Rubber Room: documentary about New York teacher purgatory

The Rubber Room is the name for the places where New York City teachers who are under disciplinary investigation are sent to await their. For months -- sometimes years, and sometimes decades, these teachers go to "work" every day in a mostly bare room, and wait, and wait, and wait. Even if exonerated, many of these teachers are so stigmatized that they have to switch careers. Sounds like something out of Sartre or Kafka, but it's just New York.

Here's a documentary on the Rubber Room, made by an ex-teacher who was sentenced to it. (via DNTO)


  1. Wow! Thanks to that video I now immediately feel horrible for teachers who can’t be fired thanks to the ridiculous rules that the unions have negotiated with the school districts. It is such a shame that they can collect full pay without having to do anything resembling work. I shudder at the horror of the hell those unions have put those teachers in.

  2. @jfiling

    Yeah, those lucky bastards. Sitting in a room 8 hours a day with nothing important to do. Ostracized and alienated by their peers, uncertain if they will ever be able to return to the job they spent years training for and working at.

    What a sweet gig.

  3. @1: Yes, what evil these unions have wrought. Imagine having to have career-destroying allegations of wrongdoing *investigated* before you lose your job over them! Surely bosses *just know* whether an allegation is true.

    Shame on those unions for doubting the clairvoyance of management.

    And now, of course, you have this shameful spectacle of the unions complaining over management’s practical approach to investigation, through which its workers are given lovely holidays for decades on end in airless boxes while justice drags its feet. Don’t the unions see that this is a sweet deal for their members?!

  4. Me too.

    What’s a country like with no labor unions? Saipan up until just recently. What a lovely workers’ paradise that was.

  5. This is a very well constructed catch-22…

    Can’t fire them until it’s been determined they’ve actually done something fireable.

    Can’t let them keep working normally, just in case they actually are guilty of molesting students or whatnot.

    That said… I think I’d use th time to write a novel.

  6. It’s to break their spirit, get them to quit and lose all their benefits.

    There’s a similar practice in the Netherlands, when a new director or department head takes over and they target long-serving employees for elimination. They transfer them to a nothingburger of a job and wait them out.

    An old friend of my girlfriend’s was targetted thus, and she still had 3 or 4 years to go before retirement. So she went PTT-postal. PTT stands for post, telegraph and telephone, the standard government-run communications infrastructure that most countries had before privatization. “Going PTT postal,” (or maybe passive-aggressive postal) is a meme I’ve been pushing here in the Netherlands, and it means taking sick leave, mostly on the basis of stress, and extending it to disability leave in order to wait out a bad boss or make it to early retirement if the boss isn’t going anywhere.

    The boss can fight back by having the “arbo-doctor,” a doctor who’s sort of an ombudsman also, come visit and, the boss hopes, certify the worker as being perfectly well. However, my girlfriend hooked up her friend with a retired arbo-doctor who could still provide a medical opinion, and he got her marked down as disabled.

    The boss had a chance to appeal but skipped it, and my friend made it to early retirement. The pension wasn’t as good as for full retirement, but it beat no pension at all and trying to look for a job in a market which hates to hire old people who aren’t already directors.


  7. Just to be outstandingly clear: in order to end up in the rubber room a teacher has to have enough of a strong case built against him/her that in any normal organization THEY WOULD BE FIRED ON THE SPOT.

    This is yet another great example of how unions have far outrun their usefulness to society (at least in the US). As if we needed other examples after what they did to the car industry!

  8. I have little sympathy for teachers.
    80% of them are utterly incompetent, if not outright harmful to students.

    I had several teachers who were retired police or corrections officers, just working as teachers to collect two pensions.
    They had no desire to be there and made it clear, and generally acted like bullying pigs to students.
    I had one former corrections officer teacher look me right in the eye, and intentionally SLAM MY HAND IN A DOOR, requiring me to go to the hospital after school.
    I sure wish he was fired, or at least INVESTIGATED.
    But he insisted it was an accident.
    Everyone said he was retiring next year and everyone refused to do anything.
    Even though there were mountains of complaints against this particular teacher, and he had been transferred from school to school over the years.

    I saw a male teacher who gave “massages” to a female student several times, and continued, even though it clearly made her very uncomfortable, RIGHT IN FRONT OF THE CLASS

    And then there were just people who were so generally incompetent it’s clear they couldn’t hold a job in the private sector.

    I can’t tell you how much “busy work” I did, crossword puzzles, board games, and stupid bullshit essays that didn’t mean the damn thing, while teachers gossiped and played Solitaire.

    So, at best, I was bored to tears, at worst, I was outright *assaulted*

    What exactly does one have to do to be fired from a teaching job?
    Someone tell me, please.
    Do you have to sodomize a student to death with a tire-iron in front of the whole class?
    Would you only then get fired if you didn’t have tenure?
    Would you have to convince the union to go along with it?

  9. The simple fact that labor unions exist doesn’t exempt them from criticism for obvious abuses such as endless tenure for unqualified, unprofessional, or even abusive, teachers. Pointing this out doesn’t make one an apologist for, say, sweatshops, labor exploitation, etc. Sheesh.

    A friend of mine once worked as a liaison for one of NYC’s rubber rooms: by her telling, most of the teachers were accused of sexually harassing students, colleagues, or both. This isn’t something the NPR or NYTimes story really focuses on. (Oh, yes, here anecdote=data, sorry folks!) The Rubber Roomies aren’t just idealistic young teachers working on their novels….

  10. Once upon a time I recall hearing about the (Japanese?) concept of a ‘window job’, where someone who would not normally be fired was given an assignment with no responsibilities, except to look out the window. The example I heard about was an executive for whom the company in question rented an airport hangar with nothing in it except this guy’s desk in the middle. There was no phone and nobody else in the building. He only lasted a few weeks.

    Compare and contrast to the American example of the guy who came back to head office from a failed sales call, only to see a bonfire briskly burning in the middle of the lawn in front of the building… on closer examination it was the contents of his office including his desk and chair, which the president had ordered removed to the lawn and set ablaze.

    At least the second guy knew where he stood.

  11. @JDW #14:

    Just to be outstandingly clear: in order to end up in the rubber room a teacher has to have enough of a strong case built against him/her that in any normal organization THEY WOULD BE FIRED ON THE SPOT.

    In which circumstance, those that the article mentions as being later exonerated would presumably then have a very good case for an unfair dismissal suit?

    One of the associated videos alleges that some of the teachers have not even been informed of the reason that they have been consigned to the Rubber Room: they are sent there as a first resort. Still sound like a “strong case” to you?

  12. This is the first reporting on this issue I’ve seen that doesn’t toe the AP line of manufactured outrage (at least until the comments). My wife, who is an urban middle-school special educator, thinks that the AP story from last week is part of a strategy of pre-emptive opinion shaping in case D.C. succeeds in busting its teachers’ union. I’m not sure I disagree.

  13. @#17

    What exactly does one have to do to be fired from a teaching job?
    Someone tell me, please.

    Here’s a nice flow chart of the process involved in firing a tenured teacher. It’s not so much what the teacher does, but how much free time an administrator has to go through all these steps to prove that the teacher is guilty.

  14. @Dequeued

    Amen brother. There are undoubtedly some great, truly inspiring, straight-outta-the-movies teachers out there. I had one that I can think of. Unfortunately I can make a long, long list of teachers and administrators who didn’t care, blatantly lied, were negligent or were just totally incompetent. I know teaching isn’t an easy job, and I have a lot of respect for the people who put their heart into it, but there seem to be an incredibly large number of bozos milking the system and effing up kids educations. Anyone who thinks I’m exaggerating must have either gotten lucky or went to some rich kid private schools.

  15. @Dequeued, and Brett Burton, where the hell did you guys go to school that it was so terrible you hate all teachers?

    It seems rather narrow-minded to make a blanket statement about all teachers and the education process. Surely it isn’t perfect, but don’t be condemning the lot because of your personal experience.

    In my school district growing up I can think of a handful I didn’t like (primary through High School) and not one who was incompetent. Maybe a few weren’t passionate about teaching, but in fact, the majority were.

    Some of the most rewarding experiences I had growing up were in the classroom. My wife’s parents are both retired teachers and I can tell you that it’s a thankless, horrible job on it’s worst days, and a truly satisfying one on it’s best. They worked very hard–as did their colleagues–and have thousands of productive, former students from my hometown to show for their good efforts.

    Without unions they would never have even had health or dental insurance. Without those benefits they never would have stayed in education. They were the lucky ones as they’ve seen those benefits eroded for younger colleagues.

    I can’t say every teacher I had was loved–but they were, by in large, damn good at what they did, and I’m better for it.

  16. #8 spazzm

    “This uniquely American hatred for labour unions never ceases to amaze me.”

    In the 1800s and 1900s, labor unions did very important things to make jobs less dangerous, stop child labor, cut down on hours working, and get people a living wage.

    TODAY, labor unions are about protecting the lazy and the incompetent from being fired. They are about running the cost of doing business up so high that companies can’t compete with forgiven companies and are run out of business. And union leadership is made up of thugs little better than the Mafia. And when they don’t get their way, they hold the public hostage while they make their demands.

    For instance, look at the Chicago garbage collector’s strike from a few years back– demands to make their obscenely high pay and benefits even higher lead to mountains of garbage piling up on the streets of Chicago until the city had to give in to the thugs. But if there is anything that deserves to be a minimum wage job, it is jobs that require zero skills and can be done by any random person on the street– like picking up a bag of garbage and throwing it in a truck.

  17. #24: but how many people are actually willing to work such a job? And do you have any idea what the full details of such a job entail, or are you too caught up in ranting about the evils of unions to actually back up your argument with any fact rather than just spewing whatever nonsense comes to mind.

    And as for you teacher haters out there: I feel sorry for you if you grew up in a region where 80% of teachers were incompetent. I imagine that’s a regional thing though.

    99% of teachers I’ve ever studied under have been nothing less than excellent. I have teacher friends as well who are also excellent and good people to boot.

    Please do not assume the statistics are so terrible because you had the misfortune to grow up in a school system administered poorly (as would be the likely cause for such a high rate of incompetent teachers).

    Or it could be you’re just exaggerating for the sole cause of maligning unions.

  18. Talia– I’m capable of discussing an issue without resorting to personal attacks. Are you?

  19. Every time there is a news story like this posted on a place like Fark or Boing Boing, people are more than eager to start shitting on the teachers. Teachers are overpaid, their union is bad, every teacher I ever had was incompetent, tenure makes them lazy, etc etc. I can’t think of any other profession that has to put up with so much abuse, whether its from the so-called students, their helicopter parents, administrators, or yokels on the Internet who haven’t seen the inside of a classroom in twenty years.

    Trust me, nobody becomes a teacher to get rich- they do it because they have a passion for education, they enjoy helping kids, they’re crazy about their subject, they want to contribute positively to their society. Sure, they get summers off (unpaid) and good health benefits, but the amount of hours they put in to the job and the emotional stress they undergo more than balances things out.

    Are there bad teachers out there? Yes, of course. Just like there are bad IT workers, bad deli employees, bad doctors. In education, as in the business world, an employee’s incompetence needs to be fully documented before they can be let go.

  20. Gee, Darren, why don’t you just take your own trash to the dump if it’s so easy?

    The anti-union meme seems to come from the same place as tax protestors: namely overarching ignorance combined with anti-socialism and a teaspoon of anecdote for ‘proof.’

    Regarding teachers unions, i’ll just point out that private schools have no unions, so you union busters will all be happy once you put your kids in union-less private schools…and pay $10,000+ every year for the privilege.

  21. Now we must all await their. Don’t you hate it when people don’t finish their? I find it really.

  22. #27 DWittSF “Gee, Darren, why don’t you just take your own trash to the dump if it’s so easy?”

    I assume that you mean that to be sarcasm and aren’t suggesting that as a real solution. Unfortunately for your snark, “taking your own trash to the dump” is in fact a perfectly reasonable, valid, and common thing here. Specifically, there are locations with gigantic dumpsters where you drive up and dump your garbage– when the dumpsters are full (we are talking house-sized boxes here) they are hooked up to a large truck and dragged off to a landfill. (In the past, there were only two distinctions for garbage– one dumpster for metal and appliances, the rest for everyone else– now they have bins for papers, plastics and stuff– but still general use dumpsters, too.) Those locations always have constant traffic of people who aren’t willing to pay for the entirely private, entirely optional pick-up services in the area. There have been many, many, many times I’ve taken my own garbage to the dump myself (though mostly now it is just for the big stuff– $15.00 a month for pick-up service isn’t too bad).

    Nice try at snark, though.

  23. Difficult subjects; rubberooms, teachers, students, behaviors…

    Fact is there are teachers who have styles not right for schools they’re in. Plus a bunch of teachers who are abusive, careless and unconcerned.

    Indeed though, there teachers who care, make sincere efforts, and just have an incredible amount of patience.

    And then there are the in-between’ers – good teachers who are suddenly pulled into a situation that elicits the wrong response from them. Because, as a human, sometimes even good people make the wrong choice.

    …..There are students who are very aware of the power they have to get a teacher pulled out of class. Who sit right next to students who want to learn and work.

    Politics of unions………individual classroom psyche…..some questionable school environments…..And i’ve not mentioned anything about parents role in educating they’re child too(better believe this is important as well).

    Where does it begin and end? I mean – Rubberooms – wow. Or is it that something IS neccessary?

  24. That’s great, Darren, but it’s still a far cry from bringing all of your weekly trash to the dump. It is interesting to note that you now say $15/mo isn’t that bad, which contradicts your earlier post.

    My snark was directed at your apparent feeling that garbagemen are somehow not deserving of a living wage, and attitudes like that are why unions are still necessary.

  25. #32: “My snark was directed at your apparent feeling that garbagemen are somehow not deserving of a living wage, and attitudes like that are why unions are still necessary.”

    I’m saying that it is reasonable for the payment for jobs to be based on the level of specialized sills necessary to perform that job– it is reasonable to think that jobs requiring a college degree should pay more than a job requiring only a high school degree. It is reasonable to think that a job requiring a doctorate pay more than a job requiring only a 4 year college degree. And, I think, the jobs that have the smallest educational requirements and essentially no skills should be the lowest paid jobs of all– these are the jobs for high school kids, and that should motivate you to strive for a better job. And no, I do not believe garbage men or anyone “deserve” a “living wage”, as in an entitlement. All you “deserve” is a reasonable wage based on the work that you do– if what is reasonable for the job isn’t enough to support your lifestyle, then you need to either strive for a better job or change your lifestyle.

    1. And no, I do not believe garbage men or anyone “deserve” a “living wage”, as in an entitlement.

      Well, thanks for being clear. Horribly devoid of empathy, but clear.

  26. Oh, and in case I come off sounding like some moneyed elitist saying “let them eat cake”, let me point out that I have never in my life made as much hourly pay as a Chicago garbageman, pre-strike.

  27. It is reasonable to think that a job requiring a doctorate pay more than a job requiring only a 4 year college degree.

    Hey, man, warn us next time you make a funny: I almost spewed coffee all over my glass-framed PhD hanging on the wall. “Reasonable” indeed, but wishing doesn’t make it so….

  28. what if people at the bottom of the currently fashionable skills pile can’t earn enough to eat and buy clothes and medicine? Should we kill them to avoid social liability? These useless eaters? Perhaps a grand feast for them all at once in a hall with nailable doors and wood framing?

  29. Good to see a place for rubber things – even whole rooms – on a site named ‘Boing-Boing’!

  30. In outline, it was the same at the schools I went to. The most important thing was to stay on the premises. While there, the authorities fed you, prevented overt violence, and made some effort to teach you something. But beyond that they didn’t want to have too much to do with the kids. Like prison wardens, the teachers mostly left us to ourselves. And, like prisoners, the culture we created was barbaric.
    Paul Graham

    Fights among teachers in the “rubber room”? Sounds a lot like the societies that prisons and public schools engender.

  31. I want to get a PhD because I love what I do, not because I want money. Of course I need money, but I do not need to be awfully rich, I only need to cover my needs and travel a bit. I have been doing what I do, my research, basically for free the last couple of years.

    Why, if my job is not as physically exhausting as cleaning toilets and I LOVE it, I feel satisfied with it, I like to create models of stuff and find out things using them, why do I have to earn 4 times more than the cleaning lady? I doubt she loves her job the same way I love mine and it is more demanding than mine in terms of mind numbing stuff to do and in terms of yuckyness. So, why should I get paid so much (not that I do)? Why 1.5 times or 1.2 times is not enough? I need her! I need a clean laboratory!

    If people would not have to get in debt and would have money for not to starve, i do not really see why they would have to be payed so much more. Some cleaning ladies deserve more money than some lazy asses teaching at university. Is not common, but I have seen it myself.

  32. #12 POSTED BY TOYG, JUNE 29, 2009 3:40 AM
    Massive business opportunity: beam wifi to these locations.

    Exactly what I was thinking.

  33. In between college and grad school, I was a math teacher in Brooklyn, and I can tell stories that (even on Boing Boing) most people don’t believe.

    I can relate so much to what saw in that video…teachers are forced to become disciplinarians, almost instead of the two areas of expertise they need to master in order to become decent teachers:

    1. The subject matter (eg, math, physics)
    2. Explaining the subject matter

    But instead, teachers are really just fancy security guards, there to make “students” “stay in school”. And why? Because we don’t want them out on the streets where they’ll cause trouble (and you frequently hear people actually saying this).

    My solutions? In the morning Soylent Green scoops move through the streets, rounding up kids for “school”, which is just a gigantic gymnasium with water cannon to break up fights.

  34. I worked in a union for a bit. Was the worse work environment I ever worked in. The ones who stay on and last are a bunch of whiny slackers who refuse to preform tasks in a consistent manner. They always have a gripe about someone and they talk like gossipy spinsters sipping tea.

    Was glad to be layed off.

  35. I spent the last two years teaching middle- and high-school English. It takes 10-15 hours a day to do the job well, which I tried my best to do. It also takes some unpaid part-time prep work over the summers (for example, reading and analyzing the year’s books, drafting unit plans, professional development, etc). If you’re lazy and you don’t care if your coworkers think you’re incompetent, you can get by with 8-9, plus a little on the weekends–but nearly every teacher I’ve known has put in 50-60 hours per week during the school year.

    The problem is that the incentives are all out of whack. Beyond satisfaction, you don’t get anything extra for being a great teacher–maybe, down the line, if you’re in private schools and you’re willing to move around a lot, you get a sweeter gig with your awesome recommendations, but not every administrator is a great evaluator of talent. And in union schools, it’s almost impossible to get rid of the incompetent teachers–the most common route is to promote them out of the classroom. Make them department heads and vice principals and such. So the only reason to work hard is because you care–and you don’t see other industries asking people to bust their butts out of the goodness of their hearts and expecting that to work.

    Then add to that the culture in some schools where a single student or parent can ruin a teacher’s career. Last year, I was in a situation that could have landed me in a “rubber room”–parents blamed a student’s misbehavior on my insufficient supervision on a school trip and threatened a lawsuit. In many districts, that would have been enough to put me on administrative leave, which hard to live down no matter what the eventual findings are. Luckily, my principal had my back. Otherwise, my career could be over–just like that, back into the entry-level job market in some career track I hate.

    No wonder so many teachers burn out.

  36. the problem with this is that the teachers’ hands are tied with regards to disciplining the students.
    Furthermore, they are held in what is essentially a prison without having the charges proven. Even f they are exonerated they will be so badly stigmatized as to probably never be able to work as a teacher again.
    Our treatment of teachers is shameful.

  37. the teacher’s hands are not tied regarding discipline. That is to say, only the decent human being teacher’s hands are tied. Any others can easily use the system to destroy any student they wish.

  38. It’s ultimately about power: use it wisely, fairly, humanely, or abuse it and lose your job, or let your students have it, and let them abuse power they don’t know how to use. It’s not about destroying students: it’s about creating an atmosphere of openness, tolerance, and respect. Put another way: how do disruptive, abusive, troublemaking, etc., students aid the learning process? Answer: they don’t.

    Reflexive anti-authoritarianism is as bad as those ills it would seek to replace, IMHO. And I’m a teacher, so I actually know what I’m talking about. Lead the class (a teacher’s job), follow the class (not the teacher’s job), or get out of the way.

  39. Post 42 is damn stupid. It’s never just about knowing your subject and “explaining it.” Never has been.

    My colleagues and I teach the students my school system can’t handle because of emotional issues, drug issues, home issues, you name it. It isn’t easy and I have my war stories. But I’ve never had to wonder if I was making a god damn difference.

  40. For instance, look at the Chicago garbage collector’s strike from a few years back– demands to make their obscenely high pay and benefits even higher lead to mountains of garbage piling up on the streets of Chicago until the city had to give in to the thugs.

    What makes you say they are thugs? Did they use violence or threats of violence?
    Or are they just ‘thugs’ because they refused to do a certain job at a certain pay?

    If the pay and benefits are so obscenely high, did you offer to do the job? If not, why not? If so, was it worth it?

  41. I’m saying that it is reasonable for the payment for jobs to be based on the level of specialized sills necessary to perform that job– it is reasonable to think that jobs requiring a college degree should pay more than a job requiring only a high school degree.

    Wow, here I had you figured for a free-market fundamentalist, and now it turns out you want to scrap the free market. What do you propose to replace it – government regulation of pay scales?

    In a free market, it’s reasonable to assume that a job that few are willing to do (garbage collection) or few are able to do (brain surgeon) pays more than jobs that many are willing and able to do (porn film test audience).

    A lot of ‘free market’ enthusiasts confuse a ‘free market’ with a ‘buyer’s market’. A buyer’s market is a market where sellers are in abundance and buyers have a lot of choice and power. This forces prices down. A seller’s market is the opposite.
    If you’re selling something (labour, in this case) you want to make sure it’s a seller’s market. So you join a union.
    If you’re buying labour (i.e. you’re an employer) you want to make sure it’s a buyer’s market. So you strive to spread an attitude that joining unions is a bad idea.
    Both are perfectly valid in a market that is ‘free’ in the literal sense, but the former tends to be outlawed in markets that are only free in the corporatists sense.

  42. In a recent discussion with a classmate, he mentioned that “Unions are only effective in developing countries where government regulations are not yet on par with the developed world,” I thought this statement pretty much summed it up.

  43. CCR –
    Who will take the coal from the mine?
    Who will take the salt from the earth?
    Who’ll take a leaf and grow it to a tree?
    Don’t Look Now, it ain’t you or me.

    Who will work the field with his hands?
    Who will put his back to the plough?
    Who’ll take the mountain and give it to the sea?
    Don’t Look Now, it ain’t you or me.

    Don’t Look Now, someone’s done your starvin’;
    Don’t Look Now, someone’s done your prayin’ too.

    Who will make the shoes for your feet?
    Who will make the clothes that you wear?
    Who’ll take the promise that you don’t have to keep?
    Don’t Look Now, it ain’t you or me.

    Who will take the coal from the mines?
    Who will take the salt from the earth?
    Who’ll take the promise that you don’t have to keep?
    Don’t Look Now, it ain’t you or me.

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