Class Dismissed

Lousy teachers or just political victims: there's got to be a better way to settle teacher disputes than New York's rubber rooms

Imagine that your boss wants you to sign a document accusing you of something you don't believe you did—a fireable offense like assaulting someone at work, for example—and your response is not only to refuse to sign, but to let loose a damning accusation that your boss was making up the allegation.

And, for good measure, you call your boss "fat."

Now, in just about any industry you can think of, this would not bode well for your continued employment. But in this case, we're not talking about just any kind of workplace, but perhaps the most dysfunctional employee-employer interface in the history of paychecks.

photo illustration by Chad Griffith

In other words, the New York City public school system.

When, three years ago, Georgia Argyris, a teacher, was presented with a letter accusing her of yanking the arm of a kindergartner at P.S. 50 in East Harlem, she let loose with a stream of accusations at her principal, Rebekah Mitchell, and added some unkind words about Mitchell's weight.

At another kind of job, Argyris might have called on a union representative to help her fend off what she considered baseless claims (she was denied one). Or she might have been immediately terminated after calling attention to her boss's waistline (she wasn't). Or at the least, the allegations against her, and her counterclaims, might have been reviewed in a timely manner by an impartial third party, someone who wasn't the recipient of Argyris's unwise outburst.

But no, this is the public school system, and there's only one way New York knows how to deal with teachers accused of bad behavior: send them off to a Kafkaesque holding pen, where taxpayers continue to pay their salaries for months as they wait for the glacial pace of what passes for justice, meted out by a sluggish school district and intransigent union.

Argyris, not formally charged with any wrongdoing, would spend the next year and a half in this limbo, paid by taxpayers to sit in a childless classroom with other teachers awaiting their own hearings.

It's not hard to see why teachers call this place the "rubber room," where they spend months—and even years, some simply waiting to see what they've been charged with.

The Department of Education, naturally, says that teachers end up for long periods in rubber rooms because their union—the United Federation of Teachers—has made it so difficult to fire lousy teachers.

The UFT, on the other hand, says that it's the DOE that abuses rubber rooms, sending teachers there that principals consider troublemakers. In other words, the union tends to see the rubber room system as the Guantánamo Bay of the school world, where political prisoners are sent by dictatorial principals. (Not surprisingly, the teachers doing time in rubber rooms we spoke to tended to agree with this view.)

Meanwhile, as teachers spend month after month reporting to mind-numbingly boring rooms waiting to be found incompetent (in some cases), or fit to return to teaching (in others), you pay. And pay.

The UFT and the DOE each claim no knowledge of the origin of rubber rooms. One longtime employee says they have existed since at least the late 1960s, but in a different form.

Teachers at that time who were accused of wrongdoing were reassigned to their district office where they were put to work—filing, typing up reports, and organizing data.

Today, teachers simply rot.

When Argyris reported to 333 Seventh Avenue in Manhattan , one of 13 rubber rooms the district euphemistically refers to as Reassignment Centers, she soon realized that her "job" now consisted of joining about 70 other reassigned teachers in daylong sessions of staring at a wall.

"I felt like a vegetable in a chair," she says.

Rubber room hours match that of a typical school day—Argyris would sign in at 8:30 a.m. and be released at 3:20 in the afternoon, with a 50-minute lunch break. Like something out of a dystopian fairy tale, however, this school had no children, just a few cafeteria workers, social workers, and custodians who shared the same lot.

In 2000, there were 385 teachers assigned to rubber rooms. Last month, that number had climbed to 662. Argyris, while she sat and stared at a wall, was paid $62,646 a year. The DOE pays about $33 million a year just in salaries to the teachers in rubber rooms—an amount that doesn't include the salaries of investigators working on the cases of rubber room teachers, the upkeep of the reassignment centers, or the substitute teachers who replace employees like Argyris.

Because teachers in rubber rooms are awaiting their cases to be heard, they aren't technically being punished. But they are restricted from numerous activities—they can't use MP3 players, telephones, or laptop computers. (Most flout those rules, however, and use various devices openly.)

Teachers say they soon learn that their peers are territorial and often cranky. One young teacher serving his fifth month tells the Voice the first thing he was told by a supervisor was not to sit in seats claimed by others. Fights have broken out over less, he was told.

"It's high school on steroids," he says. "Or maybe a mixture between a minimum security prison and a senior home."

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