March 27, 2008

The Rubberroom...You need to know....

Imagine being stuck in an elevator, elbow to elbow for seven hours and wondering if anyone even knows you're there. Waiting and wondering if anyone will ever come and save you. That's what being in the rubberroom is likeIt sounds like a story concocted by a mental patient, but it's not. Rubber Rooms (RR) are one of the city's "Best Kept Secrets" and the taxpayers are the ones who are footing the bill.

It costs the city's taxpayers about 80 million dollars a year to keep these sites running. Teachers are collecting their full salaries while substitute teachers are being paid to fill in for them. At the present time, there are roughly 13 active Rubber Rooms in the city filled with about 800 of our city's teachers. This number has almost doubled in the past year since the 'Kleinberg' Leadership Academy Principals have been running the schools. Cutting out high paid teachers is one reason for the increase in RR occupancy. Most of the teachers occupying the RRs are over 40 and collecting a top of the scale salary. Others are near retirement. This is the principal's way of driving them out, hoping they will retire sooner. Then the principal can hire a young, inexperienced teacher at a much lower cost to their budget.

Why the secrecy? Teachers in the RRs are scared. They have been told not to talk to anyone by their own UFT Chapter Leaders. They have been advised not to say anything negative about the Union that does not protect them for fear that they will make matters worse for themselves. They have been told to watch out for spies who will question them and twist their words. Most of the teachers have been in the system for so long that they don't know where to turn. They have been cut off from their colleagues. They have been driven out of their schools after 20 -30 years and told that they cannot return without an appointment. Some don't know why they have been sent. They are ashamed. There is a huge negative stigma attached to the RR that labels one as 'Damaged Goods'. They are afraid of losing everything they have ever worked for. They have families to support and bills to pay. Some don't even tell their spouses and family. They just get up every morning and leave for 'work' as they always did. They have dedicated their lives to teaching children, taking graduate classes, building a reputation and a career. Watching it all fall apart can be devastating.

When allegations of abuse/corporal punishment/insubordination etc. are made against a teacher, the teacher is ordered by their school principal to report to a 'Reassignment Center' aka a 'Rubber Room' until a formal investigation is made in their case. The allegation can be anything from scolding a child to throwing a chair across the room. The allegation might be reported by a student, a parent or anyone who has it out for a teacher. Some teachers are pulled out on false or trumped up charges because of ongoing conflict with an angry principal. They may have expressed their opinion to the principal's dislike or pointed out some wrong doing in the school (whistle blowing).

The indecent conditions of the RRs are the DOE's way of exploiting tenured teachers whom they can't get rid of. The rooms are overcrowded and claustrophobic. Some are in the basements of buildings with windows that are unreachable- making for a 'cell-like' feeling. The walls are bare except for a bulletin board. Natural light and fresh air is at a premium. This makes for cranky and uncomfortable teachers. Teachers are under constant surveillance. All of their comings and goings are monitored. They must punch in and out. They must ask for permission to do everyday actviities like, 'go to the bathroom' or talk on the phone in privacy. They must stay in the RR most of the day without the freedoms of coming and going. These are not acceptable conditions for a person who is by law, "Innocent until proven guilty".Regardless of the severity or validity of the charge, the teacher is often the last to know. They are not given any details of the charge or told who reported them- only that they are to leave the school building at once (afterall they are now considered a potential danger to children) and told not to return without an appointment.

In the RR, as in prison, subcultures are inevitably formed. Territory is clearly defined and enforced by its' occupants. Confrontations among teachers are common. Petty arguments break out over table space, refrigerator space, missing food, wall outlets, room temperature, chairs and noise level. When people are reduced to a state of 'nothingness', they fight about 'nothing' but what is left to them.

How do I know so much about the Rubber Rooms? I know firsthand because I am a Rubber Room occupant myself. "I reported to work on a Wednesday morning, was pulled out by my principal upon arrival and handed a letter stating that allegations of corporal punishment were made against me. I was in shock. By 10am, I was sitting in a cement room filled with teachers who were doing absolutely nothing. It looked like a holding cell for criminals". Here is a colleague's story...
"I was already reading with my class when the principal entered my room and handed me a letter of allegations. I was told to read it immediately. There I stood, with chalk in one hand and the letter in the other. I didn't know what to do. I just stood there and cried in front of all of my students. "Teachers report to the Reassignment Center (either in an existing school or a rented office building)under the impression that they will be given an 'alternative assignment' while their case is being investigated. Wanting to look their best, some show up in suits and ties for their new, 'temporary job'. When they arrive, they are completely bewildered by the scene that awaits them. Talk about pulling the wool over one's eyes. The teacher enters into an environment that resembles no other that they have ever seen."It was so noisy and crowded that I was afraid to walk in." 'Oh, we have new one!', someone yelled out. "Who's that?", another mumbled. The room quieted down and everyone turned to look at me. I found an empty chair and proceeded to sit down when someone said,'You can't sit there, that's _______'s chair. They're not here today. And then, "You can't sit there, that's ________'s chair. You have to find another chair.' Suddenly, I got this feeling like I was in a lunchroom with a bunch of 12 year olds. They were extremely territorial, they even placed their coats on the chairs next to them so that I couldn't sit down.

While still collecting their full salary and benefits, these teachers report to the RR everyday while awaiting formal charges from the DOE. Some wait for 6 months with no word from the Union. Others had ongoing cases for more than a year. A few were in the room for their 2nd or 3rd time! Once you are removed from your school, there is no way of telling when and if you will return. Many teachers describe being in the RR as a "paid vacation". As much as they would like to be working, it is often a relief to be away from the power crazed administration and the stress of the children who without support from the administration, have become unmanageable.

Although it is against the RR's list of rules, teachers kept themselves busy by playing chess, drawing, knitting, listening to Ipods and working or viewing DVD's on their laptops. Some were writing books, memoirs and poetry. Some read alone in a corner, placed 2 or more chairs together and slept, while others sat in a group sharing their war stories. They laughed and they cried while talking on their cell phones. There were cell phone chargers plugged into every outlet around the room. They brought their own chairs, pillows, blankets and even air mattresses. The room was overcrowded, noisy ,filled with tables and chairs, but nothing else.

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