Is Absent Teacher Reserve Contagious? Yes, Yes It Is - by Dr. Michael Flanagan
It was a tough place to find on a cold winter afternoon. Climbing over mountains of ice searching for a run down basement in an old church. The metal folding chairs, collapsible tables and fluorescent lights reflected the mood of those who showed for the first ever Bronx Teacher Empowerment Workshop on February 27th 2015. Even though we walked passed the boiler to get into the room people were still wearing their coats. Why were we meeting in this old church basement in the Bronx? Because New York City’s Absent Teacher Reserve initiative has turned veteran teachers into pariahs in an effort to supersede contracted rights. Referred to as ATR’s these educators have been scapegoated by the Department of Education and many have felt sacrificed by their own union. They are now castaways chalked up as the collateral damage of education reform.
Over the last ten years in New York City, under Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s business model of education management, teacher seniority was one of the prime targets. His administration’s agenda worked like this, large traditional community schools were labeled as failing, phased out and smaller schools were opened in their place. “Closer” principals were brought in to shut down the large schools and excess at least fifty percent of the faculty. These smaller “charter-lite” schools tended to hire newer, younger teachers over those with more seniority. In other words those with the highest salaries were finding themselves un-hirable. The DOE, because of collective bargaining protections could not terminate these teachers, but without official positions they were thrown into the Absent Teacher Reserve pool.
The recent teachers contract ratified after a contentious vote among union rank and file created a subordinate set of rights applied to ATR teachers. It was that part of the contract, which caused many of our members to vote against the promised raises and retroactive pay. A union should be there to champion the rights of the most oppressed in our ranks. One would think that the United Federation of Teachers would aggressively fight for its members who were unceremoniously cut from their positions and left to drift while having their professionalism questioned and their characters defamed. However, the plight of the ATR’s has been completely ignored.
Disowned by their union, forced to drift from school to school much like day laborers ATR’s have become the teaching profession’s untouchable caste who are forced to endure the disheartening life of working in different schools every week. Constantly searching for keys to classrooms and staff bathrooms, doing mindless busy work created by administrators who often would rather not be bothered. If they are lucky occasionally one might be assigned as a permanent sub for an extended time, and allowed to teach in their subject areas, until that bond is inevitably destroyed when the permanent teacher returns. Rarely afforded even the slightest respect as a professional, ATR’s serve as indentured servants to the whims of that day’s supervisor. They may be given intolerable program assignments in the effort to force them to quit, or baited and incited in order to entice a negative reaction that could lead to trumped up charges. They are marginalized professionals, demoralized, disrespected and discarded. File numbers attached to transitory forms. Some ATR’s are just holding out until retirement, or they try to convince themselves that things are not so bad. But the truth is, teachers want to teach and an ATR’s life of temporary positions is a cruel jest.
The prevalent teacher bashing narrative allows the ATR’s to be scapegoated as “bad teachers”. They obviously have the most experience therefore it is imperative to remove them from the classrooms. I call that “deformer logic 101”. The bottom line is that ATRs are the poster children of the education reform movement for two main reasons, and neither of those has anything to do with professionalism or teaching ability. The first is cost. Firing a twenty-year veteran pays for two Teach For America temp employees. The second reason is senior teachers are less likely to be intimidated and are more likely to speak their mind or call out ridiculous policies that are detrimental to students and teachers.
The plight of ATRs is proof that corporate reformers are not interested in improving education. Seasoned teachers are experts who understand the nuances of teaching public school students. They have decades in the system, have weathered educational evolutions, taught through changing political tides or watched the gentrifications of their communities. They are the experienced educators who worked in the most challenging conditions for their entire careers. Teaching in any public school, especially in impoverished neighborhoods is more than a score. Reformers want to talk numbers, but they ignore the enormous complexity of teaching children. Of managing a classroom, adapting to differentiated needs and overcoming the trauma that children of poverty come to school with every day.
These are the people have been almost forgotten, even amongst fellow teachers. It's like they are afraid being an ATR is contagious. And they are right. The truth is we are all potential ATRs. At the end of the day, the media wants to paint these teachers as itinerant workers, collecting a paycheck. But no amount of money is worth being treated like a second-class citizen and literally left out in the cold.
Which brings me to why I am here in this basement working with people who are trying to create a support group to help the ATR’s who are holding out, enduring this war of attrition for many reasons. Of course saving their careers is the highest motivator, but it is more than money. The reality is, on the brink of retirement, these people are the ones with the most at stake. Not every ATR is an activist; some are beaten down by the weight of the world or on the verge of giving it all up. But on this day, in this old decrepit basement, it was the ATR's who were there to fight. The fact is if you can teach in a New York City Public school for twenty or thirty years, you are not easily intimidated by harassment.
The Bronx Educators Empowerment Workshop organized by Fracesco Portelos’ of Don’t Tread On Educators joined several grassroots groups together to stand for ATR teachers and those members who are being wrongly harassed and bullied out of teaching. He along with Aixa Rodriguez of the Badass Teachers Association, networked with groups such as The UFT Solidarity Caucus, the ATR Alliance, Bronx Educators United For Justice, and BATs in NYC to create the first of many meetings to educate and support teachers throughout NYC who have been left out on their own. To help the disenfranchised among us when no one else will take a second look at. Developing social media techniques where information can be shared. Perhaps most of all, giving the ATR’s and others in need a place to organize. So they can stand up and be heard again.
The techniques used in NYC are simple and consistent with education reform tactics. The ever effective divide and conquer approach. ATR’s are pitted against regularly appointed teachers just as younger teachers are used to eliminate older ones. The reform objective is clear, keep teachers at each other’s throats and their solidarity will crumble. Sometimes in this struggle for the survival of the teaching professions we are our own worst enemies. Unions are only as strong as our weakest link. ATR teachers are the ones most criticized, yet they are the ones here in this cold basement trying to fight for our profession. The message is certain, if we do not stand together now, there will be nothing left to stand for later. Those of us who are still in our schools, who still have our jobs, should not get too comfortable. We can always be the next on the list to be bullied and battered into retirement or cut loose into the ATR phantom zone. We are all ATR’s; we just don’t know it yet. ^0^