First Person

ATR — A Simple Twist of Fate

A lot of people think teaching is somehow a job for life — that no teachers can be fired for any reason, no matter what they do, who they kill, or whether or not they sleep in garbage cans. It’s not true. In fact, the Department of Education tries to take away teacher jobs all the time. I recently read about one teacher who’s up on charges for giving watches to kids who scored 90 or above in his class. Clearly, dangerous individuals like that must be dealt with severely.

Those of us who aren’t up on charges have other worries. For example, we can become “ATRs.” ATR is an acronym for “Absent Teacher Reserve.” When Chancellor Klein closes a school, he’s required to retain 50% of “qualified” teachers. This translates to fewer than 50% of actual teachers. If the “reorganized” school doesn’t offer French, for example, 100% of working French teachers say adieu, teaching schedule and bonjour, Absent Teacher Reserve.

The ATR situation started in 2005. Tabloid editorial writers were jumping up and down about the new UFT contract. God bless teachers, they declared. Finally, they said, principals could decide who they wanted to hire. It was morning in America again. Several weeks passed before they went back to vilifying us, as tradition dictates.

In any case, teachers would no longer be sent to schools simply because there were open positions. Instead, they’d become ATRs, teaching whatever, wherever, to whomever. From there, we were assured, they’d easily find jobs. Unless, of course, they didn’t. Personally, I’m very glad I transferred when I could. For all I know, they could be closing my former school this very moment. I’d be very unhappy as an ATR teacher, and I’ve met many ATR teachers who feel precisely the same way.

What principal wants to hire an ancient relic like me when she can get a shiny new teacher who’ll do anything she says for less than half the price? And best of all, most of those teachers will be history well before they hit the five-year mark. They’ll never mature enough to question any program, no matter how pointless, wasteful, or illegal, and they’ll never become burdens on society by retiring and collecting pensions.  

Before the ATR situation, displaced teachers could transfer based on seniority. As a new teacher, I was bumped several times by these senior teachers. No one would help me get a job. Not the city, not the union, not anyone. A UFT rep told me that I’d be glad when I was more senior — the system would then work for me. This notwithstanding, I’m more senior than I’ve ever been, and it doesn’t work for me at all.

For a while, there was also a UFT transfer plan. If you worked in a building for a number of years, you could consult a list of openings in your subject area. You could then select from those openings and move to another school.

Judging from tabloid editorials, the UFT transfer plan was evil. From what I’ve read, it was used exclusively by lazy incompetent teachers who moved around to inflict more misery in new and different places. This notwithstanding, I used the plan because I lacked foresight — I failed to throw a sufficient number of kids out of my classes.

In my last school, the Spanish 1 classes were out of control. The teacher sent the AP kids all the time. This one wouldn’t sit down. That one was chewing gum. This one threw a paper airplane. Twice! The AP was spending a great deal of time on this. How could she solve this problem?

Why not take that ESL teacher who didn’t throw kids out and have him teach Spanish 1? It seemed perfect. But I was appointed to teach ESL, and there was that bothersome UFT contract. She couldn’t force me. I’d already told her I’d been offered a 3:30 class at Queens College and she said it was no problem-so I’d accepted. She decided to make me an offer I couldn’t refuse.

She said, “Mr. Goldstein, I’m going to assign you to teach five Spanish 1 classes in September. If you don’t agree to do it, I’m going to give you a late class and you’ll have to forget about Queens College.”

This was a tough decision for me. What to do? If only I’d thrown more kids out. I was just married, had just bought a house, and I really needed that second job. But I loved teaching ESL.

At the time, of course, there was that UFT transfer plan. If I was at a school enough years (I was), I could transfer to any school that needed an ESL teacher.

I found two schools close to Queens College, Francis Lewis and John Bowne, and neither of them (at the time) had classes after 3 PM. I marked them as choices one and two. I had to get the principal’s signature, and he shook his head grimly, saying, “You’ll never get into Francis Lewis.” Five weeks later, I got a call from the Board of Education to report to Francis Lewis in September.

My new AP at Francis Lewis was wonderful. To this day, I’ve never seen anyone who could handle people quite like she could. One semester, she asked me if I’d mind teaching a Spanish 1 class. I told her sure. I’d have done anything she wished. I’d have put her statue on the dashboard of my car.

She’s gone now, and so is the UFT transfer plan that sent me here. I miss them both.

I hope, if my daughter follows through on her plan to be a teacher, that the job of teaching is at least as good to her as it’s been to me. I also hope there are still some good supervisors around. Many of mine have been excellent, and that’s made a huge difference. I’ve been lucky.

I know teachers who haven’t been so lucky. Their schools closed, they got dumped into the ATR pool, and there they remain. I know one who emailed me regularly, becoming more and more depressed until she finally resigned — a big win for the city, I suppose. I even know one who got tapped for a special mentoring program — a promotion based on merit. When the program closed, that teacher became an automatic ATR.

I love to teach.  It’s exciting to meet new kids and get to know them. It’s even more exciting if you’re an ESL teacher and they come from every corner of the world. I’m very proud I can play some small part in helping them along.

If you take that away from me, I’ll be lost, and that’s precisely the sense I get from ATR teachers I know. I read one writer speculate about how wonderful it would be to not have the day-to-day responsibilities of lesson planning and follow-up, but I’ve yet to meet the real-live ATR teacher who was happy about it.

And whenever ATR teachers tell me their stories, I’m certain of one thing — there but for the grace of God go I.

First Person

A national teacher of the year on her most radical teaching practice: trusting kids to handle their bathroom business

Author Shana Peeples speaking at American Jerusalem High School in Jerusalem while touring as National Teacher of the Year.

This whole national conversation about who we should and shouldn’t let go into which bathrooms got me thinking about the most controversial thing I ever did as a teacher. I’d love to tell you it was teaching a banned book or something intellectual, but it was really all about the bathroom.

I allowed kids to quietly leave class whenever they needed to go without asking my permission.

My principal hated it; some of my colleagues viewed me as some sort of hippie. It made people question my professional judgment, my classroom management, and even my intelligence.

“So, you just let them leave when they want to?”

“If they need to go, yes.”

“Without a pass?”

“My hall pass is on a hook by the door so they can quietly take it and then replace it when they come back.”

“I bet you replace it a lot.”

“Actually, no. It’s the same one. I keep it around because it has a picture from my first year when I looked a lot younger and skinnier.”

Usually, people walk off before I can tell them any more of my crazy commie ideas. They’d die if they knew kids could take my pass to the nurse or their counselor if they needed to go. My only rule was that they had to show the same decorum that they would at the movies: no one gets up in a theater and loudly announces their business.

And in 15 years, no one used it as an excuse to skip the class or wander the campus or otherwise engage in shenanigans. Actually, no — one kid took the pass and didn’t come back until the next day. But that was because he was an English language learner on his second day who didn’t quite understand that it’s not meant as a “go home in the middle of the school day” pass.

When I began teaching, it was in a seventh-grade classroom in a portable, which is really just a converted double-wide trailer. The bathrooms were the separation space between my classroom and the reading teacher’s classroom. It seemed mean to me to control the bathroom needs of children in 90-minute block classes seated so close to one another. That was the origin of the policy.

Years later, one of my students wrote about me in an essay. I was prepared to read some sort of “Freedom Writers” love letter about the magic of my teaching. What she wrote instead was: The first day in her class I learned that she had the best bathroom policy ever. She treated us like human beings who could be trusted to take care of our own private needs.

I kept scanning the essay for the parts about the teacher magic, but that was really the only part about me specifically. The best bathroom policy ever. That’s my legacy.

But seriously, kids really can be trusted to take care of their own private needs. Especially those who are teenagers who drive cars. Or who are responsible in their after-school jobs for locking up a store’s daily receipts in the safe. Or who are responsible for getting four siblings to school on time because mom works the morning shift.

People complain to me, when they find out I used to teach high school, about how “lazy and irresponsible kids are these days.” That just irritates the fire out of me. What if so much of that behavior is because we don’t allow kids to try on trust and responsibility with little things like taking care of their bathroom business?

And maybe what looks like “laziness” is really a trained helplessness and passivity borne of so many rules and restrictions against movement of any kind. Don’t get up without permission, don’t talk without permission, don’t turn and look out the window without permission, and for Pete’s sake, don’t you put your head down on your desk and act like you’re tired because you were up all night at the hospital with your father who just had a heart attack.

Trust is a thing we create through small daily interactions. Simple things like extending the same courtesies to them as we would want for ourselves. I’m always so appreciative of professional development presenters who take the time to tell you where the coffee, water fountains, and bathrooms are. That communicates respect and consideration.

As teachers, we have to be willing to be the first to extend trust. When we do, kids will return it.

Shanna Peeples’ teaching career, all in Title I schools, began as a seventh grade writing teacher at Horace Mann Middle School in Amarillo, Texas. She later taught English at Palo Duro High School, and as the 2015 National Teacher of the Year, worked to shape the conversation in this country about working with students in poverty. She now serves as the secondary English language arts curriculum specialist for Amarillo ISD.

This piece first appeared in Curio Learning.

First Person

I’m a teacher, not an activist. Here’s why I’m joining the March for Science this weekend

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Jeremy Wilburn

I became a science teacher because there’s nothing I love more than talking about science. This Saturday, I’ll march for science in Cleveland because there’s nothing I believe is more important than defending science in our society and our classrooms.

My love affair with science goes back to my seventh-grade teacher, Mr. Hurst, who took a hands-on approach to science education. Through labs and real-world investigations, my classmates and I discovered the complexity of scientific discovery. While I originally pursued a career in lab research, I soon realized that my true passion lay in teaching – that I could fulfill my love of science by delivering the same quality of teaching that I’d received to the next generation.

I’m marching for science on Saturday because every student deserves such a strong foundation. A well-rounded education should be a reality for every child in America – and that must include science, technology, engineering and math. Without it, our country won’t be able to solve the very real crises looming just over the horizon.

The world’s population is growing exponentially, consuming a limited supply of natural resources at a faster pace. We rely on nonrenewable forms of energy that we’ll inevitably exhaust at a great environmental cost. Medical advances have slowed the spread of infectious disease, but our overuse of antibiotics is leading to a new generation of drug-resistant pathogens.

Our children need to know what they are up against so they can design their own solutions. They need an education that enables them to think analytically, approach a problem, tackle new challenges, and embrace the unknown. That’s exactly what good science education does.

Still, I understand that some may wonder why teachers are marching – and even if they should. Some will inevitably accuse teachers of “politicizing” science or stepping “out of their lane.”

But marching for science is distinct from the kind of political statements I dutifully avoid in my role as a teacher. To me, marching is a statement of fact: without science teachers, there is no science education; without science education, there is no future for science in America. Science teachers and their classrooms are the agar in the petri dish that cultures our students’ scientific minds. (Did I mention there’s nothing I love talking about more than science?) In any movement for science, teachers have a role to play.

Marching, like teaching, is to take part in something bigger. Years from now, if I’m lucky, I might glimpse the name of one of my former students in the newspaper for a scientific discovery or prestigious award. But by and large, it’s my job to plant seeds of curiosity and discovery in a garden I may never see.

On Saturday, I’ll be there alongside doctors and nurses, engineers and researchers, and citizens from all walks of life who love science and want to see it valued and respected in our country. We might not see the fruit of our labors the day after the march, or even after that, but the message we send will be clear.

If you’re a parent or student – maybe one of my own – I hope you see that passion for science on full display around the nation this Saturday. I hope you see why having committed science teachers like myself and my colleagues is inextricably bound to the fate of our world. I hope that recognition grows into action to support teachers and demand universal access to an excellent science education, like the one I strive to provide every day in my classroom.

Sarah Rivera teaches engineering, biology, biomedical science, and environmental science at Perry High School in Perry, Ohio. She is also a member of 100Kin10’s teacher forum.