A substitute’s saga in New York City

By: and | August 14, 2015

When Elizabeth Rose’s teaching job was cut, she was presented with two options: leave the profession or substitute in a different Manhattan public high school each week. Rather than give in, Rose—who’s also a musician, writer and actor—took on the substitute challenge. It was “a temptation no storyteller could resist,” she says.

When Elizabeth Rose’s teaching job was cut, she was presented with two options: leave the profession or substitute in a different Manhattan public high school each week. Rather than give in, Rose—who’s also a musician, writer and actor—took on the substitute challenge. It was “a temptation no storyteller could resist,” she says.

“All I knew was that it put me in a unique position and this was going to be a good story,” Rose says. “They don’t allow journalists to go out and rotate through schools and spend a week in each school.”

The result was Yo Miz! 1 Teacher + 25 schools = 1 Wacky Year (By Any Other Name Publishing, 2015), an eye-opening, funny and thought-provoking picture of daily life in the New York City school system, from El Barrio to Wall Street and everywhere in between.

Tell us how you wound up rotating from school to school.

My principal came up to me one day and said, “I’m sorry. You can’t teach here anymore.” He said he was at a network meeting, and was told he wasn’t able to keep the ATRs—Absent Teacher Reserves as we were called.

He said the Department of Education devised this scheme of rotating us because we were tenured. That doesn’t mean you can’t be fired, but you have to have cause to fire somebody and there’s a long due process you have to go through. So they devised this plan of rotating us—2,500 positionless, tenured New York teachers—to a new school each week. And the reason, he said, was to wear us down and make us so miserable that we would quit.

So there were 2,500 of us doing it, and it’s still going on. I’m on a Facebook group with the ones who are still doing it. It’s a terrible situation for these poor teachers.

But it wasn’t just teachers—they had social workers, guidance counselors and, in some cases, assistant principals going from school to school. Sometimes we’d teach, sometimes we’d sit in the teacher’s lounge all day or help out in the office. When you think about all the good things we could have done—even if it was just tutoring or helping kids fill out their college applications—it is such an incredible waste of talent.

It’s startling that, at many of the schools in which you subbed, they only wanted a body.

Yes, a body with a license. There are something like 1.1 million students in New York City public schools in the five boroughs and 100,000 teachers. The system is too big, so they make these rules. And to follow them, they have to send teacher widgets like me out and they say, “Just sit in the class. You have a license.”

At one New York DOE recruitment fair you interviewed for a temporary position to prepare the students only to pass the Regents.

Just teach the test. It’s a shame because these students and teachers are getting all the creativity sucked out of them. People go into teaching with idealism and excitement—“I’m going to have a chance to apply things I’ve learned to things that excite me, and be creative, and find the light in the students, and bring them further.”

But then they come in and there are all these rules that they have to keep putting everybody in a little box and give them a lot of tests. But that’s not what inspires learning. What inspires people like you and me to want to be in school and learning has nothing to do with testing.

One assistant principal told you, “Teachers are judged by the data collected. If you have a passion for creating lifelong learners, forget it. Don’t improvise. Don’t try to personalize instruction. Just hurry up and get through the unit.” That must have been shocking.

People show you who they are so quickly. He had zero respect for teachers. He was all about how you judge, assess and punish teachers, and nothing to do with inspiring learning. He never asked us what our passions were, what we could bring to the party, what works for us in our experience.

Did you get the impression that some students had a similar attitude?

Yes, I saw that a lot. I think one reason is that many of the kids I came into contact with during this year don’t have any modeling for learning. They don’t know it can be a lifelong passion. And there were many times over the years when I would tell them what I was studying—whether it was music or acting or whatever—and they’d say, “Why are you still learning?” They just had no model that learning is great, it’s wonderful and it’s lifelong.

So they will come to school to be with their friends, not understanding or even caring what the teacher is asking them to do, because what does it matter anyway? They think, “We just need our diplomas so we can get out of here and do something else.”

Manhattan is a pretty small island—about 13 miles long and two miles wide—but its schools encompass such a variety of cultures.

Bingo—not only a variety of cultures but also incredible inequities in resources. Some schools are funded and beautifully resourced, particularly in the arts. They’ll have dress forms and sewing machines and runways and video production studios—incredible art studios and materials and so on.

Then you go to another school, and for 600 students they have one cardboard box with a few colored pencils—and they need sharpening. But someone has run off with the sharpener. I think it’s criminal for kids to grow up without the arts.

You worked with many immigrant students who were basically lost in the system. I’m thinking of the boy from Yemen who didn’t understand a word you were saying.

His friends said, “Liz, he doesn’t speak English. He got here two weeks ago.” Yeah, he is absolutely lost. What’s he doing in that class? It’s an ESL class, but it’s a big class, and he doesn’t speak or read the language. How is he going to succeed?

Those kids were forced to take the ELA—the English Language Arts Regents—and four other regents and pass them all with at least a 65 to get a diploma.

Now, in the last few months there have been a number of New York state regents who proposed that these brand new immigrant kids should not have to take these exams for the first three years of their school because of how ridiculous that is. All it teaches them is failure and self-hatred. That measure didn’t pass, but it is still being discussed.

On your blog you joke that we need “more ineffective teachers.” What did you mean?

In New York state they decided, in their top-down approach to education, that they would base a teacher’s evaluation 40 percent on the standardized test scores for their students. And that is regardless of what school they are in or whether they are dealing with children just arrived from another country or students with disabilities.

So, the superintendents and districts did as they were instructed and, at the end of the year, they found that in all of New York state only 5 percent of teachers were judged ineffective. Then, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that he was unhappy with the results and he was going to raise the evaluation percentage to 50 percent because we needed to identify more ineffective teachers.

That’s the irony—our governor needs more ineffective teachers to keep proving that, in his mind, teachers are responsible for the emotional difficulties of their children, for the language difficulties of their children, for poverty, hunger. Let’s blame the teachers. They’re the perfect scapegoat.

Your primary profession is writing and performing. What led you to teaching?

Both my parents were teachers in high school in New York City and I swore I’d never follow them in that profession. But in between creating music and comedy for stage, film and TV, I took a gig teaching songwriting in a New York City public high school. And what better job than being able to bring people further? That’s what an actor does. That’s what a writer does. That’s why it’s so natural to put performing artists into classrooms.

If you survive that first year, then you can really make a difference in people’s lives. Many performers are very natural with kids. There’s such a glut of people—artists and performers—who would love to be in schools on a part-time basis. We should be taking advantage of that.

Tim Goral is senior editor