Saturday, March 08, 2008

Rubber Rooms for Teachers and Retirement Homes for Chimps

Did anyone hear the Human Resources episode of This American Life? If not here are a couple of curious items from this recent episode.

Rubber Room

The rubber room in NYC public school district is where they send teachers who get in trouble, but not enough to fire them. Some teachers spend *years* showing up to a room where they sit all day and collect their full pay while waiting a hearing. There are actually several rooms where teachers can go; it seems each room has its own unofficial territory and leadership. And, amazingly, fights often break out concerning the only things—lights, where you sit, level of sound—they have control over. Listening to the absolutely ludicrous nature of this situation had me laughing uncontrollably; at the same time I felt a stinging sense of absolute futility.

The trailer of an upcoming (still seeking distribution) documentary on the rubber room:

See the NY times story about this

Almost Human Resources

A retirement home for chimps which have been used in experiments and as actors. Most include forested lands but some also include human-like environments with televisions and rooms. Many of the chimps have become accustomed to doing human things so they do not want to cut them off from these activities. Charles Siebert, who is writing a book called Humanzee, discusses these strange yet amazing places.

Link to the TAL episode with both of these stories:


theorris said...

That rubber room one was very curious to me. It almost seemed like if the people weren't in denial about their behavior they just didn't give a damn. Their behavior in the rooms, as well, was like a case study in every bad teacher I've ever had: petty, controlling, and completely lacking focus or purpose.

shane said...

Can you get put in the rubber room for not giving grades? If so, sign me up!

Counterintuitive said...

Shane: I want to know if you really get away with not issuing grades. I've waited to give grades till the end of the semester and that was tough in of itself--students were distraught and thought I was pulling a fast one.

shane said...

No, I don't get away with it. But I tell my students up front that I don't believe in them--that I think grades send the message that there isn't any intrinsic value in what they're doing--and then I explain how I structure the class in such a way as to let the student decide what grade he/she wants based on "quantity" of participation and writing. I do grade some of the essays, but I allow revisions throughout the semester so the student can ultimately get the grade he/she wants or chooses.
I also have them read a lot of their writing aloud as a means to discourage overemphasis on quantity over quality.

It works pretty well, but there are always those students who NEED teacher approval and a high grade to feel good about themselves. And there are plenty of students who slump down in their desks hoping, because they're not prepared, not to be called on to read their work out loud. It's weird. Some students really want you to be the type of teacher they hate--and they hate you for not complying. Mostly, though, it works pretty well.

What do you do?

Anonymous said...

Anonymous next door neighbor here, and the thing that jumps out at me as a non-teacher isn't just the lack of authority that exists, but that this lack of authority migrates into a lack of concern. While I am sure that an overwhelming majority of the teachers in that school system started out as educators who cared, I am guessing, judging from the 4 year attrition rate mentioned, that care and concern for the students' education probably parallels that of the students, with a dose of administrative/regulatory crap that tempers any level of teacher's enthusiasm.

While I'm sure there are a few bad apples, I would guess that this becoming a thankless and powerless job so quickly would both frustrate and depress beyond limits of control. The inmates should never run the prison, nor the patients the asylum.

shane said...

The teachers who get burned out the quickest are, as Theorris points out, the teachers who are most petty and controlling--in other words, the authoritative types of teachers who might compare their students to inmates and mental patients.

Lisa B. said...

I heard the rubber room one awhile ago--I think I tuned in somewhere in the middle of it and thought, what? am I in a Sartre play?

Anonymous said...

So Shane, assuming an educator in the public school system is not an authoritative type, how does one deal with those students who, as demonstrated by the example in the video, don't like the teacher and have it out for that teacher? The students seem to have enough power to have that teacher removed from the classroom (not fired, mind you, just rubber roomed) simply by reporting certain claims to decision making administrators. So the well meaning, non-authoritative, non-petty, non-controlling, innocent teacher is out, powerless to do anything, while the students high-five each other over getting another disliked teacher removed. That's BS, and that's putting too much power in the hands of the students; and what's their graduation rate? The NY public school system is a nightmare.

At least teaching at the college level you should have students who want to be there (for a variety of reasons) instead of having to be there. These student are free to get up, walk out, transfer out, leaving those students who want to learn. The quality of classroom learning and discussion is bound to improve when the the wheat is separated from the chaff

shane said...

Anonymous next door neighbor wrote:

"The quality of classroom learning and discussion is bound to improve when the the wheat is separated from the chaff."

I agree--to a point. And that's why I'm opposed to obligatory education. If you don't want to be there, you shouldn't have to be. The answer isn't to increase authority (god knows our youth are learning enough about following rules as it is) but to increase responsibility on the part of the students. I taught in the prison system for several years (adults and juveniles) and never once had a discipline problem and never once had to kick a student out of class, primarily because the students weren't required to be there. They had a choice--just like in college. If the students felt that school wasn't valuable or that they could learn better on their own, without my help, they could always stop going to class. Simple. They had no motivation to try'n "get me". By making education voluntary, you put the responsibility for learning where it belongs--on the student--plus you send the message that what they're doing has intrinsic value.

Counterintuitive said...

A fascinating discussion anonymous neighbor and Shane. It does seem unfair that some of those teacher in the rubber room get unfairly punished because a student complains or because of one slip (one teacher was in there because he swore while walking down the hall and a student in another class heard him).

But there was also another teacher in there who threw a desk which partially hit a student (he actually gets reinstated in a few months). Listen to the This American life to hear more of the teachers' stories. And, in the everyday world of schools, some teachers get away with murder because they have the power. They are verbally abusive to students and never really "teach" anything.

Of course, as Shane points out, obligatory education is bound to produce the results it does. And, in my mind, there has never been a golden age of education--obedient students wanting to learn. Just ask your parents or grandparents for a few anecdotal stories. And there never will be even if we keep working under the assumption that if we find just the right program or disciplinary model things will be all rosy.

But schools are not really primarily about education, right? They are babysitting services, places where parents leave their children while they work and do other stuff. And they are places where kids "learn" to be on time and conform to the adult world, to learn the null-curriculum as educational theorist Elliot Eisner puts it.

To me schools are the lesser of the other evils. They are not really what they purport to be as I say above, but they sometimes can be what they say they are: places to learn, places to be exposed to new ideas, places where a kid can interact with an adult who is different from those in their own home environment. Non-compulsory education would undoubtedly disadvantage the already disadvantaged.

Unless I'm missing something that you, Shane, know that I don't... How would abolishing compulsory education help those groups--poor, minority, girls--already struggle to maintain access to higher education and good jobs??

shane said...

I guess what you're suggesting is that non-compulsory education would lead to more dropouts among the poor. I'm not sure that's true. The problem, in my mind, would be about like it is at present. When parents don't require their children to go to school, and the children want to drop out, the state usually doesn't do much to override that decision (too busy fighting terrorism, after all).

The other issue is about whether having more dropouts would be a bad thing. And I'm not sure that's true. Sure, less education usually means less future income, and I think the urban poor would suffer as a result, but the rural poor and others might actually benefit from less education--might learn to be less reliant on the system and more capable of fending for themselves and using their land in appropriate ways. Not only that, but if we gave students a choice about whether to go to school and also about where to go to school, we might remedy the current inequities between schools in the inner city and more affluent neighborhoods. What's more, if we made education optional, equitable, as well as available (i.e. free) to all people, even at the college level, you would likely see many of the disparities disappear. In other words, the source of the problem isn't with the minorities themselves (and their undervaluing of education, poor parenting skills, etc.) but in the system and it's unequal access. Of course, making education non-compulsory is only one of many changes that need to be made--in my view.

Ettamarie Peterson said...

Administrators in every school system are paid to observe, document and act on teachers' abilities to teach. When they see something that is not conducive to good educational practices, they have the responsibilities to take appropriate action by either firing the teacher or sending the teacher to a retraining program, never to a detention center like a common criminal. If the teacher is accused of a criminal action, it should be reported to the local law enforcement office so that teacher can receive a fair trial just as any other citizen of this nation would. This "rubber room" business is totally out of the scope of any fair employment practice. The teachers put there need to file a unfair labor practice suit. Their union bosses should be canned for condoning such an unfair labor practice!
I am a California retired teacher (37 years service) and was active in our California State Teachers' Association union. I was outraged by the NPR program I heard today on this subject!