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

I spoke with our governor during his TNReady listening tour. Here’s what I hope he heard.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tara Baker raises her hand to talk during Gov. Bill Haslam's Sept. 4 roundtable discussion about state testing challenges. An assistant principal at Nashville's McGavock High School, Baker was among about 150 educators invited to participate in Haslam's six-stop "listening tour," which began Aug. 31 in Knoxville and ends Sept. 18 in Gibson County.

As the testing coordinator for a large high school in Nashville, I was in the eye of the proverbial storm this spring as tens of thousands of Tennessee students slogged through technical snafus and breakdowns in the state’s return to online testing.

It was ugly.

The daily stops and starts sucked the joy of learning right out of our school community. And the testing platform was not the only thing that broke down. Students were frustrated to the point of tears after their hard work disappeared behind a spinning blue cursor.

Students and their teachers should never feel that level of exasperation and futility.

That’s why I was thrilled to be invited — along with about 150 other educators from across Tennessee — to troubleshoot testing problems with Gov. Bill Haslam this month during his six-stop “listening tour” on TNReady, the assessment that’s now entering its fourth year.

I wanted the governor and his education commissioner, Candice McQueen, to know just how bad testing went at my school, and to hear observations and ideas from ground zero for moving forward.

I talked about our school’s disappointment and tears as we persevered through a rocky start, with already overtested students exasperated by what felt like unending technical difficulties. “They were defeated,” I told the governor. “It crippled us before we really ever got started.”

I shared how only 36 out of 500 students in our English III classes were able to successfully submit their essays for one part of their online exam. Imagine working for over an hour to read and examine an article and construct an in-depth response, only to have your computer freeze or shut down before you could finish. Our sophomores had more success, but we still had almost 150 incomplete submissions in that class after multiple attempts. The stories were similar for students in Integrated Math, Chemistry, and U.S. History. While I can’t know for sure, I believe the intensity of the problems contributed significantly to our school being rated recently at the state’s lowest possible level for academic growth — a devastating blow to me and my colleagues.  

The governor’s 90-minute roundtable discussion, held in a middle school media room in the town of Franklin, was cathartic for many of us present at the fourth listening tour stop. We realized that we were not alone in our frustrations and concerns.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Educators in Middle Tennessee participate in the governor’s fourth roundtable discussion at Freedom Middle School in Franklin.

Gov. Haslam and Commissioner McQueen listened intently, and I was grateful for the opportunity to share my school’s experience. But a lot of ideas and emotions were compressed into a relatively short amount of time. At the end of the day, here’s what I hope they heard:

We spend too much time on testing and not enough on educating students. Teachers talked about using class time to take practice tests in the fall, the long three-week testing window in the spring, and the sheer number of tests that students are required to take.

We should still test; we just have to do it better. Teachers want valid data. We want useful and meaningful feedback. But we need to know that the information provided is a true representation of what our students know. And we should be able to accomplish that with shorter, more thoughtful tests that cut down on subparts, testing times, and the number of questions. The current testing regimen isn’t working. It stresses out our students, teachers, and families.

We are not ready for online assessments in Tennessee. Computer-based testing generates faster results, but it introduces many factors that currently are beyond school or district control. Dead batteries, network updates, lack of internet connectivity and bandwidth — these are not things that schools can regulate with certainty, and they directly impact testing. Most importantly, until we have enough computers so that every student has one-to-one access to a device, we should have other options and school-level contingency plans in place. This could mean having paper backups on hand or quickly available.

Teachers and test administrators need to know the plan! As the link with our stakeholders, we need training to make sure the information that we provide students and parents is correct. It’s our job to promote the assessments to the community but, to do that, we should completely understand the process and be appropriately trained, including what to do when things go wrong.  

Tests need to reflect the diversity of our students. Reading selections should be varied to address students’ abilities, experiences, and lifestyles. For example, Jane Eyre is not relatable to any of my urban high school students. Could we pull from some high-interest contemporary novels, such as Jason Reynolds’ “Long Way Down,” about a black teenager whose brother dies in a shooting?

PHOTO: TN.gov
Gov. Bill Haslam listens during his Sept. 4 roundtable discussion. An advisory team is using the feedback to develop principles and recommendations for consideration by his and the next administration.

This school year, the stakes are higher than ever to get testing right. No one has confidence in last year’s scores or results. How could they when we learned on the third day of testing that the scores wouldn’t count? And this wasn’t our first rodeo with TNReady problems, either. For the new school year, we must get it right to rebuild confidence in the assessment. To the state’s credit, the Department of Education already has made some good moves — for instance, bringing aboard ETS, a reputable testing company, and planning stress tests for online assessments in the fall and spring. I welcome the on-the-ground input of 37 educators serving as our state’s new TNReady ambassadors, as well as steps to improve customer service before and during the next round of testing.

But will it be enough? The above list of concerns represents what I heard at this month’s roundtable discussion and from other educators, too.

Thanks for listening, Gov. Haslam. I hope that yours and the next administration consider this a call to action.

A former English teacher, Tara Baker is an assistant principal at McGavock High School, a 2,400-student learning community in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

First Person

We’ve come a long way in addressing student stress and trauma. I could use help, too.

PHOTO: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

There’s an old adage, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” But as a paraprofessional in Chicago, my cup is almost drained.

Each day, I provide academic, emotional, and behavioral support for over 200 students. The amount of mental and emotional energy it takes to calm a single student down, redirect or remove them from the class, and provide appropriate consequences is overwhelming — even with experience — when there are 11 other six-year-olds in a classroom that need my help.

Related: Chicago teachers, take our back-to-school survey

I look forward to coming to work in the morning, but by the time I get home, I barely have the energy to make my own dinner or plan activities for the next day. I tune out almost everything and everyone. While I love what I do, it is hard.

This heavy responsibility affects my mental health and the health of all educators, and it certainly impacts our ability to properly teach and support students. In the wake of Chicago’s teacher assistant layoffs this summer, my colleagues and I have dealt with the added stress of job uncertainty, too.

But we haven’t acknowledged the effects of that stress on educators, and we aren’t equipped with support to manage it.

The good news is that we are having a conversation about the effects of stress and trauma on our students. I’ve watched advocates successfully push for change: Educators for Excellence-Chicago, an educator-led organization I am involved with, brought some of these issues to light last June. Since then, we have held citywide problem-solving forums in partnership with the district’s Office of Social Emotional Learning and successfully advocated for the passage of two school state resolutions to ensure that student trauma is appropriately recognized throughout Illinois.

The recent focus on social-emotional learning — also known as “soft skills” — in our classrooms is also helping schools better prepare students for challenges that no child should face, but many do.

Those challenges are real: In my classroom, one student is a caregiver for his parent, another has lost multiple siblings to gun violence, and many others have parents that work long hours and are rarely around. These experiences have a considerable impact on their learning; often, students don’t have the tools to cope with this stress, and so they express their frustration by acting out in disruptive ways.

And yet, amid all this advocacy for our students’ mental health, we neglect our own. I worry that without a healthy state of mind, educators can’t offer their best teaching and attention to students, perhaps causing additional harm to kids already dealing with heavy burdens outside of school.

I don’t think it has to be this way. If more funding was allocated to our schools for student counseling, it would allow educators more time to focus on teaching. Our schools could provide social and emotional support to our students and staff to help them learn coping mechanisms. We would be able to hold self-care activities for the entire school. Support staff could give students and parents tools to support them outside of school.

To ensure students’ well-being, we need our own help.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” Student and educator mental wellness are deeply interconnected, and we all must make sure we help educators be the best they can be for their students.

Shakita Smith is a teacher’s assistant at Pablo Casals School of Excellence in Humboldt Park. She is also a member of the Chicago Teachers Union and Educators for Excellence, a national teacher policy and advocacy organization.