By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Emily Pellman was on the verge of fulfilling her dream of becoming a public school science teacher when the door to getting her own classroom was closed in her face.
Last May, the 24-year-old Pellman was weeks away from graduating from New York University's Steinhardt School of Education, to which the city was paying her tuition in exchange for her promise that she would teach in a city school after graduation. East Side Community High School, where she student-taught, didn't have any vacancies, but she soon landed an interview at Bronx Latin School, a well-regarded middle and high school that opened in 2004. Bronx Latin was looking for a science teacher, and so she prepared a demonstration lesson about neuroscience for her interview, which was scheduled for May 6.
That morning, Schools Chancellor Joel Klein summoned principals to an online conference to tell them that, in an unprecedented response to the city's shrinking budget and escalating costs, the Department of Education was freezing new hiring. The previous year, the city had added nearly 6,000 new teachers, but this year, principals would be restricted to hiring teachers who were already in the system.
"My first thought," says Pellman, "was panic."
The restrictions were more than a response to hard times ahead. They represented a retreat by Klein on a key principle of his school reforms: giving principals more control over who teaches in their classrooms.
Until 2005, senior teachers had the right to "bump" less experienced teachers from their positions, a practice that resulted in a concentration of experienced teachers at high-performing schools in desirable neighborhoods. That year, Mayor Bloomberg negotiated an end to the practice with the United Federation of Teachers, and declared, "We are for the first time giving principals ultimate authority over teacher hiring in their schools. Under this contract, principals will no longer have teachers imposed on them who they do not want."
One consequence of the 2005 contract agreement was the creation of the Absent Teacher Reserve, a holding pen for teachers who had lost their jobs and weren't immediately hired by other schools. Most of the 1,340 teachers currently in the reserve lost their positions when their schools closed, or because budget-shaving principals cut the program in which they taught. Each teacher in the pool is assigned to a school, where some work as substitutes and others do administrative work while they look for new jobs.
The new restrictions don't force principals to hire any particular teacher, but they do constrain their options. Aside from those in charge of charter schools or newly established schools, principals this year were barred from hiring newly minted teachers, or even experienced teachers from other districts. And principals are facing severe consequences if they balk at hiring teachers from the ATR pool: Last month, Klein told them that they would lose any funds budgeted for vacant positions if they didn't fill those positions by the end of October.
For new teachers graduating from the city's highly touted teacher-training programs, meanwhile, the new restrictions were an unforeseen catastrophe. "There was definitely an implicit promise" that students in such programs would get jobs in the city schools, says Jason Blonstein, Pellman's adviser at NYU. In recent years, both the national Teach for America program and the city's own Teaching Fellows program have drawn praise for fast-tracking recent college graduates and career changers into the classroom. These programs try to combat what is known as the "qualification gap" between the teachers at schools in poor neighborhoods and those in wealthier areas by placing very young but highly educated teachers into struggling schools. But this year, graduates of these programs were considered new teachers and were subject to the freeze. Among those locked out of jobs were both brand-new teachers and those with years of experience teaching in other school systems.
Inspired by news accounts of Klein's ambitious school reforms, Christopher Timberlake and Katie Walraven, a young couple living and teaching in southern Virginia, decided to relocate to the city. Both had job offers from New York City schools that were retracted when the freeze went into effect. When the city slightly loosened the restrictions over the summer to allow schools to hire new science teachers, Walraven ultimately got a job offer from the All-City Leadership Secondary School in Bushwick. But by then, it was too late—the pair had moved to the D.C. suburbs, where Timberlake had found a job teaching fourth grade.
Even after the freeze went into effect, Eric Nally, 33, then an education student at Fordham University, thought he would be able to find a job. "A recruiter came and told us very encouragingly that [we should] fill out applications online," he says, to build relationships with principals for when the freeze was lifted. "The office of recruiting continued to espouse the idea that we should continue to pursue schools, visit with principals, all of these things." Nally took the advice to heart and sent out 200 résumés. After getting no responses, he started a blog called "Have Chalk, Will Travel" to pitch himself to school districts. A week into the school year, he, too, landed a job in a suburban D.C. school district and left the city.