It was only two days ago that I attended the Education Nation Town Hall meeting in New York City that was hosted by NBC and sponsored by a bunch of businesses. The entire event took place in what amounted to an elaborate Tent. There were several hundred educators there of all ages and from many schools, representing both Public and Charter School educators. I commented on the shortcomings of this meeting in my last post, so I will not cover that ground again. There was one striking comment however, from one young educator that sent chills down my spine, only to have them go up my spine by the applause that followed her statement. As an educator of 40 years, I was truly awed and upset. Her statement was that she did not need Tenure. She only wanted to be evaluated on her teaching and she was confident she would have a job the next year. She saw no need for Tenure (down the spine). TEACHERS then applauded (back up the spine).
The sound of fingernails on the blackboard for that statement ripped into me. What she was asking for is what Tenure IS. It is a guarantee of due process. It guarantees that the only thing you can be fired for is that which you are responsible for in your teaching duties. What you CAN be fired for under the Tenure law is: Misconduct, Incompetence, Insubordination, Physical or Mental Disability, Neglect of Duty, or a Lack of Teaching Certificate. Additionally, it cannot be a blind accusation, it must be documented. It is also presented at a hearing with all parties under oath. This guarantees fairness in firing people. Why would any teacher say they don’t need that? If the world were as this young teacher assumes it is, having all teachers judged on the merits of their teaching, it would be a wonderful world. History shows us that it has not always been so. Forty years of experience gives me a firsthand account of history.
If it were not for Tenure, I know I would not have survived 34 years in the Public School System. I would have been fired, not for a lack of teaching skills, but for being a vocal advocate for learning and fairness. I stood up publicly and confronted administrators, Superintendents and Board of Education members when I did not agree with policies they were mandating which were not in the best interest of kids. These administrators were not bad people, just misinformed. As Educators we deal with ideas and everyone has opinions about ideas. Some people are threatened by certain ideas. If we, as educators find truth in those ideas, we use our best skills and passion to teach them. If someone in power disagrees with those ideas, our effective teaching becomes a threat. As educators we work under people who are political by the nature of their positions. Sometimes administrators prefer dealing with the person pointing out a problem as an easier task than addressing the problem itself. In this era of economic despair budgets are being cut. Education Reform too many is code for cut my taxes. With senior, experienced teachers making the highest salaries, what better way to cut expenses? Teaching quality be damned. Tenure protects educators from these attacks. It insures our academic freedom as an educator. Again, it only guarantees due process; it does not guarantee a job for life.
Now let’s talk about why people attribute Tenure to “BAD TEACHERS”. It is the most convenient of excuses for administrators who fail to do the right thing. It is not always their fault, but nevertheless some people are not being held accountable. In order to get Tenure a new teacher is supposed to be observed by several administrators over a three-year period. If at any time during that period a non-tenured teacher does not meet the standard, he/she can be summarily dismissed without explanation. It is reasonable to assume that after three years of administrator observations that an accurate assessment of a new teacher can be made. It is after three years that the recommendation for tenure is made. If no decision is made by the administrator, it does become automatic. That only occurs if the administrator allows it to happen. A big problem in the process is the time administrator’s need to complete the observations that they are required to do. Administrators don’t always get to it. It is not intentional, but many things must be prioritized over the course of the year and observations do not head the list. This is further complicated by the administrator turnover rate. As administrators come and go a clear picture of observed teachers is not always there. There is no continuity for observations or personal conferences. If a teacher is brought up on charges of any kind to force a firing, administrators often do not have the documentation to prove the accusations. It is a quick step to say, I couldn’t fire him because of Tenure. A more truthful statement would be I couldn’t fire him because people did not do a follow-up for the process to prove incompetence. The biggest problem in my estimation however, is that not all administrators are cut out to be leaders who make tough decisions. They do not want to be a bad guy and say we have to let you go after your three years of service. This makes the capable leaders weakened in their attempt to do the right thing.
That being said we need to address the problem. It is not Tenure, but the lack of enforcement of the process that grants Tenure that has the most flaws. The observation process also needs to be addressed. Administrators as well as teachers are often upset when an incompetent teacher fails to be removed. Tenure allows incompetent teachers to be removed as long as it is done fairly. Bad teachers make it bad for all teachers. A union however, has a responsibility to defend all teachers to make sure the rules are equally applied to all.
I am most upset at the scab-picking and bickering by teachers. The ugliness of this reform movement is in the name calling of teachers by teachers: Public school teachers against Charter school teachers; Young teachers against experienced teachers; Non-Tenured Teachers against Tenured teachers. The common word in all of these pairing is teacher. We need to work together for positive change and work to build ourselves up, not tear each other down. Teachers are of the most educated people in our society. We can’t point fingers at folks who teach differently or have different educational philosophies and say they are incompetent, FIRE THEM! We need to push this reform to include teaching teachers and parents as well. We can’t hold people accountable unless we train them for what they are accountable for. Learning is ongoing. We need to professionally develop all of our teachers continually. It is not an expense, but an investment.
By the way, I became a teacher at a time of declining enrollment in New York. I was granted Tenure, but I was excessed (not rehired until September) every year for my first nine years of teaching. I knew I was a good teacher, but had to live with the fact that I had to leave while others, that I deemed not as good, remained in their positions. I still support Tenure and I still support seniority.
If we are moving forward with reform let’s do our best to identify the real problems as educators. We need to take a more prominent role in a discussion that is being hijacked by business people and politicians. I understand that this topic will draw on many emotions based on one’s perspective in the system. Please try to stick to the facts and not address the myths on this. Your comments are welcome.