into the calculations of school leaders. Helping new teachers like John Owens perfect their craft mattered even less. As far as Tammy Smith was concerned, teachers were there to build what Owens refers to as the “pageant”. All of her efforts went into making the school seem successful. The obsession with perception is Bloomberg’s biggest education legacy, which is perfectly consistent for a man who made his billions as a media giant.

The real victims in Tammy Smith’s efforts to put on an educational pageant were the students. Owens does a great job of describing the kids he was charged with educating. Any NYC teacher would be able to relate to them. Eximius is a secondary school, meaning it serves grades 6 through 12. Owens taught English to 8th and 9th graders, which are probably the two toughest secondary school grades to teach. Early in the book, Owens describes a boy who specialized in distracting other students. He was a particularly handsome boy and he used his charm to mill about the room talking to various girls. By the end of the period, the boy would find the time to rush some of his class work to completion, yet none of the girls he had distracted ever found time to do the same. When Owens spoke to the boy’s mother, the mother said “that’s how he has always been”. Owens equated the mother’s reaction to saying “yeah, his unbelievable charm and good looks are your problems to deal with.”

Many NYC teachers can relate to parents who seem to excuse or even encourage their children’s distractive behaviors. That is not to say that they represent the majority of parents. Owens describes children who could be made to behave by threatening to call their parents, a situation to which many NYC teachers can also relate. However, in his five months as a teacher, Owens learned that overall discipline is a problem in NYC schools. He found that getting children to settle down was a challenge and a good chunk of class time was spent on discipline. On parent-teacher night, Owens told a parent that children in a suburban school district in which he observed classes did not need to be told to sit down and, consequently, were able to concentrate on actual learning. The parent took this as a racist remark and complained to the principal.

The next day, Tammy Smith put a letter in Owens’ mailbox admonishing him for his racist remarks. Along the way, she was sure to embellish many of the details to make Owens sound like a tried and true racist. This situation illustrates everything one needs to know about why teacher turnover was so high at Eximius under Smith. It illustrates why teacher turnover remains so high throughout the NYC DOE.

New teachers in NYC find themselves caught in a vice. They have students who might have special needs or unstable families or who live in violent communities or suffer from poverty or all of the above. Understandably, this affects their ability to focus in school. No new teacher, no matter how smart or educated or dedicated, can effectively educate all of the students who suffer under these circumstances. They need guidance from administrators and more veteran colleagues on how to reach young people. However, administrators like Tammy Smith are not interested in guidance. Instead, they have internalized the reformer ethos of carrots and especially sticks. A whole generation of DOE administrators have been nourished on the reformer ethos that teachers are low-level bureaucratic functionaries in need of a good beating. Owens’ book demonstrates the hopelessness experienced by many new teachers who are caught between the hammer of punitive administrators and the anvil of students who are in need of a tremendous amount of attention. Like so many other teachers, these pressures forced Owens right out of the system.

The system did literally nothing to help mold John Owens into a great teacher. If Owens was having trouble controlling his class, he would get a sanctimonious lecture from administration on proper classroom management. Instead of learning effective teaching methods, he was subjected to endless professional development sessions on the latest buzzwords in modern “pedagogy”. In order to practice this “pedagogy”, Owens was forced to travel from classroom to classroom between periods because his administrators feared that giving teachers their own classrooms might actually make them feel like professionals. His veteran colleagues, instead of being called upon by administrators to be role models and mentors, were instead harassed because they cost the school too much money. From day one, John Owens and his students were set up for failure.

Not every teacher at Eximius was forced out after five months. Owens described how some of his young colleagues got along in the system. All they had to do was chaperone dances and oversee afterschool activities for absolutely no compensation. In this way, they helped make Tammy Smith look good. She was able to show the DOE that the school was offering a litany of great activities for their students, which allowed the DOE to pretend that they were indeed putting “students first”. In return, these young teachers got to work longer hours at the school instead of writing lessons or learning how to perfect their craft. They got to go home at 8 pm, at which point they would have to work on grading papers or planning the next unit. It was probably a rare circumstance when any of these teachers got to go to bed before midnight. A “good” teacher was measured not by what they did in the classroom but how much blood and sweat they gave to the school building for the benefit of the principal.

Unfortunately, the ritual harassment of veteran teachers at Eximius was a lesson to these youngsters in what they had to look forward to if they miraculously survived in the DOE. Instead of enlisting veteran teachers as mentors, Tammy Smith enlisted the teachers who kissed up to her as the staff’s role models. Owens describes one arrogant, smart-alecky woman who administration held up as the paragon of pedagogy. The one thing she seemed to do better than anyone else at the school was toe the administration line. This was surely no accident. Many schools have literacy coaches, math coaches, master teachers, lead teachers or just teachers who are held up as masters of their craft. Some of these teachers are great at what they do and have a genuine desire to help their colleagues. And then there are those who act as the resident snitch or lackey. The implicit lesson that was taught to John Owens was that the best way to be considered a master teacher was to be in the pocket of the administration.

While teachers can most certainly relate to John Owens’ story, it is non-teachers who need to read his book the most. So many odious impacts of what passes as school reform in this day and age converge in one place. Eximius is one of Bloomberg’s small schools. It was run by a principal who enthusiastically embraced the reformer obsession with data, appearance and jargon. The name of the school itself is an exercise in marketing. “Eximius College Preparatory Academy” sounds like one of these expensive boarding schools to which many reformers send their own children. However, unlike those fancy boarding schools, Eximius under Tammy Smith did not provide a rich curriculum taught by experienced teachers. Instead, it was a revolving door of disempowered staff suffering under the thumb of a principal who ran the school like her personal fiefdom. This was made possible by Bloomberg’s war on the teacher’s union, which resulted in principals gaining almost unlimited power over the careers of their teachers. With this unlimited power, Smith chose not to do right by her students or faculty. Instead, she chose to make her school a “pageant” where most of the “scholars” graduated thanks to her crooked tactics.

Unfortunately, there are many Eximiuses and Tammy Smiths throughout NYC. Making a school into a “pageant” might further the careers of selfish administrators. It does nothing for the students of the inner city who are in need of a first-rate education. Tammy Smith committed educational malpractice, as so many administrators still do throughout the DOE. Bloomberg’s school reforms have given birth to rampant educational malpractice dressed up as progress.

Owens’ book resonated with me because I started my career in a school similar to Eximius. It was a small neighborhood school that served students similar to the ones described by Owens. However, this was back in 2000 before the election of Bloomberg and the rise of the educational pageant. My principal was the complete opposite of Tammy Smith. He believed in helping teachers, not harassing them. He is the one who set me up with the mentor who I credit for molding me into the teacher I am today. As a veteran teacher himself, he knew what it took to set his students and staff up for success. My first year teaching was also his first year running that school. When he hired me, he made me feel as if I was going to be a part of something special. And I was.

Before he took over, the school had a reputation as sort of a mad house. The previous principal was forced out of the system for financial malfeasance. She locked herself up in her office all day while discipline and school tone deteriorated. When the principal who hired me took over, he made discipline the centerpiece of his vision. He doubled the dean staff, of which I was a part. Students who disrupted class had their parents called into the school. Chronic offenders were suspended. He hired a crop of retired teachers to come in a few times a week to act as mentors to the young staff. After his first year in the building, there was a tremendous improvement in school tone. He stayed on for three more years after that. His tenure was probably a golden age in the history of that school. Everything was not perfect, but the quality of education the students received in that building was light years beyond what it was before he took over. In the end, that is the only thing that matters.

Somewhere along the way, Bloomberg and his obsession with data took over the DOE. The principal was shuffled to another school and then eventually forced to retire. In the meantime, we got a new principal who was rumored to be a hatchet woman sent by the DOE. She brought with her the obsession with pageantry required to be a school leader today in NYC. She cut the dean staff down to one, causing discipline to deteriorate. Teachers were expected to work for free on silly things like curriculum maps. We were tortured with endless professional development sessions by people who could not teach their way out of a paper bag. The morale that had been built up over the previous four years evaporated. Teachers started leaving, including me. Most of all, the students who remembered the good old days noticed the marked decline of the school and resented it. She was not as bad as Tammy Smith, although she was cut from the same cloth.

I could only imagine how things would be different for me today if I started my career under Tammy Smith. Chances are that I would not be teaching. How many good teachers have been forced out of the DOE by the Tammy Smiths of the world? How many millions of students have been deprived of a good education thanks to Bloomberg’s reforms? These are the uncomfortable questions raised by John Owens’ Confessions of a Bad Teacher.

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THE MARCH OF THE ATR

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.

WHO IS NEXT TO GUEST BLOG? A ROLE MODEL

This country has never been very good at picking role models. I remember growing up one of our role models was a blond steroid and drug addict.

This country has never been very good at picking role models. I remember growing up one of our role models was a blond steroid head and drug addict.

I thank Ms. Ortiz for her inaugural post here yesterday as a guest blogger. Now that we have an idea of who she is and from whence she is coming, it is a good time to introduce the next guest blogger to you. As you will see, this next person is at a totally different stage in their life and career.

Those of you who have followed this site, or New York education news in general, will be familiar with this person. I thought it was important for you to hear what this person has to say and to give them a chance to say it.

The person to whom I refer is Christine Rubino.

If you don’t know the case of Christine Rubino, you can familiarize yourself with it here, here and here. I first learned about her situation from the New York print media who were, not surprisingly, less than fair. For this reason, I decided to write about her situation myself. Despite the fact that this site can never hope to have the type of reach of the New York Post or Daily News, I would have been remiss if I didn’t use this little corner of the internet to give her a fair hearing. I am glad that I did because, since my first piece about her, Christine and I have become friends.

What convinced me of the need to talk about her story were the responses it elicited in the comments section of the news sites. People could not wait to pass all types of judgments on her character and fitness to be a teacher. It was sadly ironic that people who bemoaned the lack of role models for our children were saying some of the most vile and hateful things to be found on the internet. Vile and hateful not only describes the treatment she received from anonymous Puritans, but from the Puritans at the Department of Education as well.

As most of us know, Christine’s nightmare stemmed from a comment she made on her private Facebook page. It is a comment that Christine has never defended. She removed it very soon after it was posted. Very few people saw the comment. Since no students or parents were on her Facebook page, it would have been very unlikely that anyone who would have been truly offended by it would have ever known of its existence.

Unfortunately, one of the people who saw the comment during its brief life span was the resident teacher snitch of Christine’s school. Not only did he see it, he took a screen shot of it, saved it, printed it out and showed it to the assistant principal, a man with whom he had a “special” relationship. It usually works out that the people who have the most to say about their coworkers are also the ones with the most skeletons in their own closet.

The rest is history, a sad and bizarre history. The Special Commissioner of Investigation of the DOE sent goons to her house to rifle through her garbage. Those same goons harassed and threatened Christine’s friends. They lied through their teeth at her hearing. Her union-appointed lawyer wanted to roll over and die, pretty much advising her to accept her termination without a fight. The DOE lawyers tried to cast a pall of doubt on her character. Since Christine had a clean record as a teacher of 14 years, they weren’t above coaching the principal and students to lie about her, not to mention making up lies themselves. The head of the Administrative Trials Unit ensured that the “independent” arbitrator, Randi Lowitt, came to the right decision: termination.

Did it matter to anyone that this was a comment made on her private Facebook page? Did it matter that the comment expressed the normal frustrations of being a teacher? Did it matter that she had taken the comment down almost immediately after it went up? Did it matter that she showed remorse and never defended what she said? Did it matter that she had a spotless record as an educator?

It mattered to Christine Rubino, who took Lowitt’s decision to the New York State Supreme Court. It mattered to Judge Barbara Jaffe, who ruled that Lowitt’s termination decree was “shocking to the conscience” of the court.  It matters to any teacher or thinking person who has an ounce of empathy.

The Department of Education likes to say that it puts “students first”. Christine’s two children are students in the DOE. Did they put those students first when they took away the livelihood of their mother? Are they putting them first by denying the woman they tried to destroy any form of unemployment compensation? If people are so concerned about role models for our children, why don’t they criticize the unethical and underhanded way the DOE harasses teachers? Barring that, why don’t these people act like the role models they seek by not judging an entire person’s character based upon one news article?

It is for these reasons that it is important we hear directly from Christine Rubino. When I had the idea of getting some guest bloggers, Christine was the first person who came to mind. I have seen first-hand the type of good person she is. I have seen her be a mother to her children, protecting them from the misery through which she has been put so they can have as normal a life as possible. I have seen her open her house to people and share what she has, despite the fact that she can barely make ends meet herself. I have seen how she maintains friendships she has had since childhood, a sure sign of a person with character and integrity. I have seen Christine help me get some of the things I needed to get settled into my new apartment when I moved a few months ago. Perhaps if other people see the type of person she is, they wouldn’t be so quick to pass ignorant and misinformed judgments on her.

Up until now, Christine has had people speaking for her. Me, her lawyers, the DOE and the media have all been allowed to paint the picture of what type of person she is. But she deserves a space where she can speak for herself.

The Christine  Rubino case has been a lesson in the best and the worst in humanity. On the one hand, you have a person who has done nothing but be generous and helpful to everyone around her; someone who always wanted to be a teacher and did the job with distinction. On the other hand, you have a bureaucracy that lied, sneaked around and harassed to get what they wanted, and what they wanted was the destruction of another human being.

You can decide for yourself which one is the bad role model for our children. I, for one, would not allow a bad role model to be a guest blogger on this site. Stay tuned because tomorrow, for the first time, Christine Rubino finally speaks for herself.

HUBBA HUBBA

The New York Post reports this early this morning:

A retired teacher hated his East Harlem high-school principal so much, he created a scathing blog that portrayed him as a back-stabbing sex fiend whose head is shaped like a human behind.

Former math teacher Michael Thomas, 61, then stood outside Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics and gave students business cards that touted the Web site.

The targeted principal, José Jimenez — whom the blog calls “Jimanus” and “Prince Jimenez” — confronted Thomas about a block from the school on Jan. 10. He ended up on his back in the ensuing fight, and Thomas was charged with assault.

Unfortunately, Mr, Thomas seems to have taken down the content of his blog. Too bad because it seemed like a real hoot:

Thomas named his blog “MCSM Satire” — based on the school’s initials — posted under the name “Henry David Thoreau,” and dedicated it to Jimenez’s removal. It accuses him of seeking “pleasures of the flesh” at the school.

In a fake advice column called “Ask Jimenez,” a staffer is concerned about having an affair with a teacher that might jeopardize his career.

“Hubba, hubba!” the Jimanus character replies. “You should be giving me advice! There is nothing inappropriate about a relationship between two more or less consenting adults . . . Any teacher who reports or objects to the relationship is not a member of the school team and will be dealt with accordingly. You are living the dream!”

In one comic strip, Jimenez says, “All I need to know I learned in kindergarten . . . Be a bully. Do what you want. Lie if you get caught — and always play the part of the victim.”

It seems as if Mr. Thomas has a bit of a rebellious streak in him or maybe he just has a problem with bully principals who use their teaching staff as a personal harem.

Of course, the Department of Education goes out of their way to protect principals who pursue “pleasures of the flesh” and act like bullies.

As for teachers like Mr. Thomas who blow the whistle on that type of stuff:

In 2007, Thomas was banished to the Education Department’s notorious “rubber room” for throwing chalk at the board to get students’ attention, according to his lawyer.

That sparked a daylong protest by students and he was reinstated last year.

The popular teacher, who retired this summer after 19 years, has locked horns with Jimenez at least since 2008, according to Department of Education documents.

Thomas reported Jimenez’s alleged misuse of federal funds for high-poverty kids and falsifying of student results on the January 2008 Regents exams.

Funny how it is the popular teachers or the ones who don’t sit back and allow wrongdoing to take place who end up in the rubber room.

As for Principal Jimenez, it seems as if he is in the DOE doghouse not for any sexual misconduct or workplace harassment but for the one thing the DOE finds unacceptable from their principals:

Jimenez has also run afoul of the DOE. In a report released by the Special Commissioner of Investigation, he was found to have “failed to follow standard operating procedures” by not getting competitive bids on an educational trip to Asia or for a consultant that billed the school more than $25,000.

That’s right, only Bloomberg himself gets to fleece the public treasury through no-bid contracts and nobody else.

Ed deform may still be in retreat but it is the same ol’ DOE here in the big city.

Maybe Michael Thomas shouldn’t have showed up to the school to promote his blog. Maybe, being retired and standing a block away from the school, he was well within his rights to do so. Maybe the principal should have not been an insecure bully and confronted Mr. Thomas about it since he ended up eating concrete for the trouble. And, finally, maybe the New York Post is not providing many of the facts in this case.

It is obvious Mr. Thomas was rubber roomed for having a conscience. The fact that someone like Mr. Jimenez can rise to the ranks of principal shows the DOE values people without a conscience.

Just don’t steal any of that no-bid money. How will Joel Klein get his next contract if principals keep doing that?

The DOE’s Long War on Christine Rubino

Casualty of war: the arbitrator’s first decision

When we last saw Christine Rubino, the New York State Supreme Court vacated the Department of Education’s penalty for comments she made on her private Facebook page.

The penalty was termination. The arbitrator who came up with the penalty, Randi Lowitt, knew that this was the outcome the DOE wanted. She was probably the only arbitrator ever to have the head of the DOE’s Administrative Trials Unit, Theresa Europe, stare daggers at her throughout the hearing to ensure she came to the right decision.

As we have seen, in June of 2010, Christine wrote on her private Facebook wall that it was a perfect day to take her students to the beach. This was a day after a NYC student drowned off the coast of Long Island.

Christine was one of the first, if not the first, teacher in NYC to be brought up on charges for something she wrote on Facebook. This was before the DOE’s social media policy. This was also at a time when working people nationwide were being fired for things they said on the internet, especially teachers. The case of Christine Rubino was the morning star of a movement aimed at depriving working people of their freedom of speech.

This movement found many well wishers in the media and the general public. Newspaper articles made Christine out to be some sort of loose cannon. Readers who left comments on the NY and Huffington Post were quick to call for her termination, to exclaim that she was unfit to be around children and to say that this warranted her being deprived of her livelihood.

The drums of hypocritical American Puritanism beat heavy and constant in the case of Christine Rubino. The general public wants to bully teachers, call them names, blame them for low test scores and poverty, say we are underworked and overpaid and are drawn from the meanest part of the intellectual bell curve. Yet, at the same time, they want us underworked, overpaid idiots to be held to a moral system that Oliver Cromwell himself could not follow. They want us to smile at the grocery store, wave hello to them every morning and, if we use Facebook, to do nothing but post pictures of us grading exams and write thoughts about how every child is special like a snowflake.

We are to act like Mr. Rogers and be treated like Mr. Gotti.

Yet, Christine did something that these reporters and jurors in the court of public opinion have rarely done in their own lives: she took responsibility for what she did. Three days after she posted her comments, she erased them from her wall. This was before any investigation or inkling she would be in trouble. She took down her comments because she realized they were wrong. She did not need the specter of public controversy to all of the sudden force her to acknowledge she had made a mistake. Instead, she tried to rectify the mistake on her own accord.

Unfortunately, as we saw previously, a coworker of hers had already printed up her words and had designs to show it to the principal. This is a teacher that has since been removed from his classroom to await 3020a charges of his own; charges that could land him a lengthy jail sentence. Schools always have their resident snitches, the ones who inform on their colleagues because they are unable to let their professional work speak for itself. It is often the case that these snitches have dark skeletons of their own to hide. Finding ways to get their colleagues in trouble is a way to throw the scent off of their own often hideous wrongdoing. So it was in this case.

If it was not for this snitch, Christine’s comments would have dissolved into the ether. No reporters or private hypocrites would have had the opportunity to establish themselves as her judge.

Throughout her entire hearing, Christine was remorseful about what she had said. At no point did she stand by her words or try to defend them. She owned up to her actions for what they were: a mistake, a lapse of judgment, a regrettable action. This was not enough for the DOE or Randi Lowitt or the media or the lynch mob of public opinion. Terminate her, ensure her children starve and never allow her around children again. Meanwhile, the accused child molester who ratted her out gets to work another year in a public school building. Way to go, all of you.

The bright side is that, one, Christine Rubino did not give up the fight to salvage her career and her good name; and, two, the New York State Supreme Court under Barbara Jaffe is wiser than the DOE, Randi Lowitt, the media and the hypocrites. She vacated Lowitt’s decision and ordered her to come up with a less draconian punishment.

That punishment has turned out to be two years suspension without pay. That means that Randi Lowitt thinks it is fitting for Christine to face another year of being unable to support her children. Perhaps this is the “children first” policy the DOE speaks so much about.

Randi Lowitt’s new decision reads like something written by a woman scorned, an arbitrator who had her ridiculous ruling overturned, a primal scream of vindictive pettiness. She makes very little mention of Christine’s Facebook comment and, instead, bases her two-year suspension on the fact that one of Christine’s friends lied during the investigation.

What happened was that, in an attempt to save Christine, a friend of hers lied to investigators and said she was the one who logged into Christine’s account and wrote the incriminating things. In the world of Randi Lowitt, this means that Christine put her up to the lie. What evidence does Randi Lowitt have to substantiate this? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

That does not matter. In the world of 3020a, a teacher is guilty no matter what the evidence, or lack thereof, says. Randi Lowitt, understanding that the jig was up as far as the Facebook comment is concerned, instead based her two-year suspension on the fact that Christine Rubino’s friend lied to investigators.

This is how the equation works in Lowitt’s head: Christine’s friend lied, which means that Christine was behind the lie. Yet, every time I ask Christine about her lie, she insists she did not lie. What a liar! Not only that, she never apologized for putting her friend up to the lie. Why does she just not take responsibility for the lie she never told? This is unacceptable! Looks like her and her children need another year of starvation.

She should have lied and said she put her friend up to the lie, then she would not be such a liar! Instead of giving her a two-year suspension for being a liar, I would have given her a two-year suspension for being a liar.

Thankfully, Christine is fighting this most recent round of viciousness on the part of the DOE. Her story teaches us a lot about how teachers in similar situations can find some measure of justice.

First, everyone associated with the 3020a process knows it is a joke. The investigators are retired detectives from the NYPD. When they get a case, they know whether or not the principal or the board wants that teacher out. Their job is not to find the truth as much as it is to use the truth in a manner conducive to punishing a teacher. For example, at a recent 3020a hearing about which I will write more in the future, one of these investigators found that a comment a teacher made on Facebook was a total joke. Case closed, right? Wrong. According to the investigator, he has children and he would not want his children’s teacher joking around in this manner. Therefore, he believes the teacher should be terminated.

This investigation takes about 6 months to a year. In the meantime, the teacher is reassigned and usually does not know why they are being investigated. They are in the dark and they wait. It is here where the DOE hopes that the teacher will save everyone the trouble and quit. If the teacher is sufficiently scared, they might go the way of Mary Thorson. To the DOE and the investigators, it is all the same.

If the teacher sticks around this long, they finally get to the 3020a process. First, they meet with the lawyer who is paid with the teacher’s union dues. Most of the time, the lawyer will encourage the teacher to resign or settle for some ridiculous punishment all out of proportion to what the teacher is accused of. Part of this is laziness. The other part is that these lawyers know that the hearing itself is a joke and they would rather save themselves the embarrassment.

By this point, a great many teachers opt out of the game. They will either resign or drop dead during the investigation, or get railroaded out by their union lawyer. For those hearty souls that decide to go through with a hearing, their union lawyer will tell them the hearing is private. Nobody from the outside will be allowed to witness it. If the teacher wants to make it a public hearing, count on the lawyer throwing a hissy fit. They will make a million and one excuses as to why everything should be done in secret. This is because they want to take the 10 or so cases on which they are working, sit down with the arbitrator and DOE lawyer, and go down the list to tick off the names of which teachers get fired and which do not. It does not matter the merits of each individual case. They would prefer to sit there and divide the spoils, so to speak.

If you get your public hearing, be prepared for one of the saddest jokes this side of the Mississippi. The DOE lawyers will introduce the charges, then they will introduce more charges that they never showed you or your lawyer beforehand. They will then ask the arbitrator, and receive from the arbitrator, permission to add more charges, evidence and witnesses as the hearing progresses. They literally make it up as they go along. Many of these DOE lawyers would be selling apples in the subway if this 3020a process did not exist. They call themselves lawyers, but they are more like law school dropouts and graduates of online JD courses, where all one needs for a degree is a printer and mouse that clicks.

And why not? The DOE does not need good lawyers when the process is so skewed in its favor.

The arbitrators sit there and take notes, allowing the DOE lawyers do whatever it is they want to do. In their mind, it is not a matter of a teacher being guilty or not guilty. It is a matter of what they will find the teacher guilty of and what will the penalty be. Teachers that get to keep their job are so thankful that they have made it through this process that they will take their punishment and move on. Those that get terminated are so demoralized and beaten down by the process that they just want to pick up the pieces of their lives and find some form of employment.

That is exactly the way the DOE wants the process to work. They understand that 3020a is a joke, that the process is a sham, arbitrators are in their pockets and the lawyers are court jesters. They know that the rulings that come out of that building on Chambers Street bear little resemblance to truth or justice. The DOE gets it. This process is designed to get teachers to go away on their own. Most teachers do just that.

Not Christine Rubino. She is the worst nightmare of the DOE and arbitrators like Randi Lowitt. She will not roll over and die while these hucksters make off with her career. She makes the DOE fight for every inch they get. She is now out to appeal the two-year suspension. This explains why Randi Lowitt’s decision reads like the ramblings of a hurt 10-year-old and not a venerable figure of justice. It explains why the DOE releases information to Sue Edelman of the NY Post so she can do one of her trademark hatchet jobs.

A teacher who tries to fight the DOE in its own court is a fool. Everyone, including the union lawyer, is in the DOE’s back pocket. The real fight is in the press, on the blogs and in real courts of law where the DOE’s filth is exposed to the light of day.

All the same, the toll is heavy on people like Christine Rubino. Yes, she fights, but that means the DOE spends more time judging her and her character. That means more hatchet jobs in the press, more assassinations on her character by rank-and-file morons and more opportunities to live and relive this walking nightmare.

Most importantly, this means that Christine Rubino is still without the means to support herself or her two children. It means that poverty and desperation define the lives of her and her kids. How the likes of Randi Lowitt, Theresa Europe, Dennis Walcott, Michael Mulgrew, Sue Edelman and the base fools who leave anonymous comments about her character can still live with themselves is beyond me.

A Paypal account has been established to help Christine and her family make it through this rough time to come. You would think the union would help her, but she does them no good because she cannot pay them dues anymore. Please, give whatever you can. She is fighting not just for herself, but for every teacher who has been, or will be, the target of the DOE and the handmaidens of education reform.

DONATE HERE

Teacher in Crisis

As many of you have probably noticed, the frequency and size of posts on this blog have tailed off lately. My goal is always to update this place twice a day with things that are not complete wastes of time for the people who have been gracious enough to frequent here.

It has not only been this blog that has fallen into a state of semi-neglect. My email correspondences with colleagues, friends and fellow bloggers have also backed up. I am not as quick to hand back homework or exams to my students as I used to be. A few weeks ago, I curled up into a ball in my apartment in a state of acute depression. It is like I have been having an existential crisis although, at 33 years of age, it might be a mid-life crisis.

As I read the blogs, talk to colleagues and come to work every day, it is becoming painfully obvious that I am not longed for the world of New York City’s Department of Education. Although things are far from definite, one thing I do know is that the role I am currently playing in the system is too constraining and is causing me more than a little psychic torture.

I talk to teachers from around the city. Despite the fact that these teachers are in different schools teaching different subjects to different student bodies, the story is almost always the same. One of the reasons why I did a lot of thinking about the passing of Fortunato Rubino yesterday was the fact that this system could ill afford to lose an educational leader like him. The horror stories I have seen first-hand and have heard from friends all speak to an epidemic of oppressive leadership in schools across the city.

One colleague from another school works under an AP that hates her. They have never gotten along. The teacher has never been insubordinate and, in fact, has feverishly tried to comply with the increasing number of responsibilities her AP has heaped upon her. It is of no use. This teacher is already out of license by teaching art most of the day. She has no materials and is located in three different rooms on different floors. Whenever she turns around, she is being called into another meeting or put on another “curriculum planning committee”. On top of that, she has to deal with the litany of disrespectful and sarcastic comments that spew forth from the mouth of her AP. She gets the sense that she is being set up for failure. I suppose she should be thankful that she has not been written up and still has a job in the NYC DOE.

Other colleagues of mine are not so lucky, like the one whose 3020a hearing begins tomorrow. I have known her since college and we have worked at the same school for 5 years. During that time, she has done all of the extra things that the administration has asked of her: stay late for open houses, teach some of the most challenging classes and give up time in order to be the coordinator of student activities (COSA). She regularly was the first one in the building and the last one out. The students recognized her hard work on their behalf and admired her for it. A lot of her work was done for free, out of a sense of obligation to the school community for which she worked. Few people, especially administrators, rarely ever gave her a “thank you” and would be damned to put it in writing if they did. Despite all of this, she never once complained or was insubordinate. As a matter of fact, she was quite supportive of the administration and their vision for the school.

And for all of her hard work, support and dedication to the children and the system, she faces termination.

We had a staff meeting in the auditorium yesterday. Most of the meeting consisted of students presenting some of the extra-curricular projects they had been working on. Once that was all done, they stayed in the auditorium while the principal addressed the staff. He stood at the back speaking to the napes of necks and bald spots of everyone in the room. In a tone that could only be described as angry, he shared some parental complaints he had about first marking period grades. Parents were upset because teachers were taking points off for bad behavior. Some teachers had never given exams, yet failed students who had showed up every day. He mentioned how he tried to defend the teachers by referring parents to the online grading system, yet saw that teachers really had no justification for failing the students in question. The staff largely hung their heads in shame, many of us wondering whether we were the objects of the principal’s ire. The students who had presented their projects were there to listen to it all.

These are just a few examples of what goes on every day in New York City’s Department of Education. Sure, there are horror stories out there like David Pakter, Peter Lamphere, Ted Smith and Christine Rubino. These stories are just the most shocking and reprehensible examples of what a reprehensible bureaucracy is capable of. What causes teachers to be the most demoralized, however, is the type of treatment described earlier at the hands of people who are supposedly education “leaders”. It is the endless pettiness, immaturity and inhumanity to which teachers are subjected every minute of every day. It has become so normal, so commonplace, that it forms the unconscious background of everything else that happens during the course of the school year.

This is the norm throughout the New York City Department of Education. To be sure, there are principals out there who do not do business this way. These principals should be celebrated, appreciated and supported. But, if me or my friends’ experiences are any indication, this is not the norm. Fear, disrespect, paranoia and inhumanity are the orders of the day.

“My principal does not like me, so she is making my life a living hell” is a commonly spoken sentence in Bloomberg’s DOE. At no point have I ever heard that “my principal has tried to bridge the gap with me” or “my principal had an open and honest discussion with me” or “my principal disagrees with me but it’s perfectly fine”. At no point have I heard a principal who has a problem with someone on the staff doing anything less than try to make someone’s life a “living hell”.

Principals lead school buildings. The goal of every school building is to provide a healthy educational environment for its children. If a teacher were to stand in the back of the classroom and berate all of the students for the transgressions of a few, it would be considered bad practice. It would be noted in an observation report and probably be used as a justification for a “U”. If a teacher did not get along with a student, it would be considered harassment for that teacher to give that student extra work and make snarky comments to them. It would probably be cause for disciplinary action, maybe even a 3020a hearing.

It seems as if because principals have the power to make the lives of teachers a living hell, or because they have the power to destroy teachers they do not like, that they believe it should be a power that gets exercised. There are even some principals who fancy themselves humanitarians because they do not do this to every teacher all of the time.

As I get older, I get more intolerant and militant. I just cannot fathom why a principal, someone who is responsible for setting the tone of a school, would think that making anyone’s life a living hell at any moment is productive in any way. Someone disagrees with your vision for the school? Great. You should welcome criticism, dialogue and debate. As the principal you have the final say, of course, and it does not mean you should put the things on hold that you want to achieve because a few malcontents do not like it. Instead, how about trying to bring those teachers along to your vision, give them roles of leadership and importance in that vision and show them that your way can do great things for many people?

When a student challenges me in class, I usually ask them why they feel the way they do. I do not take it as a personal insult. If anything, everything that students do in my classroom is a reflection on me and I take it as a critique of what I am doing at the moment. I have learned a lot about teaching because of this. Maybe I am a little too secure about the righteousness of my vision and ideas.

But I do know one thing: a leader who does not lead by example, a leader who believes a different set of rules applies to them, a leader who does not encourage free discussion is not a leader at all, but an oppressor. It does not matter what the setting is. It does not matter if it is in the political arena or in the arena of education. There is something rotten if a leader does not take their role seriously enough to model the behavior they want to see in the people they lead.

Before I started teaching I had a notion, since then discarded, that schools operated on a different moral plane than the “real world”. Maybe this is one of the reasons why I wanted to be a teacher in the first place. The real world to me was ruthless, ugly and destructive. Schools were beacons of high-minded values and enlightenment. After 12 years in the system, 10 of them under the Bloomberg regime, this silly naiveté has been beaten out of me. If anything, the ugliness and ruthlessness in our education system is worse than that of the real world because it is the students who ultimately get hurt.

Along the way, a lot of innocent teachers lose their livelihoods, reputations and careers because an administrator took a bad shine to them. What does it say about a human being if they can intentionally make the life of someone’s mother, daughter, father, son, brother, husband or wife a living hell? What does it say about a human being if they can give absolutely no thought to taking someone’s livelihood away merely because that person disagrees with them or because that person rubs them the wrong way? I might be able to forgive a lot of things with people because I also would like forgiveness for my own shortcomings, but I cannot forgive people like this. So-called leaders who act in this manner are working from a morality (amorality is more like it) that does not even register in my universe.

I do not totally blame the system either. While the reptilian corporate values that Bloomberg has foisted upon our schools have caused tremendous damage, it would have gotten nowhere without a legion of willing collaborators to do his bidding. It is easy to throw up your hands and say “it’s just the nature of the beast”, but at what point does one accept responsibility for being part of that beast? I think there is still something to be said for individual choice, free will and doing what you know to be the right thing in your heart.

This is why I admire the career of Furtunato Rubino. His example points to what is possible within the context of a thoroughly rotten system. While other principals were busily seeking ways to make people’s lives a living hell, Mr. Rubino never once lost focus of the fact that he was an educator who had an ultimate responsibility to the children of the community he served. Maybe if the Reality-Based Educators, Norm Scotts, Arthur Goldsteins, NYCDOEnuts, Michael Dunns and Bronx Teachers of the world became administrators, they would be able to carve out a piece of sanity and humanity in this monstrous universe we call the Department of Education.

But I understand why the people I mentioned might not be thinking about making such a move. They are teachers first, great teachers, and they know the work they do is the most valuable work of all. After dedicating your life to teaching, there is a sense that becoming an administrator makes you one of “them”. Their values are too incorruptible to be able to give themselves over to the system in that manner.

As for me, I have seen and heard too much to pretend it does not affect me anymore. Too many lives have been ruined, too many lines have been crossed, too much of man’s inhumanity to man has been on display for me to plug along, teach my classes and go home like nothing has ever happened. I feel filthy with each passing day.

So, I do not know what the future holds for me but I am pretty certain what it does not hold. Bloomberg, Walcott, Duncan, Obama and all of the administrators who know no other value but to make peoples’ lives living hells can go on building their filthy world without me.