It is really hard to imagine just how difficult and costly it is to remove a really bad teacher from the classroom. When I describe the process to many fellow educators, they just don’t believe me. Since it doesn’t happen to most teachers, they really know nothing about it. When I describe it to those not accustomed to the utter insanity of state education laws and teacher union contracts, they think I must be from another planet.
Last year, I was involved in just such a case and, in light of our current budget crisis and talks of teacher layoffs, I couldn’t help but to see it all in terms of dollars and sense (pun intended). In this case, I am not talking about an ineffective teacher. This case was not a matter of whether or not students were making enough academic gains. This happened to be a teacher who was downright dangerous to kids. His actions put students in situations that could have resulted in horrible consequences. Thankfully, the principal was brave enough to do the right thing and took the necessary steps to have the teacher removed. Just suspending her from the classroom took over a semester. There were countless conversations with the school district attorney, dozens of documents shared, observations from administrators, and huge amounts of energy expended by everyone at the school to ensure the safety of students. There was even another adult added to the payroll to watch the kids who were in the care of the teacher to ensure they were not harmed.
Finally, the teacher was suspended and the process for a hearing started. That’s right, a hearing. An everyone-is-under-oath event with two attorneys, a hearing officer, and stenographer present. The hearing took over a week. And, even though it was determined that the teacher was not meeting the minimum requirements of her job, including ensuring the safety of her students, she was sent back to the school for retraining and mentoring. It will probably take another semester or two until this teacher has exhausted all of her options for keeping her job. And then there will be another hearing, which will hopefully lead to her removal.
So now I am wondering how much this all costs. How many teachers could we save from potential layoffs if teachers were subject to more rational processes surrounding termination decisions for truly dangerous teachers? Is there any other profession that requires legal proceedings of this nature in order to remove a harmful employee? Again, I am not describing the merely ineffective teacher here. I am talking about the teacher who puts the kids at risk of harm. How much of your tax dollars are you willing to spend on this process?
It’s a wonder they show up at all. I don’t know if I could do it. Yet, somehow, most students enrolled in urban high schools do actually come to school. Today, as I ventured into the Bronx to visit a school, I was reminded once more about what it takes for a teen to make it all the way to class. Every student has a story of a home life that is less than perfect. Many NYC students don’t have enough to eat, live in gang-infested neighborhoods, have parents who don’t have the capacity or energy to provide the care they should, suffer from extreme health issues, and live in substandard conditions. But what I saw this morning had nothing to do with that.
Today I was struck by the absolute harassment that occurred between the subway and the classroom. Not from gangs, or other kids, or thugs - from the police and security forces that are supposed to protect us. When the train doors opened, there were several officers on the platform who immediately questioned any teen wearing a hoodie and a backpack. They didn’t seem to be investigating anything in particular, and when they weren’t questioning kids, they appeared relaxed. Since I am older and had no back pack, I was able to move quickly and effortless to the steps and walk down to the street level. Waiting at the bottom of the steps were several more officers, engaged in the same type of questioning, and searching teens’ backpacks. Nobody noticed me, and I kept walking.
A couple of blocks from the train station a street was closed due to flooding and a police officer was standing by his car. Again, kids were being questioned. Finally, I arrived at the school. As I walked into the lobby, there were about a dozen students trying to get in the doors. No worries for me - I just waltzed right by and was not even required to sign in or show my I.D. (usually a requirement in NYC schools). The kids, on the other hand, had many worries. The security officers prodded them for details on their clothing choices, phones, etc., and scanned them with metal detectors. Some finally made it through the doors, but several others gave up and went home.
I know what some might think - this is all for student safety. Surely these kids were up to something. But I can tell you that is probably not the case. I have witnessed similar scenes too many times and heard too many stories from educators, students, and parents. Some NYC schools actually deploy staff members to the subway stations and school entrances to assist students with the police and security personnel.
So I ask you: if you were harassed by law enforcement and security daily on your way to work, detained multiple times and accused continually of breaking the law, when all you wanted to do was go to work, would you keep going?