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What Happened to the Rubber Room?

Mar 31, 2011

When a student gets in trouble, he or she is typically sent to the principal's office, given detention or assigned some other standard punishment. Most school systems have established channels for disciplining students, but not for teachers. In the past decade, attention has been drawn to an unusual practice of disciplining public school faculty in New York City.

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By Sarah Wright

What Is a Rubber Room?

In New York City and, thanks to media coverage, across the globe, the words 'rubber room' don't necessarily refer to a padded cell for the insane. Instead, this is the colloquial term used to refer to teacher reassignment centers in New York City. Their official function was to serve as a sort of midway point for teachers facing disciplinary hearings. The reassignment centers would allow teachers to keep their jobs until they were formally disciplined, and would keep them out of the classroom until it was deemed appropriate for them to return. It may sound like a good idea in theory, but in practice, the rubber room became a lightning rod of criticism.

skeptical teacher

Around 2008, media attention began to focus on these detention centers. One story that got a lot of attention was aired by the popular public radio program This American Life on February 29, 2008. Through interviews with teachers, that story gave a first-person perspective of what it was like to be sent to the rubber room. According to interviewees, the paid time off was far from a vacation. Instead of being able to move on and look for new work, the teachers were being kept in a sort of limbo, unsure of what the outcome of their hearings would be, and whether they would ever get a hearing at all.

Another revelation of the rubber room system was the fact that the centers were crowded, and teachers would often get into social disputes over things like who could sit in what chair, and whether the room was getting too loud. Some teachers interviewed for the This American Life story said that they couldn't even read in the rubber room, because there was so much noise from other teachers talking. And in some cases, that conversation was not open - the radio piece featured allegations of cliquish behavior among the adults, something one might expect out of students, but not their teachers.

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Criticism

One of the most common complaints from teachers is that their time in a rubber room seemed indefinite. Rather than being a temporary holding zone for those who would face a hearing within a week, some ended up in the rubber room for months on end. Some teachers even felt that the holding itself was a punishment - rather than being quickly processed through the disciplinary system, they were forced to wait through a sort of purgatory. This claim was especially strong among those who had served as whistleblowers against school administration or city officials.

literal rubber room

In addition to criticism from teachers and their supporters, the rubber room program drew scrutiny because of the amount of money it wasted. Essentially, the city was retaining full-time employees who served no functional purpose. The teachers were being paid their full salaries, with benefits, without setting foot into a classroom. Additionally, the facilities housing the teachers required upkeep and utility payments. Some estimated that the program cost the city more than $60 million per year.

The Rubber Room Now

With such intense scrutiny, it would have been baffling for the New York City public school system to decide to continue the program. In April 2010, the teacher's union and city officials reached an agreement to end the system of teacher reassignment centers. They are no longer in use today, though media coverage, like the This American Life story and a documentary called The Rubber Room serve as lasting criticism for this type of system.

Teachers face challenges other than potentially unfair systems of discipline. In South Korea, human teachers are being supplemented by robots! To learn more about robot teachers, click here.

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