October 10, 2007
ON EDUCATION; Where Teachers Sit, Awaiting Their Fates
By SAMUEL G. FREEDMAN
Back in 1968, when he was a graduate student of 24, Ivan Valtchev boarded a ferry from the Polish coast to Stockholm. It was the final leg in a complex and risky process of escaping to the West from his native Bulgaria. Newly free, he believed that he had left totalitarianism forever behind.
Mr. Valtchev made his way eventually to the United States, becoming an artist whose etchings were exhibited at the National Gallery. He taught at the college and secondary levels, most recently at the High School of Graphic Communication Arts in Manhattan.
But on Aug. 30, when Mr. Valtchev reported to a security guard on the eighth floor of an office building near Midtown, he experienced a certain sense of gulag déjà vu. He had been ordered by his principal to a reassignment center, more commonly known among New York teachers as a ”rubber room.”
The room in question was about 1,100 square feet and on blueprints submitted to the Fire Department was designed to hold 26 people. On this day, it contained upward of 75. It had no windows, no land phone, no Internet access, no wall decorations, not even a clock. Any personal belongings left overnight were removed by custodians.
Some of the occupants faced criminal charges like assault, while others had been brought up by city education officials for termination due to incompetence or other causes. Still more, including Mr. Valtchev, had not yet received a formal letter specifying any allegation. Until their cases are resolved, which can take years, all are required to spend the 181 days of the school year in the rubber room.
And although the teachers there receive their full salaries, the stale, spartan conditions and the absence of any physical or intellectual stimulation provide a ceaseless reminder that in some respects they are guilty until proved innocent.
”There is a spirit of the K.G.B. about it,” Mr. Valtchev said in an interview on Monday. ”Their main strategy is to destabilize the person, reduce his self-respect.
”It’s extremely oppressive. It’s regimented. It’s unhappy. There’s friendship and camaraderie among us in the room, but there’s a constant atmosphere of fear. And deep depression.”
Throughout New York City, the Department of Education operates 12 reassignment centers, populated at any one time by about 760 teachers from a total work force of 80,000. And, let’s face it, they can be a hard bunch to defend.
During my own 20 years of observing and writing about public education in New York, I’ve seen firsthand how exasperatingly difficult it has been for principals to oust abusive, incapable or negligent teachers who are protected by a powerful union. Instead, some principals would privately agree to swap problem teachers in a process known as ”trading turkeys.” Others would offer such teachers a positive rating if they used their seniority to transfer to a different school.
The transfer rules were ended in 2005, under an agreement between the city and the teachers’ union. That same accord also slightly streamlined the process of bringing termination cases before an arbitrator. But I’ve also reported on examples of quality teachers persecuted by insecure or dictatorial administrators for being active in the union, speaking to the press or merely having independent views on curriculum. Not every teacher in the rubber room deserves the fate, even if some surely do.
Arbitrators and courts will weigh the evidence in each case. So why are those who have been charged, but not convicted, consigned to places like the eighth-floor room at 333 Seventh Avenue, which seem intended to mete out punishment long before any verdict has been issued?
”From our perspective, it’s not punitive,” said Andrew Gordon, the director of employee relations at the department. ”It’s all about respect for the other employees” both in the rubber room itself and in other department offices on the floor, he said. Of the ban on keeping personal items, he said: ”We don’t want to play policeman. It turns into an administrative nightmare.”
Still, the stultifying atmosphere of that rubber room is not simply the opinion of its unwilling, disgruntled residents. I spent several hours there last week observing the listless routine, and what I saw confirmed the complaints I had heard privately from teachers before my unannounced visit.
Until this year, teachers could at least keep some personal items: a seat cushion, a tin of tea. A teacher with a damaged leg who needs a support dog was permitted to sit at a table just outside the rubber room. A physical education teacher even held fitness classes in the hallway.
All that has ended. The department supplied new chairs and tables at the outset of this academic year, but also stopped allowing any of the personal touches.
The teacher with the dog, Joy Hochstadt — facing termination because of repeated ratings of unsatisfactory — now sits in the rubber room; several teachers who are allergic to dogs then had to be moved elsewhere. Teachers cannot use the hall for exercise or borrow books from two department libraries in the building. Instead of arriving on staggered shifts, as in the past, all 75-plus teachers stay from 8 a.m. until 3 p.m., meaning that the process of signing in or out can take half an hour.
”When a new teacher comes in, it’s not unusual for us to get very territorial,” conceded Judith Katz Cohen, who had taught art at the Talented and Gifted School in Manhattan and is accused of making a profane comment to a student. ”People would be going from table to table, looking for a place to sit, and others would get loud, angry.”
Gilda Teel, who taught social studies at Independence High School in Manhattan, said she tried to meditate before coming into the rubber room. ”I’ve been here just a month and it’s made me more nervous, more aggressive,” said Ms. Teel, accused of not accounting for $245 in school money. ”It’s changed my whole temperament.”
Until things improve, which may be never, the teachers in the rubber room pass their days with crossword puzzles, knitting, iPods, sketch pads, whatever can be brought home at night and doesn’t need electricity. For a roomful of people with advanced degrees, whether truly or falsely accused, that mental diet is thin gruel.
”Even in the penal system,” said Ms. Cohen, a veteran of more than 240 days in the rubber room, ”they permit rehabilitation.”
Samuel G. Freedman is a professor of journalism at Columbia University. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.