Fighting to get hired. Teaching subjects they aren’t trained in. Feeling disrespected and stigmatized.
Members of New York City’s pool of unassigned teachers say there’s a lot that people don’t understand about their situation. Though there are about 800 educators currently in the Absent Teacher Reserve, their voice is rarely included in public debate over what to do about the $152 million pool.
The education department recently released figures that shed some light on who is in the ATR, and the numbers could fuel critics who say it’s full of undesirable teachers. About a third of educators entered the pool because of disciplinary or legal reasons, and they are more likely to be poorly rated than teachers citywide, according to city data.
But those figures don’t speak to the day-to-day experience of educators who travel between schools without a permanent position.
Chalkbeat spoke with three teachers to learn what it’s like to be in the much-maligned pool. Here are their stories.
“I do think it’s hopeless.”
Deborah Williams was a literacy coach working with teachers at two schools — one in the Bronx and one in Manhattan. But Williams felt she lacked the support and cooperation she needed from the principals she worked with. She wanted to go back into the classroom as a reading teacher.
Instead, she was unable to find another position and wound up in the ATR pool. That was in 2006. Now, with 25 years of experience and a $110,000 salary, Williams said her relatively high pay makes it impossible to get hired permanently.
“The principals don’t even respond. It’s moot,” she said.
While she feels most qualified to work in early grades, Williams has taught high school English, bilingual students and even trigonometry. Williams said she spent five years at one elementary school teaching reading as an ATR. She pulled students out of class to work one-on-one and coached other teachers.
“I loved it there,” she said. The principal “treated me no differently than any other teacher.”
But Williams said the principal didn’t want to take on her salary, so she was never permanently hired. She still applies for jobs regularly, she said.
“I do think it’s hopeless,” she said. “I don’t think I’ll be hired because of my salary.”
Principals have balked at the cost of teachers in the ATR pool, who tend to be more senior and therefore earn more. Department figures show that teachers in the pool earn an average salary of $94,000 and have 18 years of experience with the city.
The education department recently announced it would help subsidize the salaries of teachers hired from the ATR, but only for the first two years.
‘It’s not fair to the kids and it’s not fair to the teacher.’
Leonard Robertson is a music teacher with a dozen years of experience in New York City classrooms, and multiple masters degrees in his field. None of those qualifications came in handy when he was placed in a Italian classroom last school year.
Robertson doesn’t speak Italian. So facing a month-long assignment to teach high school students the language, Robertson turned to opera.
“How do you break it down to show children they can do this?” he asked himself. “Language has the same thing music has: Meter, it goes over time. You can do things with words.”
Robertson entered the ATR in 2013, after the music program at the Brooklyn Academy for Science and the Environment high school was cut. Since then, he has bounced from school to school, often substituting for teachers in subjects he has no experience teaching.
“It’s not fair to the kids and it’s not fair to the teacher,” he said.
Figures released by the education department show that only 74 percent of ATR teachers were rated effective, highly effective or satisfactory in 2015-16, compared to 93 percent of all city teachers. But Robertson said the evaluation system is stacked against teachers in the ATR, who are often teaching subjects outside of their expertise and given short-term assignments.
Professional development is almost nonexistent for ATR members, Robertson added. In fact, he said, teachers in the ATR are often subbing so that other teachers can go attend training sessions.
“I can’t compete if I don’t know what’s going on,” he said.
Randy Asher, the former Brooklyn Technical High School principal now tasked with helping the education department shrink the ATR, said teachers in the pool have access to trainings, often referred to as professional development or PD. But he conceded that it’s often not sustained or targeted to the teacher’s needs, since they are bounced from school to school.
“I don’t think it’s hard to get PD,” Asher said. “I think it’s hard to get constant PD on a regular basis.”
Robertson said he has received multiple “unsatisfactory” evaluations and been the subject of disciplinary complaints. But he largely attributes those to the difficulties of being in the ATR and feels he’s been unfairly targeted.
Under a new city policy, members of the ATR will be placed in year-long positions in schools that still have openings as of Oct. 15. The change will allow ATR members to engage in professional development and be evaluated by their principals, just like any other teacher in the building, Asher said.
‘They talk about you like you’re furniture.’
Kathy Perez has been teaching for more than two decades. But when she steps into New York City schools, that experience doesn’t seem to matter.
“When I go to work now, I don’t have a name. My name is ‘ATR,’” she said. “They talk about you like you’re furniture. I’ve heard conversations where I’m sitting there and they say, ‘Well, I’ve got the ATR here.’
“It’s like, ‘I’ve been in your building for a month. You can use my name.’”
Before Perez was first relegated to the ATR in 2009, she was a reading specialist in Queens. With a masters degree and certification in reading, she worked with struggling students, many of whom were still learning English. Her position was eliminated.
Perez found a new position at M.S. 72 Catherine and Count Basie in Jamaica, Queens. But Perez said she was pushed and trampled by students there, requiring surgery for her back and knee. She sued the education department and the city settled the case.
Then, Perez said, she was placed right back in the same school. She refused, and ended up back in the ATR. The stigma of being in the pool weighs on many teachers, she said, and makes it difficult to find another position.
“You’re not treated with any sense of dignity or professionalism,” Perez said. “You hear everywhere that you need to get fired and you need to just find a job. I’ll tell you something: I have a job. I go to work every day.”
Perez wants to find another position under her reading license. Otherwise, she would lose her tenure and seniority.
“I teach kids how to read, and I’m darn good at it and Iove it,” she said. “That’s where I want to be.”