In Defense of an Accused Teacher

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It’s a rough year to be a teacher. Recently, hundreds of teachers had incredibly inaccurate “value-added” scores posted all over creation. A United Federation of Teachers representative I know had to drive a maligned teacher to work, because having seen what the papers said about her, not to mention the reporters camped out on her doorstep, she feared leaving her home.

Arthur Goldstein

It’s especially tough when you see yourself in the paper, tarred as some sort of pervert. I can only imagine having to go to work and face the questions of 170 teenagers who have just heard about you in the news, on Facebook or in the hallway.

Child abusers have no place in schools. But if you’ve been railroaded for no good reason, as this article explains, you ought to be left alone.

Yet my friend Eric Chasanoff has had no such luck. I’ve known Eric for a few years, and got to know him well when he worked at Francis Lewis High School last year. He’s soft-spoken and gentle, but he has a great memory for detail. This has served him well as he spent years fighting a case aimed at removing him from his job. Now, the chancellor has dredged out his closed case as evidence that impartial arbitrators are problematic and teachers need to be fired more easily.

Eric has given me permission to write about the incident and speak up on his behalf, which I have been doing since his case was mentioned in the newspapers. He also has his own blog, where he has been defending himself of late.

What did Eric actually do? When a female student at Jamaica High School uncharacteristically earned a high test score, he said he was very proud of her and that he would kiss her if it wouldn’t get him in trouble. (Editor's Note: In 2002, Mr. Chasanoff had been accused of putting his arms around a student's waist, making that student feel "uncomfortable;" he was reprimanded for inappropriate behavior, but in 2004 an arbitrator ruled that the allegation was not true, and the letter was removed from his file.)

As a United Federation of Teachers chapter leader, I advise my members not to say such things. I would categorize this particular statement as, at best, careless, and at worst, stupid. However, I cannot think of anyone, anywhere, who has not said a stupid thing at some point.

Like the arbitrator, I fail to see any sexual connotation in this. I might not only offer but actually kiss my 15-year-old daughter for some achievement or other. I would be personally offended if anyone attributed this to anything other than pride.

Were I Eric’s supervisor, I would have advised him to refrain from saying such things and issued a memo or letter to that effect. If the student felt uncomfortable, I would have transferred her to another teacher’s class.

The Department of Education, on the other hand, felt it was a better idea to remove him from the classroom. They also felt this way about a U.F.T. chapter leader who used a Department of Education fax machine to report malfeasance, and a guy who not only brought plants to school, but also gave watches (made by his own company) to any student who scored higher than 90 percent.

Education Department regulations used to allow principals to remove teachers from their payrolls after 60 days. After an agreement with the U.F.T. to close the “rubber rooms,” this is no longer the case, and far fewer staff members are removed.

In Eric’s case, after having paid his full salary for over four years, not to mention whatever legal fees they incurred, the crack Education Department lawyers managed to extract a $2,000 fine from him. Basically, they invested hundreds of thousands of dollars to get $2,000 back.

Whose fault is it if Department of Education lawyers can’t make their case? Is it the fault of the U.F.T.? Is it Eric’s fault? More likely, considering this and the aforementioned cases, it’s preposterous judgment -- they lacked a case and chose to pursue it anyway.

In the end, Department of Education officials used the procedure they negotiated, and lost. For them to say, now, that it was unfair, smacks of sour grapes. It now appears Dennis Walcott has no problem suggesting people are guilty even after his own arbitrators determined otherwise. Should a person with no regard for the procedures of his own department be making such decisions?

I don’t know the details of the other 15 cases. But given what I know to be true, and what I read in the paper, I’m not much inclined to take Mr. Walcott’s word. If, in fact, any of them are guilty, the city's lawyers should have proven it.

Tweed is expert at assigning blame, accepting none, and making teachers “accountable,” while ignoring things they find inconvenient, like poverty, high-needs students or the truth. Personally, I’m thankful that there are independent arbitrators equipped to do otherwise.

And I would be perfectly happy to have Eric as my daughter's teacher. In fact, if she falls behind in Earth Science, I'll call him and ask him to tutor her.