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New York City Ronin Teacher

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About six weeks ago I received a letter informing me that I was now a member of the Absent Teacher Reserve pool of the New York City Department of Education. That meant that because my school was being phased out and wouldn't be accepting new students my services were no longer wanted. Approximately half of the remaining faculty at Jamaica High School received the same notice.

We've now joined the pool of approximately 2,000 "ronin" teachers who were instructed to find jobs by entering an "open market" that lists available teaching positions on the internet, and attend "job fairs."

The term "ronin" (literally, "floating men") originally described samurai in medieval Japan who for one reason or another no longer had a lord to serve, and, hence, lost their employment. It's estimated that around 1600, the number swelled to over 400,000. (Japan: An Illustrated Encyclopedia. Kodansha, p. 1275 vol. 2, ISBN 4-06-931098-3)

For those unfamiliar with Japanese history, the ronin genre of movies became famous worldwide in the 1950s and 60s. Arguably the most famous of which were The Seven Samurai and Yojimbo, directed by Akira Kurosawa.

I dutifully followed the instructions on the Department Of Education website and applied for jobs in my field. So did my colleagues. We didn't receive a single call for an interview.

I received an email informing me that a "job fair" was taking place at the Brooklyn Museum last week. Four Jamaica High School ronin piled into my car with our bar-coded invitations and traveled to the museum.

Faceless bureaucrats with name tags and Blackberries greeted us at the door. We were told to take the elevator up to a magnificent rotunda with desks arranged in a circle. School representatives were seated at the tables with signs indicating their school and positions available.

Our group consisted of two English and two Social Studies teachers. Although many positions were listed on the Internet during the "open market," there wasn't a single job interview in our field at the museum.

We ran into other ronin who had been dropped from our school the year before. They told us that all of the job fairs that they had attended had been a waste of time.

If you don't live in New York, you can read tales of Ronin-Teachers at a website devoted to chronicling their travails.

Aside from acting as a samizdat for people in our predicament, it reveals the dirty little secret that New York City really has no public left in the political sense anymore. That's because in another era an earsplitting roar would have erupted over the deliberate misuse and abuse of qualified public servants.

I felt like I was an extra in Chushingura, a Japanese play about the forty-seven samurai who took revenge after the forced suicide of their lord Asano Nagamori. Asano had drawn his sword in the Shogun's castle after being humiliated by the chief of protocol. Forty-seven of his samurai who had become ronin after Asano's death, waited two years to exact vengeance. (Japan: An Illustrated Encyclopedia. Kodansha, p. 404 vol. 1, ISBN 4-06-931098-3)

They found employment by taking on all sorts of demeaning occupations until they were sure that the secret police were no longer watching them, they carried out their vendetta.

When I was doing my graduate work in Japan, I observed that the story would be performed annually.

Every Japanese person knows the story. It's been presented in Bunraku puppet theatre, Kabuki plays, movies, and television series, in countless revivals for the past three hundred years. Nevertheless, everyone remains riveted by the story and enjoys the play for the staging and the performance.

In the end the ronin get their revenge and assassinate the chief of protocol, but the Shogun, not knowing what to do with these loyal samurai, at last offers them the only honorable Japanese solution. They are allowed to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) en masse.

Increasingly, the twenty-first century business model for running the country's largest public school system resembles something out of a Japanese medieval play. Feudal arrangements have displaced rational bureaucratic function.

Rather than the high-tech model that was supposed to usher in the new age of education innovation, we have an authoritarian regime bent on holding the teaching profession responsible for ten years of meaningless doctored test results. In addition to the human cost of a decade of poorly educated kids, the budget has doubled to $22 billion a year!

A kind of kabuki-charade plays out with a script that talks about "business models," "open markets," and "job fairs," while no honest method of staffing schools with qualified teachers who have become ronin is put in place.

Our union leaders celebrate when Mayor Bloomberg's phony threat to lay off thousands of teachers isn't realized. But when the Department of Education lifted the hiring freeze this summer so that schools can hire cheaper inexperienced teachers at precisely the same time that the ronin -- teacher pool -- is being stocked with older experienced bodies, nobody says a word. That includes the union and New York's vaunted press.

With the start of the new school year the editorialists will once again rail about unemployable teachers who are living on the taxpayer's largesse, while the mayor revives his campaign to terminate us.

At the end of the day the teacher-ronin are expendable. After all, when you go to the movies and buy popcorn, does it matter who puts the popcorn in the box, or if there is a new person behind the counter every three weeks?

The MBA types who now run our schools will tell you that if you can manage a muffler shop you can manage a McDonald's, a bowling alley, or a movie theatre, so why not a school? In this corporate universe teacher experience is as irrelevant as is the size of the classes.

But in our society ritual suicide is not an honorable solution. So I don't expect a mass suicide of ronin-teachers even if the mayor offers it as an option.

All of the teacher-ronin have received email notification to report to various schools the day after Labor Day. We can be utilized in any capacity, and have no idea if we will be teaching in our subject area.

The Department of Education reminds me of the "man on the street" who was asked by a reporter whether he thought it was worse to be ignorant or indifferent? He replied, "I don't know and I don't care."

The pity is Kurosawa is no longer around to make a movie about the New York City ronin-teachers that would give Davis Guggenheim's Waiting for Superman a run for its money.