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

To keep occupied, teachers read, play games like Scrabble or chess, or work on their screenplays. Art teachers work on paintings. Masters degrees get completed. Last year at the Seventh Avenue rubber room, a group of teachers taught each other to knit. Exercise is a popular activity.

Jeremy Garrett, a former teacher, has spent the last two years producing a film about rubber rooms by sneaking in cameras. He says he's known some teachers who actually didn't mind spending years doing little more than showing up every day for a paycheck. "There are people on the inside who are milking the system," Garrett says. "You'd have to expect that, though."

After a recent day of staring at walls, five teachers currently serving time at a rubber room met at a nearby coffee shop. For the benefit of a reporter, they had prepared freshly printed handouts and an agenda, activities they obviously missed. They gave a bullet-point outline, summarizing the reasons they had been reassigned. Each, not surprisingly, claimed to be in the rubber room on trivial or inflated charges.

photo illustration by Chad Griffith

The DOE, however, says that teachers are only sent to rubber rooms for serious reasons. Some teachers, the DOE says, need to be separated from children because they've been accused of harmful behavior, like sex offenses. Others are awaiting discipline after investigators have confirmed allegations of incompetence or misconduct. And others are in rubber rooms because they've been accused of crimes by outside agencies.

But Argyris, as she sat in the rubber room in 2004, had been given no official reason why she'd been sent there. Previous principals had given her high praise for her work with kindergartners. Lyle Walford, an interim principal who worked with Argyris, says that she was a "great teacher," but also assertive. "She's outspoken," Walford tells the Voice. "She doesn't take any guff from anyone."

A former model, Argyris looked young for her age. She claims that from the first day of Mitchell's arrival, the new principal disliked Argyris for some reason, and the accusations of yanking a child's arm was just part of a strategy to get rid of her. The district counters that Argyris had a record of poor attendance, was often late to class, and that Mitchell found herself having to cover for the kindergarten teacher.

Late into the second month of the 2004 school year, a mother of one of the kindergartners said that her daughter's coat was missing and that her arm had been pulled. The student was on Argyris's roster. Argyris maintains she was absent the day of the incident and that the student in question was in another teacher's class. The district, however, countered in a hearing that the records were clear—on the date of the incident, the student was in Argyris's class. Mitchell interviewed some children and concluded that Argyris had mishandled the child. But Jeff Huart, a UFT investigator, tells the Voice that the investigation wasn't so clear-cut. "All I do know is that a bona fide eyewitness said the kid was not hit," he says. "The mother and two other kids came back and said Argyris did not hit the kid."

Argyris had never been charged with misconduct before. "She was a well-respected kindergarten teacher and all of a sudden she is an evil person that deserves to be booted from the school?" says a veteran teacher with more than a decade experience at the school. "It doesn't make sense."

Mitchell asked Argyris to sign a letter admitting to roughing up the child, Argyris refused to sign, and that's when she made her outburst about the principal's size. The principal then reported the incident to the regional superintendent, and Argyris was reassigned to the Seventh Avenue rubber room. "She lunged toward me when I gave her the letter," Mitchell tells the Voice. "It's a serious allegation and it warranted her being reassigned." But before she left, Argyris secretly made an audiotape of a conversation she had with assistant principal Angela Camiolo, who, in a transcript of the tape, appears to express some sympathy for her.

Argyris went to the rubber room confused and upset. She says she constantly had the urge to cry. Every 10 minutes, she says, she'd get up and go to the bathroom. She composed a letter to Chancellor Joel Klein that was never answered. She called the union frequently and rarely got through.

Two months later, still awaiting formal charges, Argyris was scheduled for a grievance hearing over her allegations that she'd been falsely accused. Perhaps naively, she believed she could play her secretly recorded tape of the assistant principal expressing sympathy for her and then get to return to her kindergarten classroom. "That didn't happen," she says.

When Argyris revealed the presence of the tape, the meeting was immediately adjourned. (Mitchell later gave Camiolo a poor rating, and Camiolo has been demoted to a teaching job at another elementary school.)

After the aborted hearing, Argyris went back to the rubber room, where her mental state deteriorated. A therapist prescribed her antidepressants.

"I became a worthless lump that didn't do anything anymore," she says.

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