Life in the Rubber Room: Where Suspended Teachers Await Due Process

School reformers from President Barack Obama to Mayor Michael Bloomberg have been seeking to measure which teachers are most effective in order to weed out the bad ones. Here in New York City, there’s a symbol of bad teaching: the infamous rubber rooms. These are where suspended teachers wait to be terminated. Currently, about 600 teachers are in these reassignment centers.

A principal can’t just fire a teacher. First there’s an investigation, then a hearing. And all of that takes time. Because the school system doesn’t want teachers accused of incompetence or misconduct to be around children, suspended teachers are sent to rubber rooms. And there they wait.

“The first day we were reassigned here, I fell,” Brandi Scheiner, 57, says, pointing to the gravel path. Scheiner is a former elementary school teacher and is walking toward a compound of red trailers outside George Washington High School in Washington Heights. The security guard’s booth happened to be empty at 7:30 a.m., so it was easy to walk through the chain-link fenced gate. There are at least 120 teachers assigned to the eleven trailers here. Scheiner taught in Manhattan for 21 years and was assigned to Trailer 14 last fall.

Former elementary school teacher Brandi Scheiner was sent to the Temporary Reassignment Center, or rubber room, in Washington Heights.

“When we got here there were only two tables,” she says, looking around the fluorescent-lit room. She shows me clusters of desks and a bulletin board she decorated. “So I set it up this way, you know, like the way you would set it up in a classroom.”

The bulletin board does look like what you would see in an elementary school, only it’s covered with newspaper clippings instead of vocabulary words. Crowded schools often use trailers for extra class space, but this is the first time they’ve been used as rubber rooms. Scheiner wasn’t thrilled with the amenities.

“This is our bathroom,” she says, walking into a room with a stainless steel sink. “When we came here, there was no hot water so now we have hot water.” She pushes a lever and the water does flow, but only from one side. “It’s broken. You see it’s broken.”

Scheiner was suspended in 2007 when her principal accused her of incompetence and insubordination. She claims it was really a case of age discrimination.

Scheiner and other teachers decorated the bulletin boards in Trailer 14 to make it more comfortable.

During the interview another teacher enters.

“How you doing in retirement, kiddo?” he asks.

“Well, it’s an adjustment,” Scheiner says.

Scheiner qualified for a disability retirement this year because of an injured knee, so she’s done with the rubber room, and has just come back [with me] for a visit. She chats with the teacher before he punches into a time clock in another room.

“We make very good friendships here in the room,” she says. “Because the people in the room, when these things begin happening to you at school, everyone keeps away. It’s like you’re isolated because guilt by association. You come here and everybody’s in the same situation. And if you’ve been in a rubber room long enough time, when these new people came we were able to calm them down. Because people come here, they don’t know why they’re here, what is this place, what does it mean. So the old timers are able to say, ‘OK, relax, here, play dominoes, play cards,’and we let them talk.”

But there is an undercurrent of tension and anxiety in the rubber room. The teachers feel they’ve been wronged by their schools and by the system. And on this morning, by the security guards who watch over them.

Julianne Polito enters the trailer just before 8 a.m. and announces that one of the security guards is scared the teachers may start throwing chairs. “She’s afraid we’re going to throw chairs out into the courtyard,” Polito says.

“Trailer 14 or everyone?” Scheiner says.

“I think everyone because of the note that was put on the door that said there’s no more room in our trailer for people, no more seats for people to sit in,” Polito says.

Julianne Polito is among the seven teachers trying to sue the city over the rubber rooms. She was assigned to the one in Washington Heights, following an accusation of corporal punishment, which she denies.

The teachers say there are usually 20 people or more assigned to each trailer. When you spend every day in the same room, seats are valuable real estate. “And we kind of routinely sit in the same seats,” Polito says.

But the guards don’t appear and Polito goes on to describe a typical day.

“People will move from that table,” she says, pointing to the one in the middle of the room. “So that they can play games at some point in the afternoon. And because these are students’ desks from a classroom, no one can sit there for eight hours, six hours, that’s ridiculous.”

The teachers can take a lunch break, just as they do in school, and some even lead exercise classes.

Polito is a former principal who was demoted to teacher. She’s been repeatedly sent to the rubber room on accusations of corporal punishment -- allegations she strongly denies. And the city has never tried to terminate her. She’s now working on a Ph.D in educational administration. She takes two seats, one for herself and another for her belongings: a laptop and a book by a French phenomenologist. “So I take notes on my computer and that’s what I do on it,” she says. “I use those notes later.”

The teachers keep a list to track how long they’ve been in rubber rooms.

As Polito sets up her work space, a man at another table reads a newspaper. He says his name is Dean Henry and claims he’s been here since September, after he got his third unsatisfactory rating and was accused of incompetence.

“I’ve received my charges but I have yet to be contacted by a lawyer so I really don’t know when that’s going to be. So I’m just sitting here waiting,” he says. “No hearing, nothing. You know, people are under the impression we’re lollygagging, just hanging out. But the process is very uncomfortable one. And we really don’t know how long it’s going to take.”

A few minutes later a teacher from another trailer, Lucy (not her real name), enters the room to talk.

“If the media does not start to investigate the reality,” Lucy says, “that these reassignment centers are the crown jewel in Bloomberg and [Chancellor Joel] Klein’s plan to get rid of teachers who raise their voices in the classroom, to break tenure. You have teachers here who are good, to very good, to excellent,” Lucy says, declining to give her name or the circumstances in which she was placed in the rubber room.

There’s a palpable anger and even a sense of persecution among these rubber room teachers. The ones who spoke with me claim they were sent here on trumped up charges. Some have spent years waiting for their cases to be heard while still receiving their full salaries.

Unfortunately, the interview was cut short. Lucy’s eagerness to tell her story alerted one of the security guards to my presence. The other teachers led me out to the street.

Julianne Polito and Brandi Scheiner have much more to say. They are among a small group of teachers trying to sue the city over the rubber rooms. After two previous attempts were denied, a district court judge recently gave them a third chance to make their case later this spring.