A few years ago, I first heard about NYC's teacher "rubber rooms," where teachers who are incompetent or under investigation are held with pay because it was cheaper than going through the process of firing them. It was a colleague of mine who first mentioned them to me. At the time, we ruminated on how ridiculously difficult it is to fire bad teachers and how utterly moronic and bureaucratic it is to have rubber rooms. We thought, if you want to fire a teacher, you should just be able to fire a teacher. I'd seen my share of horrific teachers, and believed that granting increased latitude to districts and principals in deciding who to keep and who to let go of at the end of the year could be nothing but a good thing. Anything would be better than the so-called "dance of the lemons" or rubber rooms.
But, as usual, there's another side to this story. Thanks to BAMN and Candi Peterson of The Washington Teacher, last week I attended a protest that began at the Department of Education and ended in a conference room at the American Federation of Teachers building on New Jersey Avenue. There, I heard a teacher who'd been consigned to one of these rubber rooms provide testimony about her experience. She was in the process of going through a lawsuit because she felt she had been discriminated against. She said she'd been in the system for 30+ years, and after a few students accused her of acting inappropriately, she was moved to one of these rubber rooms. She said she was found innocent rather quickly after the students admitted they were lying, but the contract she was working under allowed her principal to stop her from returning from the rubber room to her school. The teacher said she was told she would need to find a new building principal to hire her within a certain amount of time or else she would lose her job. She explained that she was going to court this past Wednesday to fight this injustice she felt was targeting more expensive teachers as well as minority teachers.
Although I've done a poor job of relating her story here, you got the sense as you were listening that she had every reason to be pissed off. I never really understood the working rights fight that many teachers (or people of any profession) deal with on a daily basis until I moved to DC. The school I worked at was a perfect example of that. Whenever we were asked to break our contract and work longer than we were supposed to, management generally appealed to our sense of social justice: "Don't you want these kids to succeed? Don't you want to close the achievement gap? Then you need to be willing to sacrifice your lunch and your planning time every now and then." Also, they fired last year's union leader, and were later found to have wrongfully terminated her. The Washington City Paper recently put out a story about "union busting" (sort of) at Cesar Chavez Public Charter School. You get the sense that such violations are more common in high-profile inner-city districts, where the political costs of low test scores are immense. The idea is to find the formula that will allow you to maximize tests scores and minimize cost (which might lead a shrewd education economist to find a formula to equate dollars with test scores in order to find a place where marginal cost equals marginal revenue).
I feel like I've seen two extremes. When I taught in Washington state and Tennessee, I taught with many talented people, but I also taught with many jaded and unenthusiastic people. I saw virtually no accountability for teachers and nobody getting fired or mistreated. I was left with the impression that unions are generally bad things that promote the ugly status quo in some classrooms. DC has shown me quite the opposite. Here I feel like I've only met highly enthusiastic and talented (albeit inexperienced) teachers, but they are generally treated as disposable. It's not desirable to have them stay in the system for too long because they begin to become expensive. As a result, I've begun to seriously support union action to protect teachers' rights.
I think the rational solution here (as always) must exist somewhere in between the two extremes. Education is fundamentally about doing what's right for students, but we can't deny that those employed by public school systems also have the right to be treated well. So it always bothers me when people say that teachers don't have a right to complain because they should be thinking about the kids, not themselves. Frankly, that's just ridiculous, and if you say something like that, your opinions about teachers, schools, and unions should be automatically be rendered worthless because you've failed to recognize a simple reality: it's not sustainable to expect people to be so selfless that they lose their own humanity in attempting to provide it to others.
So - yes, we do need to make it easier to get rid of teachers who hate their jobs and do them poorly, but we also need to provide positive environments for people to nurture whatever it was that brought them into teaching in the first place. Black and white silver bullet solutions will never provide long-term results. The best answers are always somewhere in between.