by special guest blogger Peter Lamphere
You’d hope it would be skill. Or perhaps leadership. Maybe it would be an overarching educational vision. But apparently, rising to principal in NYC nowadays entails heaping abuse on your subordinates and destroying the educational community you supervise.
Some readers of this blog may remember headlines from years ago about Rosemarie Jahoda’s harassment of the Bronx Science math department, which triggered one of the largest mass grievances in our union’s history. Yet this summer, Rosemarie Jahoda was appointed interim acting principal at Townsend Harris High School - one of the premier public high schools in Queens.
When I joined the Bronx Science math department in September of 2006, I entered a pedagogical community with several centuries of collective experience teaching some of the most gifted students in the country. Greg Greene - whose freshman geometry class I dutifully attended every day and who reminded me to “always do my homework before class” - had been teaching at the school since 1968. Many others had been teaching since the seventies or eighties and were some of the most dedicated and creative teachers I’ve had the pleasure of working with. They generously shared their lesson plans and techniques. They were joined by a number of newer teachers like myself (I had 4 years in at that point) who added energy and new perspective.
A year later, our supervisor was replaced by Jahoda, who seemed like a very competent, friendly educator. We didn’t know that she had been told by principal Valerie Reidy to bring order to the “wild west” of the math department. The math teachers were a group who knew their union rights and were willing to defend their untenured colleagues - which apparently angered principal Reidy.
Jahoda followed her mandate with gusto - and soon was ordering untenured faculty not to speak with veteran mentors and reducing younger teachers to tears with ruthless criticism. She also yelled red-faced in department meetings. An arbitrator later found she “reduced 7 teachers to tears on 12 separate occasions,” had raised her voice at teachers in front of students, and called another veteran a “disgusting person” in a meeting.
By May of that school year, the teachers of the department were fed up. Twenty of us (out of 22!) filed a harassment grievance and refused to meet with her without another colleague present for fear of a hostile work environment. As our case wound through a multi-year arbitration process, all of the untenured teachers who signed the grievance were either fired or left the school. Others quickly followed in a string of retirements. But we were vindicated by the ruling of respected arbitrator Carol Wittenberg who held that Jahoda had engaged in a course of harassment and recommended her removal from the school.
I know many of the current Bronx Science math department teachers and respect the good work they do, but Jahoda destroyed the kind of teaching-learning community that is extremely valuable for students and families, not to mention educators. New York City schools desperately need to multiply such communities of learning. Instead, Rosemarie Jahoda is being rewarded for destroying one.
In a sane system, this would hardly be grounds for promotion. But the DOE is not a sane system.
Principals are regularly rewarded for bad behavior and abuse. Racist Queens principal Minerva Zanca, who attacked black employees as having “big lips,” looking like “gorillas” with “nappy hair,” is working an F-Status counseling job to supplement her retirement income. Rather than settling out of court with the EEOC, Chancellor Fariña chose to let the DOE get sued by Preet Bharara, US District Attorney, for protecting Zanca and Superintendent Juan Mendez.
Only by organizing strong UFT chapters can we protect teachers, and students and families, from incompetent and abusive administration. The main lesson I learned from my Bronx Science tenure as chapter leader was that simply relying on the UFT grievance process is not sufficient. Although the UFT grievance department supported us through three years of grinding hearings, the DOE simply ignored the arbitrator's ruling (relying on a technicality in Article 23 of our contract that makes such decisions non-binding). I was able to overturn one U-rating on my record in court, but the Bronx Science chapter had been weakened and I was forced to transfer from the school to keep my job.
With the MORE caucus this coming year, I plan to help run a series of chapter organizer training workshops, to help support educators mobilize the power of their coworkers to defend themselves against the insanities of our education system, and their abusive representatives. Please join us at tomorrow's forum about the nuts and bolts of chapter organizing, and share your own stories of organizing against abusive administrators below. Collectively, we can work toward building sanity into this system.