The name of this place elicits loud laughter, if not confusion, amongst those not in the know. The rubber rooms are places where the NYC Department of Education (NYCDOE) sends teachers who have been accused of misconduct in the classroom. The rubber room is where these teachers go to while away their days waiting for the verdict in their investigation. The complaints of many taxpayers aided by the fury of the local press (NY Daily News and NY Post) had stimulated conversations between the NYC teachers union, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) and the NYCDOE. In what is considered to be a historic move and concession by the UFT, an agreement has been made to eliminate the use of the Rubber Room .
Why is the closing of the rubber rooms important? In the Bloomberg and Klein era of NYC public school education, the battles to maintain control over the schools have been and continue to be fought between the media, the UFT, and NYCDOE. On the one hand, there is a mayor and school chancellor who want to prove that control of the city school systems should rest with City Hall. On the other hand, there is a very powerful union that would like to remain powerful by flexing their political muscles. Over the course of his reign, Bloomberg through Klein, have wrestled hard with the UFT to remove incompetent teachers and to reform the way that teachers are evaluated and the way that schools are rated. The elimination of the rubber rooms allow Bloomberg and Klein to make progress toward removing teachers whom they deem incompetent.
As Chancellor of the NYCDOE, one of Klein’s major focus was to change the way that teachers are evaluated, specifically as it pertains to tenure and seniority. There have been many discussions and contract negotiations which center around this point. One of the reasons why tenure and seniority are important to reform is the existence of the rubber rooms. The rubber rooms may seem to be removed from the evaluation process of teachers. However, upon closer examination, I have found that that is not the case. The rubber rooms exist because teachers who have seniority and tenure in the school system cannot easily be fired as new, untenured teachers. While their cases are pending investigations, the teachers are forced to sit in these rooms and wait, but still be paid. In a time when the school system is losing money, Klein and Bloomberg want to eliminate the extra expense of paying teachers who are not teaching. This is a sound opinion, and as a taxpayer, I wholeheartedly agree. However, as a professional and as a teacher, I am not as quick to concur.
Teachers work with a very delicate population: children. Teachers are held to more restrictive behavior and accountability because of the population with whom they work. When accusations are made against a teacher, the teacher is guilty until proven innocent. As a society, we do not want to make a mistake that would put any child at risk, so we make decisions that err on the side of the child. And so the rubber rooms were created to house those teachers who may or may not be guilty of any crime.
I do believe that the agreement between the UFT and NYCDOE is a compromise that works for both parties. Under this reform, teachers who have been removed from the schools are no longer able to sit in boredom in the rubber rooms, but will be utilized in the duties of office work. At the same time, this pushes the NYCDOE to expedite their investigations. This does mean that the city will spend more money in attorney fees, but in the long run, the city will save millions of dollars in rubber room pay. The NYCDOE still laments that it takes too long to fire incompetent teachers. It can take a couple of years of investigations and observations to permanently remove a teacher. However, to strip someone of his or her license to continue in this career, I would hope that time and due process is followed so as to avoid unwarranted decertifications.
I wait to see how quickly the NYCDOE can investigate future charges so that the new complaints will not be that there are too many teachers out of the classroom performing menial, office work.