On Having A Tumor Without Tenure


So it’s June 20th (“Regents’ Week” in New York high schools) and I’m having coffee with the most wonderfully kind teacher of my school. We’re in his classroom, talking about our wives, when he starts giving me some awesome advice about marriage. He has this beautiful baritone voice and speaks in this fabulously slow, deliberate manner so, as is my habit when I listen to his wisdom, I lean my head into my right hand and just take it all in.

At that moment -I mean at that very moment- I feel some type of bump thing under my ear. My colleague’s voice fades just a bit as I begin to concentrate my attention on this area just under my ear. I pick up my head up and touch  it with the tips of my two fingers and quickly conclude that I have a lump.

My colleague’s voice fades almost completely away now as I feel all around this lump. It’s about 3/4 inch in diameter, comes up about 1/2 an inch off of the side of my face and is planted right there under my ear. There is nothing on the other side, nothing under my neck and nothing anywhere else. I can no longer hear a word coming from my colleague. I see a face and a moving mouth but no sound comes out. All I can think about it is ‘wtf is this lump?’. It doesn’t hurt, doesn’t feel sore and isn’t accompanied by any fever or discomfort. The skin around it is not brown or discolored. It doesn’t feel like a huge zit and doesn’t hurt when I press on it. Yet there it is.

One month, five doctor appointments, an X-Ray and an MRI later and I am informed that I have a tumor in my right salivary gland. I didn’t even know I had one of those.  I’m also told that there is no certainty as to whether it is cancerous or benign (although, I’m told, it’s probably benign). Finally, I’m informed that I’ll need surgery to fix this broken gland of mine.

And just like that, I am tossed into the merry Go ‘Round that is our American Healthcare System.

I dont suppose my ride will be a long one. I have recently seen this happen to someone close and  the full cycle of death by cancer is a vicious one. There are endless appointments, countless doctors who you see but don’t know, as well as more trips for procedures, surgeries and/or scary tests than you can, or care to, count. And then there are the drugs -endless amounts of drugs. They have drugs to drain your fluids and drugs to fill you with them. They have drugs to poison you and drugs to make you feel better after having been poisoned. There are drugs to make you sleep, drugs to wake you up, drugs to make you eat and drugs to make you stop vomiting when you’ve eaten too much after injecting the poison.  Witnessing these things was one thing. But by mid-July, after just 20 minutes with my head shoved into an MRI machine, I came to realize the full scope of what I suddenly hoped I was not in store for. If it’s bad -I mean if it’s really really bad- I’ll begin this slow process where I’ll first stop being myself, then stop being able to work and finally stop being anything at all. If it’s more than what it probably it is (because it probably is just a benign tumor), I will have to consider how to navigate the terrain through these lenses.

I don’t mention this because I think it matters much for an Edu blog. Nor do I mention it because I think this extreme possibility will happen to me (again, odds are that it won’t). I certainly don’t mention it for attention or sympathy. I only bring it up because I’d like you to see the landscape from my perspective as I begin talking about my job protections.

You see, at this point in the summer, it looks as though the surgery will take place sometime after the start of the coming school year. This means that I will probably have to miss at least a few days of work. My license is not in a shortage area. ‘High School Social Studies Teacher’ is a dream job, you see. The fact of the matter is that there are ten guys who are just as smart (and five who are just as handsome) who could quickly move in and do what I do for literally half of what it costs to pay my salary and the healthcare benefits that will probably save me.

I also need to say that I have seen school leaders move to get rid of teachers for something like missing work in order to address needed health issues before. I haven’t seen this once or twice mind you (although I haven’t seen it “a lot” or “often” either), but I have seen it enough over my thirteen years in the classroom to have clear recollections of being thankful for my good health on more than one occasion. And I’ve seen it enough to count myself grateful that I do not currently work under such school leaders. Those observations make me feel grateful for having the job protection of tenure.

I know what the process for a ruthless principal is to get rid of someone with sudden health issues. A principal I worked for between 2001 and 2005, and another I worked for for one semester in 2008 both followed it well. Before the health issues, the teacher is a fine and productive teacher. Suddenly, the health issues arrive and the teacher is not able to wait until the summer to take care of it. Soon after, the administrators share concerns about the teaching practices of this teacher. Before you know it, administrators and their lackies, label this person as a ‘bad teacher’. From there, it’s a quick ride out. I’ve witnessed three teachers be forced into an early retirement, one forced into a resignation from the system altogether and just this year, heard that another was forced into a medical pension that she did not wish to take.

The principals didn’t force these teachers into these positions on the grounds that they were sick. Of course, that would be reprehensible. Rather, they forced my colleagues into these positions because they were ‘bad’ at what they did. Of course, the rub is that they were only labelled ‘bad’after they became sick. Any dimwit can tell you that that’s how things work in the real world.

I make this point because just yesterday, Whoopi Goldberg jumped on the bandwagon of ‘fire the bad teachers’. I have to admit that, at face value, it is an honorable bandwagon to jump on. No one, and that includes me, wants a bad teacher teaching. A slightly closer look will reveal that Ms. Goldberg is embracing a specific form of commentary -one that happens to be called the “Bad Teacher Narrative”. That’s the commentary that chooses to discuss only the bad apples that populate our classrooms and no others. It’s a useful narrative, in that focusing on the bad apples allows people to take hard earned privileges away from all of us.  Julie Cavanaugh, the lady who ran for president of my union last time around  once mentioned that “The ‘bad teacher’ narrative as a way of explaining what’s wrong with our school system gets really old,”. Looks like she was wrong. It’s not old for Ms. Goldberg. On her show yesterday, Whoopi seemed to imply that tenure for all teachers should be removed simply because a few of us (anywhere between 1% – 3% according to testimony during the Vergara Case) may be bad. Of course, she doesn’t consider how any one of us can arrive at the label of being bad. Some of us, like my colleagues under a ruthless principal, can be fine, but then become bad suspiciously after becoming sick. Others can befall this label for other reasons that are nothing short of dishonest and corrupt. Whoopi didn’t seem to address this. No one who embraces the ‘Bad Teacher Narrative” ever seems to address this.

At this point, I would like to point out that, should Campbell Brown’s lawsuit designed to repeal teacher tenure in New York State be successful, I, along with the ‘bad teachers’, will be an ‘at-will’ employee until the New York State Legislature acts. This may stand in opposition to some things you have read in the past. The fact, however, is that New York’s Civil Service laws do not apply to teachers and will not kick in as some sort of magical backstop should Brown’s suit be successful. If she wins, teachers throughout the state will be “at-will” until some type of new laws are passed in the legislature. That is a fact.

And it leads me to an important point.  That without tenure, I’d have a lot more to worry about this year than just this damn tumor.

This post was written by a New York City High School teacher who wishes to remain anonymous.

Reposted from http://nycurbaned.blogspot.com/2014/08/on-being-sick-without-tenure.html

3 thoughts on “On Having A Tumor Without Tenure

  1. At least 2 principals in my school have also gone after sick or injured teachers. We have to reject not only the bad teacher narrative, but the “reforms” that come with it.

  2. Thank you for sharing your experience. You are quite right that there are reprehensible principals who will use a health emergency as a reason to do anything they want to do to a teacher.

    A quick report on my experience. At the end of my second year teaching in 2010-2011, I was trying to finish my MS.Ed at City College. Since I worked at a school in the Soundview section of the Bronx, this required me twice a week to catch the BX5 bus outside the school to the No. 2 line to 137th St. to the BX33 to climb up the steep stairs of St. Nicholas Park and spend 3 hours a night listening to an adjunct drone on about nothing.

    The BX5 only showed up when it felt like it. One late April afternoon I saw it coming down the road and ran for it. Unfortunately, while I ran for the bus a small blue car was running for me at about 30 mph. I saw the car just in time to pull my body out of the way of certain death but looked down to see the car’s front and back right tires roll over my left foot breaking it in three places.

    I was taken to Jacobi Hospital and got excellent care, which first included a knee-high cast, then a bootie, then crutches, then a cane and, of course, a handful of Percoset. I lived in Union Square in Manhattan and now had to take the No. 5 train to 125, change to the No. 6 to Hunts Point station and then to the dreaded BX5 to school. What had taken me an hour now took me 90 minutes to do in cast/bootie/crutches. The pain was intense. During the period I missed around 15 days of school–one week in bed, 10 days periodically in bed when the pain of the previous day’s trek to the Bronx had laid me out. All the absences were medically excused.

    When my principal called for my tenure portfolio a month earlier than required I knew I was screwed partly because of some statements I’d made about the special education program. She told me to come in for a meeting the first week in December when she’d tell me her tenure decision, three or four months before she needed to. The first words out of her mouth were “I can’t offer you tenure because of your absences.” When I reminded her that I’d been hit by a car right out in front of her very own school and that they’d all been medically excused she said, “Yes, that was unfortunate.” After another half hour of lies and stupidity we still hadn’t discussed my “teaching.” With my hand on the doorknob of her office I turned and asked “So, Ms. Laboy, what do you think of my teaching?” “Oh, Mr. Lirtzman, you’re a fine teacher, which is why I’m extending your probation for a year.”

    I took the next day off and when I came back in asked to meet with her during 8th period. I gave her back her keys and walked out the door. Never looked back because, fortunately, I could afford to tell her to go “F… herself.”

  3. I want to thank all of the teachers that have opened a constructive dialogue on “The Bad Teacher” narrative. It will never go away because there are too many people who are invested and will benefit from the undoing of teacher tenure.

    I became a teacher in 1985. I was a graduate with a BA and MA, and was 23 years old. I was working 16 hour shifts as a home health aide, as I could not find a job in my field. I could not tell 7am from 7pm. My alarm clock and my schoolmate, who had the same degrees and lack of prospects as myself, were my life lines. The minimum wage was $3.00/hr. Yes, close your mouth, that’s a fact. We were living hand to mouth, and I had a basement apartment that I could barely afford.

    So, an announcement went out by the Bd. of Ed. that they needed teachers. I jumped at the opportunity. I thought to myself, wow, I think I can do this. I love kids, right? So, I brought all of my college credentials, copies of my degrees, and I went through the intake process. Then, I headed upstairs where I took a test in math, reading and writing. Then, onto the tape recorded interview. It amounted to prompts about what I would do in my classroom should something come up. The interviewer was amazing. He helped me to answer the questions, then thanked me for doing a great job. He then welcomed me to the profession.

    I went on to teach in elementary school and junior high school of three years. Then, I left the profession, to pursue a love that I could not have done without teaching. I pursued that dream and did well in that career. I got married, had a child and life was sort of grand. I was pulled back into teaching after being out for close to ten years.

    When I returned, I returned to teach high school. I started teaching in a high school in Brooklyn. What I was to experience would serve as a lesson in educational malfeasance. The principal ran the school from an office of fear. Everyone was afraid of this woman. She was a maniac. She smoked in the school, and after being there for three months, she ended the entire ESL department. The entire department of 22 teachers. I was an ESL teacher and was shocked. After all, 99% of our students were Dominican and depended on our department to help them graduate from high school, the first in most cases, in their family. What ended up happening was that she changed the grades of all of the “seniors” and attempted to graduate students who could not pass their classes–because she shut down our department (she did this because she was mad at a few teachers who disagreed with her in meetings..they disagreed with her about how she ran the school..nothing but nepotism). In May or June, she and her “team” were taken out in handcuffs. It was on the news. Sorry sight. The students ended up having to take the classes that they needed for graduation.

    I continued teaching in this alternative high school superintendency. It was great to see that older students wanted to return to school to graduate. I moved on to teach in a very small school with a small teaching staff. It was great! I was given a lot of responsibility and I took the bull by the horns. I felt really good because my students were passing the regents. My supervisor at the time, loved me and put a great letter in my file, thanking me for my hard work. I stayed with the program, but became disillusioned when I witnessed a teacher cheating. I was supposed to take over from a colleague who was helping a sped kid write his exam responses. When I went to relieve him, I saw him writing the exam without any student input. Their backs were to me, and I could hear the teacher telling the kid not to worry “I’ll make sure that you graduate.” I felt uncomfortable. So, I coughed out loud, and both of them turned around to face me at the door. The teacher told me not to worry, he would cover my proctoring time. I said “okay”. I started to worry, but I said nothing to no one. I decided to talk to teachers I had met along the way and was told to keep my mouth shut. So, I did.

    I was offered another position closer to my home, which meant that I didn’t have to drive to work everyday. I was in and would stay at this school for over six years and worked summer school every year while I was there. I took on a lot of responsibilities, the staff was really close, i thought that I would start anew and so I shrugged off what I saw and moved on. I loved my job, I loved the staff, it was a match made in heaven.

    What I like most about this new job was the flexibility with what I taught. I got to teach regents prep classes, I got to work with hardworking sped kids that had some really big deficits, I got to do so many creative things in this school. All I cared about were my students and their well-being. I fed them, I worked them hard, and I loved them each dearly. I loved my job. Being a teacher was the best job in the world, hands down.

    As the years progressed, I was becoming disillusioned. The students were not coming to school regularly. Their attendance was just deplorable. I couldn’t help students that stopped caring. I couldn’t reach them, but I busted my hump calling them in the evening to let them know that I cared. I called parents and was told, by too many of them, that they are tired of their kids. They were fed up. “I spoke to him/her over and over and I’m outta talking”. This is what was going on. I went to other teachers, I went to the AP the principal and they told me that I had to keep going. If the kids didn’t care, at least I did, and for those who came, they would graduate. But, that sounded terrible to me. I continued to reach out because I cared, but I was getting tired and frustrated.

    As the years went by more and more kids were failing classes, and I found that teachers would give them a pass because they needed their class to graduate. Then, my students were coming to me and asking me to change their grades so that they could graduate. More and more teachers were passing these students. But, the students were failing the regents, so how were they going to graduate. What I started seeing was the changing of grades on regents exams and the RCTs. I felt that teachers were assuming what the students were writing and gave them a pass. I read some exams and the students would fail. Then, teachers would ban together to reread those exams and pass those students. Because the exams were marked by their teachers, and stored in house, teachers were convinced that their practices were fine. They were not. I would not sign off on an exam that was regraded. I started seeing my colleagues and the administrators as criminals. They were.

    On my watch, an administrator was changing the wrong answers to the right answers on the exams. I saw this, and was shocked. I didn’t know what to do. My union rep told me that I was on my own. I called it in. I tried to be anonymous. I was promised anonymity by the investigator that I spoke to. What ended up happening was that I was found out months later because the superintendent put a letter out to administrators in other schools that I was the “leak”. The administrator was taken out and replaced by successful dimwits. It was a horror show. My colleagues found out and treated me terribly. I was told by my union rep at the school to find another school, another job. I was reeling. Why was I the bad guy?

    I was not allowed to grade regents exams at all by the new administrator. She stalked me around the building. She yelled at me and was always around my classroom peeping in. She shouted at me. I started keeping a journal to document a pattern abuse. Neither my rep nor the UFT helped me. So, I just moved on.

    The fall came and I thought that I was making a clean break from it all. I moved to another school. I went to the school in the summer to introduce myself to the skeleton staff there. The principal was not there. So, when she was making introductions in the fall, of all new staff, she failed to call my name. I stood up and respectfully said, you didn’t call my name. She seemed to try and ignore me. I respectfully introduced myself to the staff and they welcomed me. We broke to clean our rooms and get our books. I got everything done early, then I wanted to play the piano, as it relaxed me. So, it was locked. I went to get the key and was told to see the principal.

    I asked the principal for the key to the piano and she asked me into her office. She was upset with me for some reason. I asked her if I could have the key. She turned to me as said “you’ve got work to do”. I said to her that I was finished. I had brought my own supplies and had mopped the floors, washed every single desk top, cleaned the boards, moved the seats into rows (which was okay back then..), and organized the books on my shelves, and I was done. She then looked at me quizzically, as if I were lying. But, it seemed like something more. It was something more.

    I was going to walk out because I didn’t know why she was acting weird. She was looking at me with derision, but I didn’t know what I did to cause her to feel this way. Was it my introduction during the morning meeting? Could it be that she was just in a bad mood? I didn’t know. So, I moved to go out. She asked me to wait. “Please sit down, I’d like to talk to you.” I sat. She asked me why I left my last school. I told her that I didn’t want to go down with the ship. She asked me what I meant. I said that the students were not coming to school, they were failing classes and regents and I wanted to move on. She sat there, glaring at me. I felt uncomfortable. She asked “What is the name of your principal?” I asked her which one. She asked me who the original one was, and I told her. She then remarked “I know your principal, we’ve worked together for the past 25 years.” My mouth fell open. Now I was afraid. She told me to go to my room.

    For the rest of the year, she stalked me in the hallway, came to my classroom without notice. Then the “U” ratings began. I received 8 “U” ratings from her during that year. She made me out to be incompetent. I took some time off, then my mom was diagnosed with a serious disease, and I had to find care for her. I missed 13 days, most of them due to my mom’s health. The principal sent me to the shrink, who laughed with me during my interview. He granted me all 13 absences, yet she gave me a “U” for the year, based on attendance. It was the year from hell.

    As a 22 year vet, I earned my seniority, I earned my tenure, I earned all of the my “S” ratings for the year and for summer school, never once did anyone question my experience. Never! The number of kids that graduated because of me is well over 2000. This is progress. I am a professional. I am not some clown that can be toyed with by these gangsters. Yet, because I’m older, a senior teacher, at the top of the salary food chain, tenured, and have a legacy, I am targeted.

    Now, I was just diagnosed with Osteoporsis two months ago. It is horrible because I’m just a half a century old, not yet 55. But, I was told that because my bones are spongy, I could fall or twist and could break an arm, my back, an ankle. It’s terrible news. I am on a high calcium and D diet, green powder. I walk and bike. I am keeping myself healthy. I have three more years left and I don’t want to be tagged as a “Bad Teacher” because I have an illness that chose me. I am also not down with the politics of these schools either. The administrators are still going to change grades, to make their graduation rates look good. They will also fudge the attendance.

    All I want to do is make it for the next three years, and retire with dignity.

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