Roundtable: Teachers' Take on the City's Education Debate

WNYC recently hosted a roundtable of six teachers at our studio to talk about the last in, first out rule that requires principals to layoff new teachers first. The teachers who took part in our discussion have between two and 18 years experience and range in age from 25 to 43. They teach elementary, middle and high school levels in four of the city’s five boroughs.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg is expected to propose eliminating more than 6100 teaching positions in his preliminary budget Thursday, most of which would come through layoffs. He's also been pushing Albany to eliminate the last in, first out policy. He argues this will help principals keep their best teachers at a time of layoffs instead of simply letting go of their newest teachers.

"I support the current seniority system," said Safia Jama Cross, 33, who works at Townsend Harris High School at Queens College. "I really believe that teachers with a lot of experience have earned that privilege."

Cross, who has eight years experience, spent four years in public schools and has been called into meetings and told, "You may be laid off."

"It’s scary. It’s stressful. It makes it harder to do your job," Cross said. "So yeah, it is kind of strange that I’m taking a position that perhaps doesn’t benefit me in the short term but I think that it will benefit me in long term."

Margrit Pittman Polletta, a second-year teacher at PS 24 in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, said most of her students are low-income and about half are still learning English. She said having experience is a valuable tool in the classroom. (PHOTO RIGHT)

"I think I'm a good teacher, but I'm a really inexperienced teacher and I feel it," Polletta said. "I think I’ve heard people say, 'You know, five years, eight years, 10 years in, you’ll really get it.' And I don’t think you ever stop learning as a teacher, and I think that is why it’s incredibly valuable for students to have access to really experienced teachers."

Teacher Dan Abramoski, who teaches government at Mott Haven Village Prep high school in the Bronx, has six years of experience. He said length of career does not always translate to quality.

"If we do see layoffs we need to put the needs of the kids first," Abramoski said. "I think what the kids need is the best possible teacher and I don’t think that just experience is how you measure teaching quality."

Cross, the teacher from Townsend Harris High School at Queens College with eight years experience, said Bloomberg is "muddying the waters" by conflating budget cuts and teacher quality.

"I think the issue of budget cuts and laying off teachers because there isn’t enough money to pay everyone is separate issue," she said.

New York City is among many districts using test scores in part to figure out which teachers are most effective, a practice that's drawn much criticism from teachers. 

Third-year elementary school teacher Juhyung Harold Lee, who now teaches in Manhattan, said he lost his position at a Queens school last year because his principal had to trim the budget. He was rated an above-average math teacher based on his students' test scores.

"Using standardized test scores as measure of good teaching, I think any sound teacher will tell you is absolutely wrong," Lee said. "There’s no really comprehensive system for accountability that has been proposed by either the union or the chancellor’s office to replace last in, first out. So if we were to just get rid of that measure it does open door for principals to used flawed methods of teacher accountability to push out certain teachers that they want to push out."

Abramoski, the six-year vet who teaches government in the Bronx, said example's like Lee's are why the system needs to change. Policies such as last in, first out, he said, aer "too blunt an instrument."

"It would be a shame for someone like you to lose your job if you’re a better teacher than someone who has two more years experience," he said.

Sean, who teaches high school in the Bronx, didn't want to give his full name. A teacher for 18 years, Sean said seniority protections exist for a reason.

"I think in a budget crunch the temptation is there to get rid of the expensive teacher," Sean said. "The mood of the country is moving that way, and Bloomberg with his business model, that’s what they want."

Abramoski disagreed: "I don’t think you should be guaranteed a job for life just because you made it into the pool and you stayed long enough for seniority."

"Seniority or tenure is not a job for life," Sean said. "It’s just due process. They can’t arbitrarily fire you."

In the debate over last in first out and teacher tenure, it’s easy to miss the little moments that add up to real learning.

Emma Groetzinger, a second-year special ed teacher at a Brooklyn middle school, said class size can make a world of difference.

"I pulled out a small group of students for extra help in math today," she said. "And afterwards the teacher came up to me and he said you know that student you pulled out today, she hasn’t done anything in class for two weeks. And she spent the second half of class working totally engaged. When students get the support and attention that they need they are, they’re different children."

Cross said she has about 170 students for five high school English classes. (Safia Jama Cross PHOTO LEFT)

"If I could have one wish it would be give me smaller classes," Cross said. "The power players in this whole debate about educational reform probably send their children to private schools, and their children are in small classes. And I know that in class of 34 the quiet girl sitting in the back row is not going to get the attention that she needs. I’m sorry, it’s just not possible no matter how great a teacher I am. And I think the class size is sort of an issue that’s being drowned out."

With the mayor planning to cut 6166 teaching positions, most of them through layoffs, teachers fear the mayor’s budget plan will lead to bigger classes – regardless of which teachers are the first to go.