Thursday, April 09, 2015


...a true patriot in the service of all that is right and fair in education in the service of children. It has been my honor to serve as Nicholas Weber's representative at Murry Bergtraum. I invite you to explore his thoughts on this, his new web site.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Buddha in the Classroom

This was sent in an email to staff, expats of Murry Bergtraum and the Chancellor.

As our PD the last two weeks has told us- greet students with unconditional positive regard. Don't punish, but look at yourself. See how you can grow together to a better relationship. After all, discipline is about relationships and compassion, not punishments. I agree wholeheartedly. 

The problem is that Buddhist philosophy doesn't pass muster at the Principal's Leadership Academy. Machiavelli is the prevailing philosophy when dealing with "subordinates". Is that the message from the top as well?

The damage done is to drive cynicism even deeper in us. Below is a quote from an article about the extent of the Chancellor's Buddha nature

"The schools chancellor, who defined her first year on the job as a mission to restore “joy” and “respect” to the classroom, has, of late, been encouraging hundreds of city principals to identify and get rid of their weakest teachers. “The teachers who are not up to the job, you’ve got to get them out the door,” FariƱa said to a large group of high school principals at a conference in late February."  
If there was every effort to develop the "bad" teacher it would not be such a blatant contradiction of the Chancellor's pledge to bring "joy" back to education. But, that's not what we are hearing. It's because of the void in leadership. Type A personalities, that belong on Wall Street (to be blunt the Chancellor's way), have flocked to fill the administrative vacancies created by the explosion of small schools. They often have neither the experience or intent, to develop teachers. Their job is to fire. We have experienced that first hand at Bergtraum going on 5 years now. It's Social Darwinistic to terminate without a meaningful intervention. 

The culture of the school must be consistent from top to bottom. Everyone deserves patience, understanding, compassion and support. I would give the Chancellor the benefit of the doubt that she did extent the possible patience and support to teachers who needed it before she wrote them off. I hope she conveys to the new principals to get their Buddha nature up.


“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.” Albert Einstein

John Elfrank-Dana
UFT Chapter Leader
Murry Bergtraum High School

Monday, January 26, 2015

Opportunity Knocks


If we don't have Regents exams on Tuesday we will have nothing to grade on Wednesday. This creates an opportunity. How will we fill the empty day? You have an opportunity before you. Send your principals a memo directing them to fill the day with mandated PD or perhaps allow your army of teacher-creators to convene their own meetings with the only direction to provide some new ideas about teaching and learning that may be applied to their practice. Each group can take notes on what transpired and submit that for supervision.

Is such a departure from compliance culture possible? With a "Progressive" mayor running education in this city now I would think nothing more appropriate. What would give me the moxie to propose such a departure? It appears to work in the private sector.

Take Google:
"We encourage our employees, in addition to their regular projects, to spend 20% of their time working on what they think will most benefit Google. This empowers them to be more creative and innovative." source

They give their engineers 20 percent time during their week to work on whatever they want however they want so long as it's related to Google. I proposed this to a DoE deputy Chancellor about five years ago only to have it scoffed at. But, that was a Bloomberg educational administration.

Google is not the only one doing this. Atlassian, a software developer and others also give "free time" to their creative staff. "... an increase in autonomy occurs only when
employees are truly free to work on any project they desire. Freedom to set one’s schedule
within a defined group of tasks is not the same as freedom to define one’s tasks." source This is from a study in the Journal of Strategic Leadership.

The only structure I would recommend would be to give your teachers some quiet time first for their minds to wander but on thoughts related to their teaching. Then groups convene and share, themes are identified and a regrouping along shared themes for refined collaboration with tentative proposals that offer resources and methods for experimentation and evaluation. A report is generated for the group and shared with the principal. These ideas can go to you and you can decide if another session in the Spring would be worth it. Just an idea.

Or, you could do the predicable: Common Core, Danielson, Online Grading/Smartboard Tech, Learning Board mandated, seemingly ad nauseam,  time. As for me, I believe your teachers have creative potential and don't always need to be lead by the nose to the next task. I believe they have an innate need for mastery which requires a degree of autonomy and purpose.

Not sold? Here's a brief intro by motivation expert Daniel Pink:
Believe in us Chancellor.



Monday, September 01, 2014

Gaza Reader

On Gaza: I have been active on Facebook and present here an anthology.

July 18, 2014
What are the odds an Israeli will be killed in a car crash compared to the odds of being killed by a Hamas rocket? About 100 to 1. 

Love Israel? Send money for drivers ed and not weapons. Oh yes, and tell them to end all illegal occupations and blockades too.

July 31, 2014

At a pro peace rally in Indianapolis 

This refers to any religion

August 10, 2014
Israeli employees fired for speaking out against attack on Gaza. 
If Israel is a democracy, and they have a free press, then this practice should stop. Gideon Levy, the Haaretz journalist and commentator, has had his life threatened for being critical of the Israeli bombardment of Gaza. 

Dozens of Workers Fired Because of Facebook Posts

07 August 2014By New Israel Fund
Since the outbreak of the conflict in Gaza, dozens of Palestinian Israelis have been fired from their jobs for expressing their opposition to the war on social networks. We spoke to Gadeer Nicola, a lawyer and coordinator of the Nazareth branch of NIF grantee Workers Hotline, to hear about the efforts to fight back and promote freedom of expression. See full article

August 10, 2014
Can I, as a US citizen, donate to this organization?

B'Tselem is the Israeli human rights organization. The bulk of my information comes from progressive Jewish and Israeli sources. 

Families bombed at home, Gaza, July-August 2014 (initial figures)

 11 Aug 2014
During the fighting in Gaza, dozens of residences were bombed while residents were at home. The following infographic lists members of families killed in their homes in 72 incidents of bombing or shelling. In these incidents, 547 people were killed, including 125 women under the age of 60, 250 minors, and 29 people over the age of 60. Mouse over the houses for more details.
The figures B’Tselem collected regarding the number of Palestinians killed in the course of the fighting in the Gaza Strip are very preliminary, and are still being cross-referenced and checked. In the months ahead, B’Tselem plans to further investigate the incidents, including confirming the identity of the individuals killed and whether or not they took part in the hostilities.

Sept. 1, Postscript by me.
Remember 100 to 1 Israeli death by car crash as opposed to Hamas "rocket"... Rockets are the excuse now since it was revealed Hamas didn't kill the 3 Israeli teens. But, that was revealed too late. So, like the rational from WMD to Democracy the US used in Iraq, Israel plays the slight of hand. 

August 10, 2014
I don't share the voices of extremism here. Whether it's Palestinian extremists calling for the extermination of Jews (which the vast majority do not) or Israelis who call for the extermination of the Arabs (as which the vast majority do not). This young man's opinion I believe is that of the mainstream in the world.
BTW, is an invaluable source of information for anyone wanting a progressive Jewish analysis.

August 19, 2014 Dershowitz vs Chomsky debate Israel at Harvard
Israel/Palestine: A great debate between two prominent scholars for background.

Play Video

August 26, 2014

Monday, May 19, 2014

Mulgrew's Myth

No wonder so many softballs were thrown at President Mulgrew tonight in the seminar. I don't recall a single question from a high school teacher. Was there one?

I did spot the high school Vice President and a Chapter Leader in the studio audience. But it was one PS question after another. Either way, it would have just been another softball.

Mulgrew opened with his own myth. That the UFT doesn't want a contract that hurts the children we serve. But, this one does! My question of - Why is there nothing about class size reduction in this contract? Which I submitted 15 min before the start on their online form but was not asked. I suppose if I asked - Why is there nothing to reduce the testing of our students in this contract? Or, Why is there nothing to bring back enriched curriculum with arts, music, and electives? I suppose these wouldn't have been asked either. And, for us teachers: Why is there nothing to reign in bully principals? 

I have always asked myself, Would I stand for my own children to be educated in this way? With class sizes so large, with high concentrations of high need students, with stripped curricula? This has always been the driving force behind not being able to keep my mouth shut about this system.

Instead of a meaningful discussion we got redundancy; another rehash of Unity contract propaganda. How many times was he asked if retro was paid after one retires? How many references to the career ladder combined with a murky mix of Prose schools?

There should have been a rebuttal afterward from an opposition caucus. But, let's be real. This crowd is so insecure it has to rig everything in advance. There's no way they will allow an intelligent dissenting opinion to penetrate the ditto head culture. They are counting on most of the members to say "F---k it!," Hold their noses and check the "Yes" box.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Send Mulgrew Back to the Bargaining Table - Why I Vote NO

There's money
I get waiting for the retro, but raises should begin right away. 
Speaking of raises we are talking 18% over 9 years. That's not fair and it sets the bar way too low for our other brother/sister unions who have to follow our pattern.

ATRs deserve full due process. These teachers should be rotated back into a position to become a regular teacher. Why the UFT agrees to keep them in a special category is truly sad. This contract offers them Due Process LITE, expedited firing process. We cannot stand for that.

Enshrining Danielson and MOSL - Anyone who plans on staying more than a couple of years has to take this seriously. This contract does nothing to get rid of evaluating teachers by test scores. The teachers union in Tennessee are getting rid of test score eval. Why can't we?

Backdoor Merit Pay - in the guise of Master Teacher, etc. Undermines solidarity by creating a teacher caste system. 

What's Missing? Class Size Reduction, Guidance Counselor Case Load Reduction, Wrap Around Services for Families, Brining Back Curriculum the children of the 1 percent enjoy: electives, music, art, PE...

We need to do this morally, as professionals who care for those we serve. Our students deserve everything we want for our own children to have in a school. If the parents get behind us, we cannot lose. But, this contract makes us look like defeated patsies. 

Take this opportunity to stand as a proud professional with convictions by saying NO, we and our students deserve better.

In solidarity,


John Elfrank-Dana
UFT Chapter Leader
Murry Bergtraum High School

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Hatchet Principal

The "Hatchet Man" in the parlance of the business world is a manager brought in for the specific purpose of mass firings of staff. As a manager in the hotel business before becoming a school teacher I was aware of these people. A hotel would bring such a person in with the full support for him/her to "do what had to be done."

Management gives the Hatchet Man the necessary time to flush a significant number of staff out the door. Then, after enough of the bloodletting has occurred (not too difficult if the union is sluggish and bureaucratic, or indifferent), the management finally concedes to the union complaints. "Ya," they say, "the guy was no good." So, they can him. But, the damage is done - mission accomplished. He goes off and finds another hotel looking for a hatchet guy. After all, that's his specialty and there's always enough demand. Meanwhile the management and union get to pretend they were the good guys after all, they got rid of him- didn't they?

In the parlance of the NYC Department of Education we have the "Closer Principal." It's a title anointed to those who have a reputation for belligerent staff relations. When it was announced we would get Lottie Almonte, the blogosphere was a buzz with speculation. Death Watch for Murry Bergtraum was published on Ed Notes Online. She had a reputation coming out of Brooklyn schools for far less than collaboration and veracity in staff relations.

I contacted the United Federation Teachers Brooklyn Borough office which confirmed the worst of what we were hearing. We had just managed to remove a troublesome principal, Andrea Lewis. The response from our Manhattan UFT Borough Office was to wait and see if we can play nice. Furthermore, our principal's boss, Marisol Bradbury, is reported to have had the same management style when she was principal. Given her aloof style, compared to other superintendents, it's no surprise. So, complaints up the chain of command are futile. They only signal that the principal is doing her job.

The Bloodletting - The aftermath of 2012-2013

After the first year, over 51 staff members left, mostly voluntary in the form of transfers, hastened retirements and voluntary excess. This out of about 170 total staff in the building. No complaints from the Department of Education, not even UFT headquarters. Every instructional Assistant Principal, every secretary, every guidance counselor and dozens of teachers at the top of their game, including our staff developers and Broad Science Prize winner - GONE! With this I gave her the name "Lottie Neutron", as the neutron bomb kills people but leaves buildings in tact.

The school's Learning Environment Survey, with 100% of the staff participating, says it all with regard to our Closer Principal's leadership with the majority of staff saying they don't trust her nor think she's competent. Now the trust question was removed from this year's survey. The results won't be available until the fall. It's a safe bet the numbers will be worse for the school's administration.

The school is named for a former President of the NYC Board of Education - Murry Bergtraum. The family is still prominent in city politics. Closing the school would mean the name would have to change. The school, one of the best in the city from the 1970s-1990s, took a nose dive when it become a dumping ground for the Bloomberg/Klein educational policy (2001-present) of closing large schools and sending kids whose parents have no plans to get them into a new small school.

Finally, we are in the shrink-down phase. The name Murry Bergtraum will remain outside on the wall but it will now be a campus hosting 4 schools. To make this happen the DoE had to gut staff. Keep in mind we also had a large percentage of senior staff in the building. We were an expensive lot. Union dues are the same for brand new teachers as they are for veterans, so the UFT has no automatic incentive to protect senior staff. Voluntary retirement is preferred, as ATRs (unassigned, fully benefited teachers who roam as substitutes- there is a no layoff clause in the contract) are a political headache for both the DoE and UFT.

On the Horizon
Just as the Hatchet Man's performance is not based upon employee satisfaction or retention -nor customer satisfaction really, the Closer Principal's performance won't be based as most principals' will be, i.e. on student test scores. For she comes for a specific purpose- to clear the decks and make room.

A high number of "Ineffective" ratings for staff this spring should also garner another wave of bloodletting. With minions of the principal in the form of brand new Assistant Principals of questionable experience or credentials to lead seasoned educators, seeing the glass half empty when they come to observe a lesson, citing dissent as unprofessional, punishing teachers for not staying beyond contractual time for meetings, using canned phrases in post-observation reports to teachers, referring to web sites for staff that request help, not making themselves available to model lessons, and you see there's no plan to develop the staff. They become the Closer Principal's Goon Squad.

The students suffer as much as the staff. The school has been in a state of programming and security chaos for the last year and a half. Special education violation abound and reports have been filed with New York State by whistle-blowing staff members. Does all of this pass muster with Chancellor Farina, who said she wanted to see more "joy" in the schools? Nothing but silence from her thus far.

Will this pass muster with a mayor who has a Progressive brand? If the teachers' union doesn't pressure the mayor to do away with these bully principals what incentive does the mayor have? School closings re supposed to be on the outs. So, what about the league of closer style principals out there? How do you change the culture of a bureaucracy that valued teacher bashing the last 12 years?

The majority of the staff at this point would welcome a shut down of the school. The misery is that palpable. Such is the work of the "Closer." What place does the Closer have in a de Blasio educational policy?

Lastly, I get no personal satisfaction exposing anyone's failings in public, and no less for Lottie. On a personal level she has been mostly friendly. But, her professional role has caused staff and students much harm at our school. It's my obligation to note it for the record in the hopes that someday an enlightened chancellor and union president will take notice.

John Elfrank-Dana
UFT Chapter Leader
Murry Bergtraum High School