01/17/2012 10:18 am ET

City's Unwanted Teachers Drift Through A Life In Limbo

By Jon Schuppe

MANHATTAN — Hundreds of city teachers show up at schools they've never seen before every Monday morning.

The lucky ones get assigned to classrooms, maybe to teach the subject in which they were trained. Others do paperwork. And some waste hours doing nothing.

On Thursdays, they get a notice from the Department of Education telling them where to report the following week, and the cycle repeats.

This is what the DOE calls the Absent Teacher Reserve, a pool of nomadic educators who are paid their full salaries to work as substitutes. Most have been "excessed" by budget cuts or school closings and have been unable to find new jobs. Others have been liberated from the department’s notorious "rubber room," or have survived "unsatisfactory" ratings, and were deemed fit to keep teaching.

Until recently, the city allowed ATR teachers to remain at a posting for a full school term, during which the school principal could decide whether to hire them. That changed with the weekly reassignments, which went into effect in October as part of a deal with the United Federation of Teachers to avert layoffs.

The department says this is a fairer and more efficient way for the castoffs to find new jobs. The regular reshuffling gives them more opportunities to impress more potential bosses, officials say. They also have access to job fairs, online job announcements and recruitment consultations.

Hundreds of displaced teachers get placed in permanent jobs through this "free market" system, the DOE says.

But critics say the city isn’t doing enough to help teachers adrift.

In an audit of the ATR last year, Comptroller John Liu said the city could have spared millions of dollars by filling open positions with ATR members instead of hiring new teachers.

Many of the teachers who remain stuck in the ATR, especially those with the most experience — and highest salaries — believe the DOE is trying to force them out to make way for younger, less expensive, talent. For proof, they cite a comment by former Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, who proposed eliminating the ATR because it cost the city $100 million.

"That’s money that could be spent on teachers that we desperately want and need," Klein said in a December 2010 memo to principals.

The teachers feel stuck, and see no way out.

"It's very stressful. And very frustrating," said Rodney Nightingale, a licensed reading instructor with 19 years on the job. "It’s frustrating because I consider myself a good teacher, and I enjoy working with kids. This is not what I had in mind when I decided to do this for a living."

Nightingale, 61, was placed in the ATR in 2009, after his position in a mentoring program was eliminated. He spent the following year in the pool as a reading-intervention specialist at a school in the Bronx. The next term, he taught gym. This year, he has worked at a dozen different schools in the northern Bronx, filling in for whatever staffer happens to be absent.

When a principal compliments him on his work, Nightingale replies, "Then hire me." But the principal usually says there isn’t a spot available, and that his $86,000 salary — nearly double the starting salary of a new teacher — is too high.

"I used to like teaching," Nightingale said. "I still like it when I make a connection. But it’s not very satisfying because you know you’re not going to see these kids again."

Many members of the ATR commiserate on blogs in which they share their stories. One of them, NYC ATR, is run by a former member of the pool who recently landed a "provisional" job at a school he likes.

"I wish I knew what the point was, because it certainly doesn’t serve the students… and it doesn’t benefit the teachers," said the blogger, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear that his new principal would cut him loose. "They are given meaningless assignments, so I don’t see who it’s benefitting."

Charles Pollak, a health teacher with 27 years in the system, joined the ATR after reaching a settlement with the DOE that freed him from a "rubber room," one of the reassignment centers for teachers under investigation for incompetence or misconduct — a system since abandoned.

Pollak, 66, earns more than $100,000 bouncing around the city, often doing nothing related to his expertise. At one recent stop in Harlem, he spent half his day in a day-care center, where students struggling to graduate dropped off their young children. The other half of the day he had nothing to do.

"With this economy, you pay me top salary to let me watch babies sleep?" he said. "Hello?"

The principal stopped by, and said he was just as frustrated by the system, which he described as "a computer pushing people around to drive them crazy."

Pollak said he had finally decided to ride out the next few months and retire.

Nightingale said his wife wants him to leave immediately, but he has decided to hang on a little while longer, when he becomes eligible for a full pension.

"I didn’t plan on retiring," Nightingale said. "I’d rather not give them the satisfaction, but they’re forcing my hand."

Last Thursday, he returned home from his posting at P.S. 87 in Wakefield and checked his email, where he found a note from the DOE's human resources department. It ordered him to report the following week to P.S. 89 in Williamsbridge.

Thirteen schools this year, and counting.