December 9, 2009
If you work for the NYC Department of Education, getting small things done can often be a large task. But I’ve been doing it since its inception, and I have some advice for those who are bewildered, or simply discouraged. Even if you’ve been exiled to the most filthy, decrepit, and crumbling trailer in Mayor Bloomberg’s New York, you can do it. Just follow these simple steps.
First, try all the normal channels. Go to the custodian and explain how cold, how wet, how malodorous and revolting the trailer is. When that fails, go to administration. Fill out the forms, make the requests, and do whatever official policy dictates. Go in every now and then to remind them when nothing gets done. Demand luxury items, like soap.
Repeat every year, as necessary.
Don’t give up when you discover bar soap instead of liquid soap, even if it grows a curious oozing black crust the kids refuse to touch. Just pick it up with a piece of paper and interrupt a Very Important Meeting to show the assistant principal. The soap bars will soon disappear. While no new soap will replace it, you can make yourself feel important by boasting to the kids about how you got rid of those grungy soap bars.
After the fifth year or so, you may find your trailer’s desk filled with fast-food garbage. Throw it out yourself. If you wait, you’ll only learn the hard way that no one else will. Stop dumping the trash when someone finally pours soft drinks into the drawers, as your hands will get sticky and there’s no running water in the trailer bathroom.
The day you find the desk covered with ice cream, with paper plates stuck to it, it’s time to throw in the towel. At this point, you can’t leave anything inside the desk, and you can’t leave anything on top of it either. Have someone help you carry it outside. You’ll be amazed at how quickly the custodians locate and remove it. When they ask whether you want a replacement, say yes, no, or whatever comes to mind. You won’t get one anyway.
Next, run for UFT chapter leader. This can hasten the negotiating process. While assistant principals throw teachers out of their offices within a minute or two, they tend to wait five, sometimes even 10 minutes before evicting the chapter leader. Of course, your opponents will viciously battle you for those extra minutes, but don’t give up. In my experience, the best way to win is to get the Daily News to call your home and ask you to write a column opposing mayoral control. When it comes out, make copies, drop them in staff mailboxes, and many of your colleagues will vote for you.
After you win, unfortunately, the trailer will look the same. Don’t hesitate to take further action. First, call Sandra Dunn-Yules from the UFT to do a health and safety inspection. Spend hours exploring the entire school, and then show her the trailers. “I’ve seen worse,” she may say, even as she agrees they are abysmal. When she returns with people carrying fancy-looking equipment, be sure to express gratitude rather than disappointment they aren’t wearing Hazmat suits.
The next thing you have to do is get UFT Vice President Leo Casey to visit your school. Show him the overcrowding, and the trailers. Have him set up a meeting with Elizabeth Sciabarra, the director of the Department of Education’s office of enrollment. Whatever you do, don’t forget to have him tell you to file a grievance. Make sure he emails you to specify the grievance be under Article 10, E, 1 of the UFT Contract — that the DOE is failing to meet its responsibility “to provide the appropriate recognized standards of workplace sanitation, cleanliness, light, and noise control, adequate heating and ventilation.”
That’s pretty much it. Your trailer should be fixed by the following day. The faucets will be repaired, the heat and AC will work (at least for a while), the floors will be cleaned (as best they can), and you’ll have more frequent toilet paper, paper towels, and filled soap dispensers. In a few days, you’ll even get a new used desk.
It takes a little doing, but it’s worth it. Once you’ve done this, you can focus on how to get a real classroom (I’ll submit a follow-up just as soon as I work out the details).