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

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

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.

More in:

Comments [9]


Hey there just happened upon your blog via Bing after I entered in, " Life in the Rubber Room: Where Suspended Teachers Await Due Process" or perhaps something similar (can't quite remember exactly). In any case, I'm relieved I found it
because your content is exactly what I'm looking for (writing a college paper) and I hope you don't mind if I
collect some material from here and I will of course
credit you as the source. Thanks for your time.

Mar. 07 2013 01:40 AM
Diane baker

Have any of these teachers been accused of sexual crimes against children?

Feb. 25 2013 04:31 PM
Rene Diedrich from LA, CA

For these posters to indict teachers as guilty betrays the horrible stain they will live with because they are targets in a witch hunt designed to keep other teachers too terror filled to be advocates for students or whistleblowers despite ourt mandates to report noncompliance, abuse and the white chalk criminal element firmly entrenched in public school systems. Moreover, by perpetuating propoganda that villifies educators and assigns an insane level of power and influence to our unions without identifying the source, profiteers have deflected their crimes and culpabilty for our alledged failure on "bad teachers", who are trotted out everytime there is a move to undermine our contracts, our calling and our civil rights. The fact that these educrats and philanthropists are legion, earning significantly more that any veteren teacher ever hopes for in positions that are nonessential, often connected to corrupt enterprises and the equivalent of organized crime is lost in the salacious headlines about sex crimes, teachers paid to do nothing in rubber rooms and the data from test scores that have at k=least a 40% margin of error, are void due to widespread cheating at this point and curiously immune from scrutint despite costing tax payers a staggering ten dollars for each packet and the number two pencils that come with them. You'd think for that price a company like Scholastic could devise a way to evaluate teachers without faulting them for remediation they cannot possibly address, issues like Language and special needs that are again, beyond their control. Notably teachers in the trenches are the target as their students wear the scores like scars. They are negated and so are the efforts of their teachers, whose expertise and empathy are now a liability to employers.

Dec. 04 2011 07:02 PM
Thinker from Bronx, NY

Looking back, did Beth Fertig's reports start the ball rolling in exposing the malevolent intentions and evil deeds of the self-appointed King Michael the Destroyer? Let's not forget that the billionaire mayor just left hundreds of millions on the table that was available from the federal government for special education. Now he cries he has no money and has to fire teachers. Maybe some corrective action should have been taken when he broke his toys as a child and then cried that he had no toys. Then again, maybe a teacher tried that and this is his revenge. Whadda you think?

May. 24 2011 11:04 PM

The teachers of the rubber rooms are being paid just to sit there. I propose that instead of wasting money on them we put them to work by performing other jobs in education besides teaching. They could be custodians, librarians, fundraisers, or a secretarys. I know that we can not abolish tenure but giving these unwanted teachers some form of job while they await for their trials could be beneficial.

May. 01 2011 02:04 PM

Those teachers are bad news. We should expel them. They are wasting our taxes. This is America WAKE-UP CALL: Union is so powerful. How do we stop them? Union got to stop. They are ruin our country. They are worst than nightmare.

Jan. 31 2011 10:42 PM

where is Roland

Jan. 07 2011 04:34 PM
Efraim Cestero from Miami Fl.

I realize that things have become even worse for NYC teachers since I was accused in a trumped up charge of corporal punishment, from which I was exonarated in 1995. At least they sent me to the district office, now called regional office, but never to a rubber room. That is horrible.The moral breakdown of society has caused education to take a turn for the worse. After all schools are just a reflection of society at large. As society goes, so will the schools. Unfortunately American society is at an all time low.
Most so called bad teachers are a result of bad administrators.

Aug. 27 2010 01:24 PM
jo-an morris

this is a farce when alan rosenfeld goes free when he was primarily a lawyer and worked the real estate circuit while collecting 1000,000 a year off the city.

Aug. 20 2010 03:57 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

Get the WNYC Morning Brief in your inbox.
We'll send you our top 5 stories every day, plus breaking news and weather.


Latest Newscast




WNYC is supported by the Charles H. Revson Foundation: Because a great city needs an informed and engaged public


Supported by