Monday, April 25, 2011

Tenure's dirty little secret

It may be my eleventh year of teaching, but this is probably the first year I've really given tenure a second thought. Sure I've worried about RIFing in the past, but I've always been somewhat safeguarded by the fact I was the only journalism teacher.  However, I have since left my "department of one" and entered into the English department. With the threat of massive budget cuts, the buzz about the potential for pink slips is beginning, which brings me back to my initial topic: tenure.

In one of our discussions, one of the teachers brought up the "last in, first out" policy, which was something I was aware of but never really considered.   (In Time's article Beyond Unions: Five New Rules for Teachers, Andrew J. Rotherham explains it briefly.)  And when we started weighing teachers who could potentially lose their jobs because of budget cuts against those who would be guaranteed to keep theirs, disgruntlement and even a little panic ensued. 

A motivated, hard-working, student-centered teacher could be lost to another that admittedly has "given-up" on students because it's "just not worth the fight" all because the latter has more experience in the district.  It has nothing to do with evaluations, nothing to do with the rigor or relevance of their classroom instruction and everything to do with who has been breathing the longest in that district.  If it sounds crazy, it is and that's precisely why we need a voice of reason (I'm not sure who that is yet) and to use some common sense.  

While I'm not currently an active member of my school's union, I am a union advocate.  In fact, I was on the negotiations team at my previous school, but the playground has become so muddied by manipulation (just as it has been in everything political locally, nationally and even globally) that the union is forced to stand up for "good" and "bad" teachers because those teachers, regardless of their skill level or moral inclinations,  are paying dues and are thus promised legal protection. But when it comes down to it unions are essential in protecting teachers from what can be the tyranny of upper-management, which is eloquently explained by the blog, Don't Get Me Started: Why Have Tenure? 

What ceases to amaze me again and again about the coverage swirling around education, especially unions and educational reform, is the assumption that tenure is this relentless force that can't be tamed when, if fact, it all comes down to the tedious task of creating a paper trail and the lack of follow through from the administrators to do just that.  

The role of any typical high school administrator far exceeds simply overseeing his teachers and school-wide events, and so administrators are often spread too thinly, rendering them ineffective as leaders for the teachers and adversely, the students.  Out of desperation some may simply ask teachers to "sign-off" on their observations knowing an actual observation was never completed while others may drop in for ten minutes, only to write up a "fill-in-the-blank" observation when they get back to the office. As a result, no paper trail is created and another uninspired or maybe even incompetent teacher slips through the cracks.  So, what do we do?  

Administrators need to actually observe their teachers on a regular basis, provide feedback and expect change. If the teacher is offered remediation and change still doesn't take place?  Well, then fire them. Yes, it's that easy. The union will provide legal services because they HAVE to.  They're representing one of its paying members and such services are expected; however, if the union can't prove the teacher has met the district's requirements because the administration has done its legwork honestly and with integrity, the teacher's contract should be and will be terminated.   Teachers are not the enemy, the system is and it needs to be fixed.  

Teachers need to be valued enough by the system to actually be given thoughtful observations that provide an open forum for improvement, not punishment.  Doesn't it seem ridiculous that in education, educators aren't provided the very feedback they're expected to constantly provide to students to insure classroom success? What's good for the goose is good for gander, which is precisely what Time's article,  "Better Teachers: More Questions than Answers" addresses when discussing the importance of observations (even though it seems like common sense to me),  

 "They found that not only did performance (as measured by math achievement of students) increase during the evaluation year, but the gains were sustained in subsequent years. That's a big deal—it means teachers were not just responding to being evaluated but using the feedback to improve their work."

In actuality, tenure's dirty little secret is that it has nothing to do with tenure or even unions.  It has everything to do with a broken system and a broken community of learners, educators and community members. It's time to stop passing the buck and just start making change and rethinking inane policies like the "last in, first out" approach that de-professionalize teaching. Unions are necessary because they create a forum in which conversations like these need to take place, where all parties can have a voice. The promising, the good and the great need to get even better while the bad need to be documented and kicked out of the system. It's as simple as picking up a pencil and paper.  

Let me know what you think!  


  1. I'm only in my 6th year of teaching, but I fully support LIFO. The alternative, if you have admin who won't get rid of a teacher who's phoning it in because it's "just not worth the fight," is that they RIF the brilliant-yet-expensive veteran and keep the clueless-but-cheap rookie. Or, if you like, they just RIF whoever's likely to put up the least "fight."

    The problem isn't LIFO; it's admin who don't do the WORK (yes, it is work, that's why it's part of a JOB to do it) to get low-performing teachers to improve, or to get them out of the classroom.

  2. I couldn't agree more, Clix. That's precisely why I emphasized the importance of the paper trail and respecting teachers enough to actually take the time to thoughtfully observe them and provide an opportunity for reflection. Thanks so much for commenting!