Ever wonder about the kind of things that keep principals up at night, and the source of their “bad dreams” when they finally do fall asleep?

You’re going to force the worst teachers in the system into the schools that are struggling the most.”–NY Times

“The city will place up to 400 unassigned teachers into vacancies at public schools whether principals want them or not…”—NY Daily News

It’s that moment when you are being asked to make the proverbial educationally sound “bricks without straw”. As a principal you are always being ask to raise academic achievement levels (aka: test scores); but then so many obstacles are (politically) placed in your trying-path, as you seek to achieve that objective.

For this latest “staffing decision”, the defeat for some kids are in the details. And that is why this type of decision is a primary nightmare for all principals who are trying to secure a safe and productive learning environment for their students. And trying to accomplish this in a system (school board or mayoral control), that is very often driven by political, and not educational aims.

The all teachers are the same myth…

First, let’s not fool (some in) the public into thinking this is simply a group of “excess” teachers, who are really great, but who had the misfortune of working in a school that closed and/or consolidated with another school. For a few maybe this is true, but not the majority. Principals have had these folks in their buildings, as either short, or long-term subs. Or they had them on staff, and “excessed” them; and then proceeded to “hide” the vacancy; perhaps in order to hire a much better, and truly qualified untenured teacher. (This tricky process would itself take an essay to explain; and I am not going to reveal the techniques principals utilize to save their kids!) And so principals have seen the teachers in this “excess” pool, and in the words of our Co-POTUS Vladimir Putin, they say: Nyet! (Translation: “I don’t think so!”)

Finding, “snatching” at almost any cost, an effective teacher is an unwritten primary job requirement for any principal who hopes to be successful; either because they deeply care about children, or for the more fundamental survival reasons of just wanting to keep their jobs. Every “educationally woke” principal will go to great lengths to sniff out, search out, track down, and hire a good teacher. Trust me, good and effective teachers don’t hang around un-recruited for long.

Principals will go to great lengths to find and hire an effective teacher!

Once as a principal, as I was preparing to attend a district “teacher hiring fair”, I was alerted by one of my ‘undercover supporters’ in HR, who loved my school and knew my standards; that a great qualified teacher, with a wonderful-powerful: resume, recommendations and a strong personal presence, had just arrived for the hiring hall teacher candidate’s orientation. My person in HR knew I had a vacancy in this teacher’s hard to find content area, (I keep telling principals I mentor to show a lot of love and respect to the HR folks, you really need them on your side!) And so in response to the HR call I said: “Pull her (and her paperwork), and if you must, hide her in an empty classroom; but under no condition let her go inside of that hiring fair as an ‘unrestricted free agent’!” (Looking back I can’t believe some of the stuff I did for my children. And I never asked, but that poor teacher must have thought at the time, that public education was a crazy place. I can imagine her thinking: “I came here to get a teaching job, and they are now asking me to hide in a classroom!”) But she kept the faith, and once I got there, interviewed the teacher, filled out the necessary paperwork, and hired what turned out to be a great teacher! A principal-friend, who also had a vacancy in that same subject area. Found out and (Jokingly) never forgave, or let me forget my move on that day. But I ain’t mad at him, because he would have done the same thing!

The other terrible nightmare (for some schools)…

As a former superintendent I am of course sympathetic to the tremendous budgetary pressures these “unassigned teachers”, particularly those who are on the high-end of the salary scale, place on an already strained district’s budget (And to be quite honest, as a principal I did not care about the central district’s budgetary problems, and was singularly focused on my school and kids!). But it is also true that principals have contributed to this present problem by not taking the tremendous time-energy required (most often unsuccessfully), as well as suffer the political backlash from the teachers union, to deny the underserving teachers in this pool, tenure; or when it was appropriate to put in the huge amount of work in order to rate them “unsatisfactory”. There is enough blame to go around; but at some point in public education, we must decide if we are going to stop being a societal effort that is primarily focused on adult employment, and make student access to a quality education the #1 objective.

And as always race, wealth, zip code, political power and entitlement are in play here…

The question is: What will determine to which schools the most questionably qualified teachers in this pool be sent? The answer is (always): The quality of the school principal’s political leadership: savviness, cleverness, courage, creativity, and how much “credibility credit”* the principal has with the central district’s leadership. Also a determiner is the level of a school’s parent and school community’s political awareness-organization; as well as the courage and independence of the school’s city, state and federal elected officials; and how much pressure can the school’s parents and community put on those elected officials. Please forgive me if I am not optimistic about the prospects of schools that serve a majority of children of color in the city coming out of this process well. As is often the case in public education (and the opposite of what happens in most professions), the children who are in the most need of the best qualified, and most experienced instructional practitioners, don’t get them. And at some point this political, and not educational practice must end.

*Highly effective and successful principals can cash in their good practitioner “credibility credit”, to minimize, bypass and/or completely avoid the deleterious effects of a “harmful” district, or labor contractual policy. Which is another piece of information I stress with the principals I am working with: That being a good principal can earn you the “political-power currency” to become a great principal!

“400 unassigned city teachers could move to permanent jobs under Education Department’s new policy”