Teaching Profession

New York City Will End Controversial Absent Teacher Pool

By Michael Elsen-Rooney, New York Daily News — June 09, 2021 4 min read
Image of a teacher in a classroom full of kids.

The city’s controversial Absent Teacher Reserve pool — a holding ground for hundreds of city educators without permanent teaching assignments — is winding down for good.

City Education Department officials announced Tuesday that they will place the roughly 800 teachers in the pool in permanent teaching positions starting next year — with the department’s central offices picking up the tab.

The size of the pool — which mostly contains teachers who lost jobs when schools were closed or budgets slashed, but also includes some let go for poor performance or disciplinary issues — has shrunk significantly under Mayor de Blasio.

It was winnowed down even further last fall when city officials sent hundreds of ATR teachers to schools to help address a massive staffing crisis brought on by the labor-intensive “hybrid” schooling during the pandemic.

Now, all reserve pool teachers temporarily assigned to schools will stay in those roles for good, and any future excess Education Department teachers will be assigned to open positions in other schools, rather than placed in the holding pool.

“We have made commonsense reforms to the Absent Teacher Reserve since it was created by the prior administration, and now we are fully reimagining the process,” said Education Department spokeswoman Katie O’Hanlon.

The ATR pool has been a lightning rod since it was created in an agreement between former mayor Michael Bloomberg and the city teachers union in 2005.

Mayor de Blasio had already slashed the size of the pool from roughly 1,100 in 2014 to 553 by the end of last school year, according to the Education Department.

The “vast majority” of teachers in the reserve pool end up there for reasons outside their control, Education Department officials say, adding that teachers with pending disciplinary cases will stay out of classrooms.

The agency reported in 2017 that 68 percent of reserve teachers landed in the pool because of school closures or budget cuts, while three-quarters were rated “satisfactory” or higher, according to Chalkbeat. The Education Department didn’t provide more recent figures.

“There are stereotypes” about reserve teachers, said Priscilla Figueroa, the principal of Public School 676 in Red Hook, Brooklyn, “and sometimes you have to get past that.”

For Figueroa — who took on reserve pool teacher Shawn Mason in 2018 to fill a sudden pre-K teaching vacancy — the announcement reserve teachers will stay on permanently came as a relief.

“He [Mason] came right in and fit,” she said. “He was singing and dancing with them, using instruments.”

“It feels like this is an opportunity to keep Mr. Mason and not worry about using any additional funding,” she added.

But not all schools had such a rosy experience with their assigned reserve pool staffers.

One Manhattan principal, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the reserve teacher who arrived at her school last fall to help with staffing shortages struggled to navigate Zoom and remote learning.

“We tried to teach her and after investing countless hours, gave up,” the principal said.

Another principal who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that, while the stigma that often surrounds reserve pool staffers is harmful and misleading, the staffers do often require additional training and supervision — a challenge for already time-strapped administrators.

Critics of the decision say it will restrict principals’ hiring autonomy, and force underperforming teachers back into schools.

“It’s a terrible decision against the interest of children and families,” said Dan Weisberg, the CEO of the education reform group The New Teacher Project, and a former Education Department official who helped negotiate the original terms of the reserve pool under Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

“If they have a teacher who hasn’t taught in a classroom, who hasn’t taught in five years, are they going to disclose the fact that that teacher received an unsatisfactory rating and hasn’t taught in five years?” he continued.

Education Department officials say principals can apply to remove an assigned reserve teacher if there are serious problems including poor performance reviews or disciplinary complaints.

Principals union chief Mark Cannizzaro praised that provision of the new policy, and the assurance that the Education Department central will pick up the tab for current reserve teachers. But he warned that the decision to end the pool permanently could complicate future school hiring decisions.

“The thing that I find concerning is going forward, after this year, when teachers are placed in excess, they will then be placed in vacancies ... and schools will have to fund the position,” he said. “Effectively, what’s happening is they are taking hiring decisions in certain circumstances out of the hands of principals and mandating forced placements.”

But city teachers and union officials have long pointed to flaws in the reserve pool process — with some educators finding it difficult to overcome the stigma of the temporary placement and find new jobs.

“The [reserve] pool was always a waste of teacher talent and taxpayer money,” said Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers.

Mason, the reserve teacher assigned to PS 676 in Red Hook, said his time in the pool was rife with instability and uncertainty.

“I had gone through about six months of traveling around to different schools,” said Mason. “That just began to be a real crazy experience of not knowing where you’re going to work on a daily basis.”

Mason said he breathed a huge sigh of relief when he learned he could stay at his new school permanently.

“It came to be a ‘woosah’ moment,” he said.

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Copyright (c) 2021, New York Daily News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.

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