Every weekday morning, about seven hundred New York City public school teachers, one percent of the total, are forbidden to go to school. Charged with misconduct and stripped of their teaching duties, they are required instead to congregate in crowded rooms away from students and sit there all day, killing time. Some know what they are accused of. Others don’t. Until their cases are resolved, they continue to be paid but have to spend every working day in teacher jail. Their mind-numbing detention lasts for months, sometimes years. They call it the “rubber room.” It is where teachers in trouble are hung out to dry.
Officially termed “temporary reassignment centers,” rubber rooms are an institutionalized facet of workplace mobbing in America’s largest school system. In most workplaces, internal exile is metaphorical. The targeted worker punches in every day but is assigned no meaningful work, and therefore languishes in a mental prison of doubt, shame, and fear. In the rubber room, the exile and prison are literal. Teachers sent there are left to brood and fume on full salary, as their teaching careers slip away. Even if they are eventually released back into the classroom, they are damaged goods.
Without a doubt, some inmates of the rubber room are depraved, incompetent, or otherwise unfit to teach. They should be fired. Others, however, just got on the wrong side of some vice-principal, and the whole system came down on their heads. The charges many teachers face are fuzzy, exaggerated, or simply false. Yet here they sit week after week in the rubber room, their depression and anger deepening day by day, their stigma sinking in more indelibly. Leonard Brown was removed from the classroom for making physical contact with a student during a simple science demonstration that he had been using to teach physics for 18 years. Michael Thomas landed in the rubber room after he reported irregularities in the grading of Regents exams and objected to the way funds were spent at his school. The rubber room is a purgatory or limbo that mocks the principles of natural justice, in particular the right of anyone accused to a fair and speedy trial.
Since smaller workplaces typically have only a handful of cases of internal exile at a time, they rarely get much publicity. New York’s school system is so large, however, and the technique of exile so standardized, that the havoc this ostracization wreaks on human lives has been widely criticized. Union leaders blame rubber rooms on policies that give principals discretion to banish teachers they don’t like. The Department of Education blames them on collective agreements that prevent easy dismissal. The disagreement between the union and the department goes on and on. “It is in workplaces where workers’ rights are formally protected that the complex and devious incursions on human dignity that constitute mobbing most commonly occur” (Westhues 2002).
The links on this page are to news articles, blogs, videos, and radio broadcasts that describe the roughly one dozen rubber rooms in New York City. These rooms illustrate how destructive and wasteful the problem of workplace mobbing is.