Office Supply

October 01, 2001 3 min read
Cubicle envy diminishes as more schools upgrade staff work areas.

For years, two hassles greatly complicated life for the 115 teachers at the Max Schoenberg School, a public elementary school in the Bronx, New York: It took three or four days to get a photocopy made and finding an available phone to call parents was like discovering filet mignon in the cafeteria. To make matters worse, says Eric Whitney, a math teacher there, even when he could find a phone, “conversing became nearly impossible because of the lack of privacy and the clamor” in the school office. Whitney, a chapter leader for the United Federation of Teachers, explains that, in the end, most teachers chose to call parents from home, which was costly, or to stay at work long after the final bell rang.

But such contortions came to an end in June when the teachers received two phones and a photocopier of their own, courtesy of an initiative to outfit New York City’s 1,100 schools with teacher workstations. Whitney says his colleagues are thrilled to have these resources that folks in most professions take for granted.

Starting two years ago, after UFT President Randi Weingarten bemoaned teachers’ lack of basic tools, the New York City Council has been working with the union and the board of education to end workstation deprivation. For the effort, the council so far has allocated some $3.1 million, which it has more than doubled with subsidies for telecommunications services and equipment from the federal “E-rate” program. About 80 percent of the city’s schools now have new telephones in teachers’ common areas, UFT representative Ken Lubetsky says. More than 270 schools have received new photocopiers for teachers, and negotiations are under way for 100 more.

The effort is about more than machines, though. At the Robert W. Wagner Secondary School for the Arts and Technology in Long Island City, New York, the campaign has provided 20 of the campuses’ 25 teachers with their own nine-by- seven-foot computer-ready cubicles and telephones. “They’re a nice place to grade papers, prepare lessons, or meet with parents,” says Bruce Noble, the school’s acting assistant principal. The offices were “carved out of nooks and crannies or constructed on space that would have been a classroom.” He adds, “It’s a big plus for recruiting.”

And the New York City project is merely part of a growing national movement to upgrade—or, in some cases, introduce—teacher work spaces in schools. “At independent schools as well as public ones, it is now becoming more standard to provide all teachers with their own desks and a dock for a laptop,” observes Tim Lovett, an associate at Bowie Gridley Architects in Washington, D.C. Among the private middle and upper schools Lovett works with, for example, all new facilities are being built with workstations, compared with only 50 percent five years ago. And in California, where as many as 50 new public schools are built annually, year-round elementary facilities are now equipped with a private teachers’ area in each section of three or four classrooms, says Jim Bush, assistant director of California schools’ facilities planning division.

For activists, outfitting teachers with office equipment is not just about efficiency: It’s part of a crusade to increase respect for the job. “There’s a tremendous amount of isolation in the teaching profession to begin with,” says Lubetsky. “We hear all this talk about the need for outreach to parents, yet we’re not provided with the basic tools with which to do it. What does that say?”

At Bernalillo High School in Bernalillo, New Mexico, where teachers now have private side-offices with phones, computers, and e-mail, 11th grade English teacher Carmola Lanza appreciates the boost to her sense of respect. “If teachers have a more professional workstation away from their classroom where they can talk to students and parents, it increases morale tremendously,” she says.

But not all educators favor private space, particularly if it clashes with old habits and the goals of easing student crowding and reducing class size. For example, in the spring, Arlington, Virginia’s school board considered guidelines that would free up high school classrooms during planning periods by offering teachers semi-private office and storage space. The plan was abandoned when many teachers expressed reluctance to leave their home classrooms and cart their belongings to separate offices.

—Charles S. Clark