Switching to Linux

In which I extol the virtues of a free operating system.

I was on a roll with venting about technology earlier this week, and thought I’d keep the tech theme going as I move to dump Window$ in favor of another operating system.

When educators think of computers, we tend to default to the Windows vs. Mac dichotomy. Folks tend to prefer one operating system over the other, and that’s totally fine. But what if there were a better option, or hundreds out there? Enter Linux. Linux is a family of open-source operating systems that are all built around something called the Linux kernel. Linux distributions (flavors of the operating system) have a few things going for them, namely that they’re completely free with no catches, well-maintained, and incredibly powerful.

I recently installed Linux Mint, and I’m pretty excited to explore what it can do. Sure it does all of the normal things like access the web browser, print documents, etc., but there’s so much more power in a Linux machine compared to Windows or Mac. I appreciate that this particular flavor of Linux is pretty user-friendly, affording me the flexibility and power of Linux without getting bogged down in constant tinkering that may be necessary on more advanced systems. Mint is derived from a distribution called Ubuntu, which is further derived from Debian. This Debian-based branch of Linux distros is pretty well documented, with plenty of helpful wikis, tidbits, etc. scattered across the internet.

Some of the first programs I set up once I installed the OS were:

  • Emacs: A pretty amazing program that deserves it’s own post (or a dozen, to be realistic). Emacs is an infinitely extendable and customizable text editor and it can be molded to fit the needs of individual users. There’s quite a learning curve, but it very well just might be one of the most powerful pieces of software that I know of.
  • Visual Studio Code: My current Integrated Development Environment (IDE) of choice. It’s basically Microsoft Word for writing computer code.
  • LaTeX/AucTex: A text processor built around a markup language. Very well-known in academic circles for typesetting various mathematical problems, notes, diagrams, etc. (imagine how a math textbook page might look).

I decided to dual boot Linux along my pre-existing Windows setup. This means that every time I start my laptop I have the option of booting into Linux Mint or into Windows. For all intents and purposes they’re two completely different computers that happen to share the same hardware. I thought about completely banishing Windows from my laptop, but I figured it was worth keeping at the very least since I’ve already paid the ‘Windows tax’. There’s also the peace of mind in knowing that if something ever were to go wrong with my Mint setup, I can easily boot into and work from the Windows partition while I figure out how to clean up my digital mess.

No operating system is perfect, but the beauty of Linux is that I’ll be able to customize just about any part of my system. It’s an incredibly liberating feeling compared to the technological shackles placed onto computer users by the likes of Window$ and Apple. There’s still so much for me to learn, but I’m excited to see what I’ll be able to do with Linux.

A screenshot of the Linux Mint desktop. Looks pretty similar to Windows.


Lamenting the Limitations of WordPress

Always read the fine print before you spend hard-earned money.

When setting up this blog and other sites that I’ve worked on, I’ve oscillated between using the usual content management systems like WordPress, Blogger, Blogspot, etc. and using what’s called a static site generator like Jekyll or Hugo. The idea behind static sites is pretty straightforward. CMS’s (like WordPress) can be insanely bulky, obtuse, and possibly even present security risks. This blog post does a good job comparing CMS’s to static sites. CMS’s come ready to go out of the box, whereas a static site may take a bit more effort to setup and fine tune.

As I write this blog post, I’m mildly irritated that there’s no convenient way for me to change the default font size for my blog posts to 14pts (I favor a smaller font for my sites). Despite the fact that I paid $48 for the personal plan, it seems that $48 isn’t worth the ability to sprinkle in some custom CSS. The WordPress powers that be decided that the ability to use custom CSS is worth $96 — double the cost of the personal plan!

p {
  font-size: 14px;

See that? That’s literally all I want to do. p represents the body text on my site, and font-size: 14px; would globally set all fonts to 14px. I refuse to shell out any more money to WordPress, especially when I could have complete control over my site through other platforms like a static site generator.

I’ve dabbled in making static sites before, although I didn’t really take the time to learn the requisite tools/scripting languages very well. Instead I just grabbed a theme that looked decent to me and did some light customization together by clobbering code snippets together that I found across the internet.

My requirements for a personal site are pretty simple:

  • Minimal theme that is blog-friendly.
  • Use of Google Analytics and Disqus .
  • Allow users to easily view blog material by chronological order and category tag. I recently found a static site template that had chronological tags to view posts by year on the blog page itself, and a separate tags page for viewers interested in exploring posts categorically.
  • I’d like to combine my professional and music blogs onto one site, and simply keep a separate page that lists my music-related posts separately from my professionally-oriented posts.

At this point, I’m leaning towards jumping ship from WordPress and moving back to a static site, perhaps this time built in Hugo. I have the better part of a year left on my WordPress personal plan subscription, leaving me with plenty of time to do my research and build up a site the way I want it to.

I’m not going to settle for using technology that doesn’t meet my needs/preferences when there are so many options outside the worlds of WordPress, Blogspot, et al. Again, it’s ludicrous that paying $48/year doesn’t allow me the privilege of…globally setting the theme size for my blog. I hope to report back soon with some updates on what I’ve decided to do with the site.

What About the Substitute Educators?

The outlook for substitute teachers in the face of school closures is grim at best.

It goes without saying that it is very hard for schools to find substitute educators this year. I personally know of several attempts to procure subs at a school I recently worked that have been unsuccessful. Full-time teachers are losing their preps in a never-ending game of teacher Tetris, in which school administrators scramble to arrange coverages for different classes. COVID cases are sharply rising in New York City, and Mulgrew confirmed that the city is currently closing a school per week. I don’t know if a school closure is imminent (definitely impossible under de Blasio, not sure off the top of my head how Adams will respond), but I do find myself wondering about the uncertain future for subs during a time of possible remote learning.

I’m not one to perpetuate the rumor mill (there are currently hushed whispers and fears of schools going fully remote again), but there is good reason to keep an eye on the current citywide numbers. There is a DOE memo being circulated advising schools to make sure that digital classrooms are ready to be rolled out, but the Office of the Deputy First Chancellor has advised that this guidance is not in regards to an expected citywide closure. The email seems legit to me, but it is just a screenshot being circulated amongst UFT members. I have zero trust in the DOE’s Situation Room at this point, as we stare down the barrel of increasing numbers and classroom/school closures.

What happens to substitute teachers and substitute paraprofessionals when their schools shut down? Unfortunately it seems that the majority of us are left out in the cold. The only exception I can think of are 1:1 paras or substitute teachers assigned to be a course instructor rather than providing a temporary coverage. School closures are absolutely detrimental to per diem subs who faithfully serve their schools in a number of ways, including lunch duty, lunch period coverages, and more.

A per diem sub in New York City makes $199.27 for each day of service, and receives no benefits. If a school transitions to remote learning for two full school weeks, that substitute loses out on $1992.70 in income. School closures force subs to turn to other sources of money, and possibly not coming back to a school upon reopening as they seek assignments in classrooms and schools that remain open.

I’m not proposing that subs are paid to sit on their tuchuses during a school closure, but rather that the DOE and individual schools become more thoughtful and creative with how subs could be used in the event of a school closure. Assigning subs to help with tasks such as grading multiple choice/short answer assignments or helping to create learning materials for other educators would go a long way towards keeping subs employed and lessening the stress on full-time teachers. Furthermore, subs come from a rich variety of backgrounds, including business, technology, and many other areas. I myself have a background administering student programs on a college campus. It’s a tremendous loss for schools when subs are out of work due to a closure. I’m fairly certain that schools can still offer remote assignments, and I hope that others consider advocating for such an option in the event of a school closure.

Every day I log onto the NYC UFT members Facebook group and see my fellow educators bemoaning the difficulty of finding and retaining substitute teachers and paras. When will we take a good hard look at ourselves in the mirror and so something to support the most needed and most vulnerable members of our union and school system?

On Ambition and Administrative Bureaucracy

Who could have imagined that my professional ambition would be my administrative folly…

Almost a month ago, I wrote about a bizarre hiccup with my DOE paperwork that led to me temporarily being out of work through no fault of my own.

Naturally, I’m a bit frustrated that the matter hasn’t been resolved. I find it quite ironic that I’m only in this pickle because I wanted to further my professional growth by obtaining my special education teaching certification. Had I kept on working as a regular per diem sub, I could have kept my head down and been working for the last three weeks. Alas…

A few thoughts that I’ve had as I sat around reflecting on bureaucracy in the DOE:

  • It’s unclear to me how the City expects teachers and schools to be back to business as usual while HR Connect remains locked away behind an impenetrable barrier of 2+ hour waits on the phone to maybe speak to a representative. I’ve noticed more of my DOE colleagues attempting to report the issue to 311 and or the Department of Labor — I’m inclined to think this might be a necessity.
  • I like to conduct official business in person whenever possible, especially if conducting the aforementioned business plays a pretty significant role in my livelihood. Unfortunately DOE HR Connect has decided that the only appointments being taken in person are for new hires who need to be fingerprinted. Language on the website makes it very clear that anyone else that shows up will be turned away.
  • I need to speak with a staff member in the Office of Personnel Investigations (OPI). Apparently the only way to contact this office is through a single email address. I have sent two emails across the span of a month (and recently a third that I’m sure will get lost in limbo as well). I thought that the folks at SubCentral might be of some help, but they appear to be giving me the cold shoulder as well. Does no one in the administrative catacombs of the DOE know how to answer email?

I recently sent my third email to OPI. I have little hope at this point that I’ll receive much in the way of a helpful response, although I do hope that this matter gets resolved soon. Until then I’ll relegate myself to shaking my fist at the sky like the “old man yells at clouds” meme and typing out my thoughts into the digital Pensieve that is this blog.

Computer Programming, Revisited

public class HelloWorld {
    public static void main(String[] args) {
        System.out.println("Hello, World");

On a chilly evening in January 2014, I was a college freshman sitting in my lab section for CSC 150: Intro to Computer Science at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. I logged into my assigned workstation and over the course of 30 minutes, I had produced my first ever computer program, the snippet at the top of this blog post.

The syntax appears quite strange to anyone that’s never dabbled in code, but it’s an incredibly simple program. Whenever this program is run, it prints the text “Hello, world” to the computer screen.

As things would transpire, I didn’t go on to become a computer science major — quite the opposite actually. I earned my baccalaureate degree in classical studies (as in the Greco-Roman world, not AC/DC or Shakespeare), and went on to earn my master’s degree in education. Even though I didn’t “stick” with computer science in terms of my academic or professional trajectories, my first exposure to the world of computer code sparked a keen interest that I would revisit six years later through an elective course at Indiana University.

A few nights ago, I came across some old computer programs that I had completed as part of an introduction to Python programming while in grad school. I had organized the files on my GitHub account, which is like a programmer’s version of Google Drive. I downloaded a few simple programs that I had made, and felt a familiar sense of curiosity and intrigue at seeing them come to life in the screen. The more I thought about it, the more that I realized that I had a keen interest in getting back into the world of computer programming. There are a few reasons for that:

  • I dabbled in computer science as an undergrad and grad student, and I really enjoyed the classes that I took. Computer programming exists at a perfect intersection between art and science, and it always appealed to my brain in a unique way. There was always a thrill around getting a program to do exactly what you want it to do, even with the frustrations that come with debugging faulty logic.
  • New York City schools are making a big push for computer science, and I’m fairly confident that I’d like to obtain an additional license in this area. I can only imagine how awestruck I would have been if I knew about programming in high school, and I’d like to share that joy with students one day.
  • I’ve always been a deeply creative person, and coding definitely checks off that box.

I’m not sure exactly where my rekindled interest in computer programming came from, but I’m excited to get back into it, even if only as a hobby. Time is such a precious commodity these days, but I’m sure that I’ll make the most of it. I hope to share some occasional updates and code snippets here on the blog.

Updated Per Diem Language on the UFT site

Clarifying language around long-term substitute teacher compensation means little without meaningful structural change to protect these rights.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the UFT has recently updated language on its website for per diem pedagogues. The language defining per diem service, Z-status, and F-status had been there since I joined the DOE last year, but the language pertaining to Q-status eligibility is a welcome addition. Interested viewers can read through the full text linked above, but I thought this excerpt was worth pulling out:

Full-term regular substitutes, commonly referred to as “regular subs”, are non-appointed teachers who are employed on a full-term basis in one school, covering one assignment. Full-term substitute positions are discretionary positions created and filled by the principal, based on special assignments or coverage needed for a teacher who will be going on an approved, long-term absence.

It’s important to note that Q-status has been a payroll classification for substitute teachers for a while, but I could never seem to find any solid information on this classification. CL’s and UFT reps I spoke with gave conflicting answers, and the only obscure reference to Q-status I could find was in a page 4 of a DOE/UFT(?) FAQ document dated March 24th, 2020 as schools were shutting down.

Q Substitute Teacher: Substitute teachers who are covering a vacancy or long term absence (e.g. LODI, extended leave) will continue to cover the teaching assignment until either the teacher returns or the vacancy no longer exists. They will be compensated consistent with contractual provisions regarding Q status

Unfortunately the inclusion of concrete language outlining the rights of long-term subs means little if school administrators will do what they can to avoid granting subs the title and benefits that we deserve for long-term work:

  • There is zero accountability for schools to hire subs under the appropriate 5BA or 5BP classification, leaving many subs who act in long-term capacities (lesson planning, delivering instruction, grading, etc.) while remaining on O-status (default per diem sub pay). Subs can file a salary grievance with their UFT borough office, but face an incredibly drawn out process and the possibility of being “blacklisted” at a school that they enjoy.
  • Schools employ deceptive practices to keep substitute teachers on O-status. I am one of many substitutes who had my SubCentral job ID changed monthly while I served at a previous school. Why would this be the case? It gives schools reasonable grounds to assert that substitute teachers didn’t check off the “30 consecutive days of service” requirement to earn Z-status or Q-status.
  • I’ve heard from others that Z-status eligible positions automatically begin accruing long-term benefits on the 31st day of service, as long as the substitute teacher is listed as covering that absent teacher. For example, if my SubCentral assignment showed that I was covering Ms. Smith for 31 consecutive days, my understanding is that Z-status kicks in automatically. If a principal or payroll secretary were deceptive and entered the same long-term position as a “vacancy”, the Z-status would not kick in at all.
  • Q-status is not automatic in the same way that I believe Z-status is when entered appropriately into SubCentral/payroll. Q-status designation depends on the goodwill of principals and payroll secretaries to enter appropriately into the system. In my limited experience in the DOE, the aforementioned goodwill is actually quite hard to come by…

Adding concrete language to the UFT website is a minor blip in the grand scheme of what needs to be done to recruit and retain a pool of quality substitute educators. As long as the DOE and UFT allow schools to patently cheat subsitute teachers out of compensation that we deserve in exchange for long-term assignments, the City will continue to struggle retaining quality substitute teachers.

A Tale of Two Nominations

A minor paperwork hiccup leads to an unexpected inconvenience.

In the fall of 2020, I began serving as a per diem substitute teacher in the New York City Department of Education. It was an interesting time to say the least — we were still in the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic, with no clear signs at the time that the end was really in sight (or even a vaccine at that point). I’ll save the story of how I got into substitute teaching for a different post, but it could be said that I got into substitute teaching at a “good” time in terms of job prospects. Subs were (and still are) desperately needed across the city, and I knew that job opportunities would be plentiful.

I was surprised by how straightforward the application process was. All it required on my part was some reasonable paperwork and a trip down to 65 Court Street for fingerprints. The nomination process that had been in place prior to the pandemic required aspiring subs to network with school administrators in the hopes of securing a coveting nomination to teach. One pleasantly surprising change to the onboarding process was that the DOE’s central substitute processing office granted nominations automatically without extra effort on the part of the candidate. So anyone with a bachelor’s degree, who could pass a background check, and had a pulse were ushered right into the ranks of DOE substitute teachers.

Fast forward to November 2021. Earlier this year I applied for and accepted a spot in the NYC Teaching Collaborative’s (NYCTC) 2022 cohort. For those that don’t know, the NYCTC is a sister program to the more widely known NYC Teaching Fellows. Both programs ultimately serve the same goal: prepare teachers in high-need teaching license areas to serve in high-need schools. The onboarding process had been proceeding swimmingly until the morning of Friday November 19th. A school administrator at my current long-term substitute teaching assignment pulled me aside before the start of the school day.

It seemed that I had completely disappeared from my school’s list of assigned substitute teachers. I was locked out of my own SubCentral account and all efforts to try adding me to the school’s substitute teacher roster failed. Further investigation showed that I had been ineligible to substitute teach as of 11/16/21. What could have happened? I was in good standing with the DOE, and I had received no notice from the Office of Personnel Investigations regarding any ongoing investigations.

To make a very long story short, my current nomination as a substitute teacher wasn’t playing nicely with my new nomination to join the NYCTC as a pre-service teacher. I was slightly relieved to learn that the Collaborative staff member I spoke with had heard of this scenario happening to other candidates, and I happened to connect with a fellow member of the program who was experiencing the exact same thing. The DOE said that current subs are eligible to serve in our current roles until January 28th, but this on-boarding kerfuffle seems to have thrown quite a wrench into things.

So where does this leave me? I’m basically out of work until my new background check clears in my Applicant Gateway portal. Hopefully it resolves within a week, but you never know how these kinds of things will play out in the DOE. The nitty gritty of the nomination process is still pretty gray to me as a relatively new initiate to the DOE. All I know is that I’m out of work for the time being, and I look forward to using this unexpected vacation to get my blog up and running.

Thanks for reading,