New York City could lay off thousands of public school teachers amid budget cuts this month, and the first to go, thanks to union seniority protections, would be new teachers.
Third grade teacher Juhyung Harold Lee is among those 4,100 teachers at risk of losing their jobs. Lee is wrapping up his third year teaching. The union contract requires the least experienced teachers to be let go first, and so elementary teachers with less than four years' experience are most at risk. For Lee, it doesn't look good.
"I wish that there was more certainty, especially as we move towards the end of the year, because you really want to be thinking about next year," Lee says. "And it seems kind of preposterous that we're just expected to wait."
Lee isn't the only one waiting at PS 124 in Chinatown. The school expects to lose four of its 55 full-time teachers if the layoffs go through. Principal Alice Hom says parents and teachers are anxious.
"I hope they don't think I'm lying, but I really don't have any information that I can share with them at this time. I've spoken to other principals who are in the same boat — some of them who have, like, 13 staff members who are supposed to be laid off," Hom says.
Because the layoffs are based solely on last in, first out, some schools with a lot of new teachers would be especially hard hit.
Lee, the son of Korean immigrants, says he wanted to become a teacher because education enabled his parents to become successful. He graduated from Brown University and Teachers College at Columbia University. Lee still considers himself a novice, but he says he's learned a lot from veteran teachers. He recalls teaching at his first school in Queens.
"I was just trying to survive, and I was really fortunate that there were a lot of teachers at my old school that were incredibly supportive — willing to share ideas, materials, willing to brainstorm with me," Lee says.
That's why despite his own predicament, he wouldn't want to throw out seniority protections completely without a better way of evaluating teachers. The state just created a new evaluation system, but the city and the teachers union are at odds over the details.
"In general, policymakers and administrative leadership, they're too quick to try to identify [what] are the characteristics of a good teacher. And too often it's tied to things that we know aren't the signs of good teachers like good test scores, for example," Lee says.
Principal Hom agrees that rating teachers is more of an art than a science. That's why she opposes the law that requires new teachers to be the first ones to go during layoffs, regardless of merit. The union says this protects senior teachers from being eliminated because they make more money. But Hom says a good teacher is worth the cost — and principals should get to make that decision.
"There are always other people you might want to have leave your building for one reason or other and you have no control over that. You have to deal with your staff as best you can," Hom says.
If the layoffs go through, Hom could replace some of her new teachers with more experienced teachers from other schools. But she says that would be chaotic and she likes the energy and enthusiasm of her new teachers.
"I don't think teachers who are new in the system should be necessarily the first to leave because they have some added value," Hom says.
She says Lee is one such teacher, calling him smart and dedicated.
'I'm Not Going To Wait'
Lee envisioned himself teaching for at least five years before moving into education administration. But he lost his first job in Queens because of budget cuts. Now that he's at risk of losing his second job in Chinatown, he says he's planning to go to law school unless a deal is struck very soon to avert the layoffs. He applied last year to give himself more options and was accepted at the University of California at Berkeley.
"At this point it's looking more and more like that's the route I'm going to take because I'm not going to wait until July or August to see if I have a job," Lee says.
His principal says she'll be sorry to lose him. Right now Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the city council are still negotiating over the budget. Some longtime observers believe the mayor is bluffing, because he's made similar threats in the past. But the mayor insists the money just isn't there.