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

Yes, an A at one school may be a C at another. It’s time we address the inequity that got us there

PHOTO: Brett Rawson
Yacine Fall, a student who shared her experience realizing that an A in her school wasn't the same as an A elsewhere.

I was struck by a recent Chalkbeat piece by a young woman who had earned a high GPA at a middle school in Harlem. Believing herself well prepared, she arrived at an elite high school only to find herself having to work hard to stay afloat in her classes.

Her A’s, it seemed, didn’t mean the same thing as the A’s from other, more affluent, schools.

As a teacher, I know that she’s right. Grades are different from school to school, district to district, and I suspect, state to state. And it presents a problem that cannot easily be solved — especially in English, the subject I teach.

The students who sit before us vary greatly. Some schools have students who are mired in poverty and who are also not fluent in English. (Some entire districts are this demographic. I taught in one for many years.) Other schools are quite affluent and have no English language learners. Guess which population demonstrates stronger academic skills?

We teachers cannot help but get normed to our population. We get used to seeing what we always see. Since an A is “excellent,” we tend to give A’s — really, all grades — in relation to the population with which we work. To get an A in any school means that the student is doing an excellent job relative to their peers.

When I taught in my old middle school, most kids arrived below grade level in math and English, and some were several years below. We became so used to seeing below-grade-level work that it became our “normal.” When an eighth-grader who came to us at a third-grade level turned in four or five pretty good paragraphs on a topic, we were elated.

That kid has come so far! We would bring that assignment out at the next department meeting and crow about her success. And we would award an A, because she did an excellent job in relation to her peers.

The trouble is, you take the same assignment down the highway 10 miles to an affluent school, and that same paper would earn a C-minus. Their eighth-graders came to them using strong theses, well developed points, and embedded quotations. To get an A in that school, the student has to do an excellent job relative to much more accomplished peers.

Kids who are just learning English, who are homeless or move frequently, who could be food-insecure, don’t have those skills. They’re not incapable of developing those skills. But they are unlikely to have them yet because of the challenges they face.

I now teach students in a highly competitive magnet program in another state (600 applicants for 150 seats, to give you an idea). Now I am normed so far the other way, it makes me dizzy. These students have skills that I never dreamed any eighth-grader could possess. The eighth-graders I taught this year wrote at a nearly professional level. Many of them score in the 99th percentile nationwide for both math and English.

Now I realize that, in my old district, we almost never saw a truly advanced student. In fact, not only had most of us never seen an advanced paper, we rarely saw any paper that was above partially proficient, even from students we thought were working above grade level.

The reality is that if we truly tried to hold everyone to the same bar, we would see even more troubling patterns emerge.

We would see the good grades going to rich white kids, those who get museums and vacations and Starbucks in the summer, and we would see the failing grades go to the poor kids — entire schools, even districts, full of poor kids who aren’t good with English and who spend their summers in front of the TV while mom and dad work.

So we have these very different sets of standards, even with the Common Core. There is a faction who would say this is “the soft bigotry of low expectations” that George W. Bush talked about. I say this shows that socioeconomic status and students’ home lives are the major predictors of success in school, and that the bigotry that causes that is real.

What does all this mean for the student who wrote the original piece about her transition to high school? What it means for her, immediately, is she sees firsthand the vast differences in preparation and opportunity between the socioeconomic classes. In the long term, it could mean a lot as far as college choices go. I don’t think we know yet how to really solve this problem.

We as a society need to address the factors that limit access and equity for poor and minority children. Leveling that particular playing field may be the most important charge with which educators are tasked.

Mary Nanninga is a middle school English teacher in Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland. She previously taught in Westminster Public Schools in Westminster, Colorado.

First Person

Two fewer testing days in New York? Thank goodness. Here’s what else our students need

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

Every April, I feel the tension in my fifth-grade classroom rise. Students are concerned that all of their hard work throughout the year will boil down to six intense days of testing — three for math and three for English language arts.

Students know they need to be prepared to sit in a room for anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours with no opportunity to leave, barring an emergency. Many of them are sick to their stomachs, feeling more stress than a 10-year-old ever should, and yet they are expected to perform their best.

Meanwhile, teachers are frustrated that so many hours of valuable instruction have been replaced by testing, and that the results won’t be available until students are moving on to other classrooms.

This is what testing looks like in New York state. Or, at least it did. Last month, state officials voted to reduce testing from three days for each subject to two, to the elation of students, parents, and teachers across New York. It’s an example of our voices being heard — but there is still more to be done to make the testing process truly useful, and less stressful, for all of us.

As a fifth-grade teacher in the Bronx, I was thrilled by the news that testing time would be reduced. Though it doesn’t seem like much on paper, having two fewer days of gut-wrenching stress for students as young as eight means so much for their well-being and education. It gives students two more days of classroom instruction, interactive lessons, and engagement in thought-provoking discussions. Any reduction in testing also means more time with my students, since administrators can pull teachers out of their classrooms for up to a week to score each test.

Still, I know these tests provide us with critical data about how students are doing across our state and where we need to concentrate our resources. The changes address my worries about over-testing, while still ensuring that we have an objective measure of what students have learned across the state.

For those who fear that cutting one-third of the required state testing hours will not provide teachers with enough data to help our students, understand that we assess them before, during, and after each unit of study, along with mid-year tests and quizzes. It is unlikely that one extra day of testing will offer any significant additional insights into our students’ skills.

Also, the fact that we receive students’ state test results months later, at the end of June, means that we are more likely to have a snapshot of where are students were, rather than where they currently are — when it’s too late for us to use the information to help them.

That’s where New York can still do better. Teachers need timely data to tailor their teaching to meet student needs. As New York develops its next generation of tests and academic standards, we must ensure that they are developmentally appropriate. And officials need to continue to emphasize that state tests alone cannot fully assess a student’s knowledge and skills.

For this, parents and teachers must continue to demand that their voices are heard. Until then, thank you, New York Regents, for hearing us and reducing the number of testing days.

In my classroom, I’ll have two extra days to help my special needs students work towards the goals laid out in their individualized education plans. I’ll take it.

Rich Johnson teaches fifth grade at P.S. 105 in the Bronx.