view from inside

‘They talk about you like you’re furniture.’ Three teachers on what it’s like to be in the Absent Teacher Reserve.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / William J Sisti

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.

Deborah Willliams

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.

Leonard Robertson

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.”

Compare and Contrast

Denver pays substitute teachers about $100 a day (when there’s no strike). Here’s how that stacks up.

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Substitute teacher Steven Mares, right, works with a student at Denver Green School in 2016. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Among the many reactions we’ve seen to Denver’s likely teacher strike, one standout has been surprise at how much the district pays substitute teachers.

During a strike, Denver Public Schools plans to pay substitutes twice the regular rate, or $212 a day. Some of our readers expressed surprise that people who step in to cover the classes of teachers who are absent would normally be paid just $106 a day.

That’s actually the low end of the substitute teacher pay scale in Denver. Retired teachers earn $123 a day, and any substitute who has worked 60 full days earns the title “super guest teacher” and is paid significantly more in subsequent days.

Still, since Denver teachers are preparing to strike over low pay, we thought it would be interesting to answer the question of whether Denver’s substitute teacher rate is unusually low. A sampling of other big-city rates shows that many districts do pay substitutes more, though usually not by all that much.

In some large districts, the regular rate can be close to Denver’s special strike rate. New York City guarantees substitutes $185.15 a day, while Los Angeles substitutes earn $191 a day — and that rate rises to $258 if the teacher stays in the same placement for more than 20 straight days. Boston substitutes earn $141 a day — a figure that doubles if they stay in one position for an extended period of time.

Other districts offer pay that’s more in line with Denver’s regular rate. Washington, D.C., pays substitute teachers $120 a day, noting on its website, “We are excited to offer some of the most competitive pay in the region.” Indianapolis began paying substitutes between $90 and $115 two years ago amid a broader overhaul to how schools are supplied with subs.

And some districts pay far less; the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union, says the low end of the range is $75 a day. One person who saw the news from Denver on Twitter wrote, “SOMEONE GETS PAID THAT MUCH TO SUB?????? My 75$ a day is aching.” She said she worked as a substitute teacher in rural Ohio.

Rates are often set in contracts between districts and their teachers unions. Many districts pay retired teachers more than others, and also have different rates for people who fill new roles daily and people who step into one role for an extended period of time. Substitutes must meet standards set by their states and districts and do not typically receive benefits.

In Colorado, unlike in some states, substitutes do not need to be licensed teachers or pursuing licensure. A college degree is not even required, although many districts do not usually hire substitutes who have not graduated from college.

People who work as substitute teachers are unlikely to relocate for higher pay, so the pay comparison that might best illuminate Denver’s chances of recruiting large numbers of substitute teachers during a strike is with nearby districts.

There, Denver’s regular rate appears to be on par with the market. The nearby Jefferson County and Douglas County districts each pay $100 a day, while Cherry Creek, an affluent district adjoining Denver, pays $90.

But far more than pay will influence how many teachers Denver is able to bring on to replace the thousands of educators who are expected to strike.

Denver already has low unemployment, so there aren’t many qualified people looking for daily work — at least not under normal circumstances, when the district has a hard time finding enough substitute teachers. The district is hoping that the tens of thousands of furloughed federal workers in Colorado who have gone without pay for weeks will step up to fill classrooms in the event of a strike, if the federal government is still shut down at that time.

People considering the short-term work would also have to be willing to cross the picket line. Already, some people who say they are Denver educators have condemned potential substitutes as scabs, willing to side with the district over its employees in the dispute over teacher pay.

That dynamic could potentially entice at least a few Coloradans into Denver’s classrooms. “If Denver public schools is looking for substitute teachers who are just educated generally and not specifically in education theory to help break the strike,” one person tweeted, “I could probably chip in a few hours.”

But the tension appears more likely to keep people who are approved to work in Denver classrooms away.

“As a sometimes substitute in Denver, I stand with the teachers,” one person tweeted. “I will not take jobs in DPS during the strike. The double pay rate is NOT worth the stain on my soul.”

“Money is tight. I’m qualified to be an emergency sub and I’d probably enjoy it,” tweeted another person who identifies herself as a nurse. “But I will put my time in on their line, not behind it.”

Moving

Tennessee’s next education chief starts in February. Here’s how she’s prepping.

Penny Schwinn soon will become Tennessee's education commissioner under Republican Gov. Bill Lee. She is leaving her job as chief deputy commissioner of academics in Texas. (Photo by David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe/ Getty Images)

Penny Schwinn is scheduled on Feb. 4 to take the reins of Tennessee’s education department, where she’ll oversee 600 full-time employees and work on new Gov. Bill Lee’s agenda for public education.

Schwinn is now winding down her obligations in Texas, where as chief deputy commissioner over academics she has been responsible for the work of about 350 employees and half of the programs of the Texas Education Agency.

“As you would want with any public official, I want to make sure we have a really strong transition so that my team is taken care of and the work moves forward in Texas without massive disruption,” she said.

She plans to pack and move to Tennessee next week and expects her family to join her in the spring.

“My husband and I have a 6-year-old and 3-year-old at home, so we’re helping them through this transition and making sure they feel supported in our move,” she said of their two daughters, who eventually will attend public schools in Nashville.

Schwinn, 36, was the final cabinet appointment announced by Lee before the Republican governor took office over the weekend. She is a career educator who started in a Baltimore classroom with Teach For America, founded a charter school in her hometown of Sacramento, California, and has worked as a top state administrator in Delaware and Texas.

In an interview Wednesday with Chalkbeat, she described how she’s straddling two states and getting up to speed for her new job.

TNReady will be Job One, said Schwinn, who is poring over a recent audit of Tennessee’s problem-plagued testing program.

She plans to dig into details to prepare for testing that begins on April 15 under current vendor Questar. Simultaneously, she’ll scrutinize the state’s request for proposals outlining what Tennessee wants from its next testing company when the assessment program moves to a new contract next school year.

The request for proposals is expected to be released in the next few weeks.

“I’m going to be the person who is ultimately responsible for ensuring that the new vendor is incredibly strong for Tennessee students, so I want to see everything we’re requesting, ask questions, and make last-minute changes if that’s necessary,” she said.

Tennessee has struggled to deliver its own assessment cleanly since transitioning in 2016 to TNReady, which is aligned to new academic standards and was designed for most students to take online. Three straight years of problems either with online administration or scoring have dogged the state and seriously undermined its accountability work, putting everyone on edge with testing.

In hiring Schwinn, Lee touted her assessment work in two states, including cleaning up behind disruptions that marred testing in Texas soon after she arrived in 2016.

In Tennessee, Schwinn promises tight vendor management, whether it’s with Questar this school year or multiple companies that take over this fall.

“It’s incredibly important that we have accurate data about how our children are performing in Tennessee,” she said of TNReady. “This is my background both in Delaware and Texas in terms of assessment. It’s a good space for me to dig into the work and become an integral part of the team.”

In Texas, Schwinn came under fire for a $4.4 million no-bid award for a contract to collect special education data. A state audit released last September found that she failed to disclose having received professional development training from the person who eventually won a subcontract, which later was canceled at a cost of more than $2 million to the state, according to The Texas Tribune.

While Schwinn said she didn’t try to influence the contract, she told Chalkbeat that she and her department “learned a lot” through that experience, prompting an overhaul of the state’s procurement process.

“It’s important to have transparency when you’re a public official,” she said. “I believe strongly about that.”

As Tennessee’s education commissioner, it’s unlikely that she’ll serve on the evaluation committee that will choose its next testing company, but she plans to be “heavily involved” in the process as she works with programmatic, assessment, and technology experts.

“From a 30,000-foot view, commissioners typically aren’t on those selection panels. They’re able to ask questions and provide direction for the team,” she said.

Schwinn was in Nashville last week when Lee announced her hiring.

Until she is sworn in, interim Commissioner Lyle Ailshie is in charge, and he attended the governor’s first cabinet meeting on Tuesday.