By Dr. Michael Flanagan, NY BAT and Member of the BAT Leadership Team
Full disclosure, I am writing this blog piece from my teacher’s desk during my lunch period. The reason I state that for the record is because for the past week I have been in the middle of a controversial event that has become known as #PS24DeskGate. Besides being a veteran teacher, I also I work in the action steering committee of the Badass Teachers Association. We look for educationally related issues around the country in which we can support teachers and parents. This event however literally happened in my own school’s back yard.
On Wednesday October 14th, 2015 I was told by several staff members that the principal from PS 24 had removed all of her teachers’ desks and file cabinets from their classroom, making many of the teachers empty their materials onto the floor during class time, in front of their students. The desks were then dumped outside of the school during the school day, and the children from the K-5 school walked by their teachers’ furniture during dismissal. I went outside (both schools share a common trash site located on my school’s property) and observed a graveyard of discarded teacher desks and filing cabinets. In 30 years of working in public schools, I had never heard of anything quite like this.
I notified my union district rep (as I am a union chapter leader for the UFT) and then posted the pictures I took to my Facebook page and then onto the national BATs group page. The photos went viral. I was asked to push the issue by several members of the school, as they have been the recipients of bullying tactics by this principal for years. I was happy to do so, as was Priscilla Sanstead co-founder of BATs. Several journalists such as Susan Edelman of the NY Post became interested and also helped publicize the issue.
Over the course of the week, I have seen and been a part of many discussions and arguments regarding the actions of that administration. Some debated teaching philosophies, others their preferences for room configurations, Common Core alignment, so on and so forth. Throughout the week however I have maintained this position; it is NOT just about the desks. When a principal can come into a teacher’s classroom, in front of students and remove their furniture and materials, even over their objections and requests for explanations, then why should any child respect their teacher? If we as educators are not safe and autonomous in our own classrooms, then we are no more important than the file cabinets or blackboards. When I took the pictures of the desks, I knew they were not just desks. Metaphorically, they were the teachers, thrown out on the curb like so much trash. There for all of the students in the school to see, the message being “your teachers are garbage”.
Sometimes a desk is not just a desk. Sometimes it represents pride, dignity, and professionalism. Teachers are not trash, and we will not be thrown to the curb. Ever.
On Wednesday October 21st I attended a Parent Association meeting at the school, and listened to the school administrators discuss this and other issues of mismanagement at the school. There were almost two hundred concerned community members in attendance. The desks were by no means the only issue of contention, but after I heard the principal’s rambling and mostly incoherent explanation of her “vision” for forcibly removing furniture this late into the school year, I was privileged to hear the school’s UFT chapter leader take the floor and speak truth to power in front of journalists, local politicians, Department of Education officials and the hostile administrators of her school. I am including the text of the remarks prepared by the chapter leader herself and the other teachers from the school:
“Hello and thank you. Most of you know me, I am Jayne Wissner, a teacher and chapter leader of this school and I am here to speak on behalf of the teachers. PS 24 is one of the best public schools in New York City, and has been for many years. It is one of only six Bronx schools highly recognized. A majority of that success is due to the hardworking, dedicated teachers and parents.
At any given day you can find teachers arriving at 6:30 am and leaving well beyond school hours. Teachers work on their lunchtime and many hours at home.
Students do well on state exams, due partly to the hours of planning and preparation as well as implementation of lessons by teachers.
Having a desk shouldn’t be the focus. Respect should be. Teachers should be respected enough to be communicated to in a professional and collaborative manner. Currently teachers’ desks are their personal workstations, housing a variety of supplies. It is a place where a teacher may sit when there is another teacher in the room or after school, to assess students’ work, prepare for the next day, etc.
At PS 24 teachers with desks are not instructing from behind their desks! Many of you parents here have been to our classrooms, have you observed that (crowd responds “no, never”).
There is ample evidence to support most differing opinions. Teachers with desks still provide classrooms that are workshop friendly, and have for many years across the nation. Having a desk does not prevent teachers from effectively differentiating instruction or facilitating active learning. (When these desks were thrown out) teachers felt like we were being thrown to the curb.
We agree that unity is what we need to continue the success of PS 24. Unity amongst all invested in continued growth and excellence. Educators, and parents within the community of PS 24, should work together collaboratively and professionally. Effective education begins with respect and a mindset to first and foremost do what is in the best interest for the children. Having or not having a desk should not be the focus. Thank you.”
It is my hope that this one isolated incident enables teachers from across this country to stand up and take back our dignity and professionalism. There are too many teachers who are being bullied by administrators, politicians and the media across this country. They seek to intimidate and to crush the protections of educators, which allow us to speak-out against workplace violations and abuse. They want to silence our voices. We will not allow that to happen.
We as teachers want strong and supportive administrators, and there are many, many of them. However, we need to challenge those who overstep their authority, in order to reclaim our school community and protect our children. A teacher’s working environment is a student’s learning environment. Our classrooms are our children’s home away from home, and we will stand up to anyone in order to protect that space.
This was never just about the desks. ^0^