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The Truth About Teacher Tenure

I'm really struggling with my feelings about tenure. Currently, the conversation goes as follows:

"Hey, I got tenure."

"Cool. Pass the mustard."

When, in fact, it should be like this:

"Hey, I got tenure!"

"Are you kidding? That's fantastic! You must be great at what you do!"

It's true. How can our current system be effective if just about anyone can receive a reward as incredible as the equivalent of a job shield? Heck, even in World of Warcraft, you have to be at a certain level, and prove a certain amount of ability, before being awarded the shiny plate armor. So, how is it that any teacher who merely makes it past level two without running and screaming from the job gets the grand prize?

Right now, we don't get raises that meet even a fraction of the cost of living, but somehow, after two years of teaching, we get the Grand Poobah of all rewards -- job protection regardless of job effectiveness? That's quite a leap.

So I'm toying with an idea for tenure reform. Notice I'm not saying tenure termination. I believe in the reasons we have tenure, but I also believe it is being overused and taken for granted.

After all, seniority does not a great teacher guarantee, just as being green does not equal being expendable. And let's face it: When faced with our recent wave of budget cuts, tenure protects all. This includes the mediocre -- who flew under the radar for their first two years -- forcing out newer teachers who may have had the potential to glow with calling, if only given the opportunity.

But it's not as cut-and-dried an issue as those outside of education would have us believe.

Why We Need Tenure

I'm grateful to tenure for protecting a very dedicated and self-sacrificing group of professionals. We teachers give our blood and sweat to helping other people's children, even if those children are Left Behind in one way or another by their own families. We are underpaid and overworked. We are often taken advantage of and taken for granted.

Without tenure, a 30-year teacher who has proven himself able under six school administrations can be fired under the seventh simply due to a conflict in teaching styles.

Without tenure, the most experienced and proven educator -- someone who has put in years on a school district pay scale -- could be fired simply to cut costs in order to hire a newer, unproven teacher.

Without tenure, you would not be able to read the truths or opinions from teachers in the trenches. You wouldn't be able to read this post, for example.

Without tenure, a teacher would be less likely to try a new book or lesson that strayed from the district vision even if that vision was flawed, or even if that supplemental material was exactly what that teacher needed to reach the kids in her classroom.

Without tenure, we could not use criticism to improve our profession.

Without tenure, our vulnerability might influence our choices, allowing our fear of standardized test scores to drive our curriculum, rather then adding the critical-thinking skills into our lessons that we know our students truly need.

Without tenure, a teacher could not fight for a student's rights, raising his voicing against his own school administration or district.

Tenure is not so much a perk as a shield that permits us to teach through the ebb and flow of trends and fads brought in ofttimes by nomadic administrators. It gives us the ability to have an unthreatened voice to stand up against the grain. It allows us to retain our positions through our pregnancies, illness, and mourning, to stand up against lawyers pitted against us by litigious-eyed parents, or by the occasional student with lying on her tongue.

Why Tenure Is Frustrating

But on the other hand, tenure also protects those who should be more easily let go. It allows some teachers to coast, putting in the minimum effort without threat of losing their job. It allows some teachers to speak with smog in their voice, bringing down the spirit of a school without worrying it will bring themselves down as well.

Tenure allows some teachers to forget they have a boss, that they are beholden to evolve their curriculum or their philosophies.

Tenure allows some teachers to be shackles on a district, bouncing from school to school. Mind you, most of the time, tenure doesn't save the criminally bad teacher. No, the fact is that there is a due process to rid the system of those few teachers, and not enough districts choose to go through that long, pricey, and arduous process. (For that matter, not enough credential programs serve as initial gatekeepers, either. But that's for another post.)

Instead, tenure as it exists now protects a far greater majority of teachers. It protects those who are -- or who choose to remain -- mediocre.

These teachers are neither here nor there. They show up to do their job but are not interested in being great at their job. There's nothing in their record that can justify getting rid of them, but does that teacher really deserve our profession's greatest reward? This is the picture of the teacher that tenure typically ends up protecting.

What this system can amount to is that once teachers have achieved tenure, there's no carrot in front of them to encourage self-improvement save for their own intrinsic motivation. And for many, it seems, that's a lot to ask.

What This Battle Really Is About

So, I remain torn. Tenure is a tragedy in some cases and a savior in others. My confusion lies in the existence of such a black-and-white rule in a world of gray.

How is it that education seems like the only profession where you can evaluate someone only as Satisfactory or Unsatisfactory? What kind of rubric is that? Where is the -- dare I say the word -- differentiation? Where are the gradations of judgment? And, while I'm at it, where are the gradations of reward?

Aye, here's the rub:

Just as we differentiate our lessons and our assessments, I'm thinking that we should be differentiating the reward for a job well done, starting with a competitive base pay. And this pay should be judged by a series of multiple measures -- not just test scores corrupted by infinite variables unrelated to a teacher's ability. Tenure should be the Holy Grail for being great at the job, regardless of one's seniority.

It is undeniable that the heart of this tenure battle is really in how we evaluate teachers. For if we had better ways to gauge the gradations of talent in the classroom, we could better sculpt the teaching force that we need in our schools.

The fact is, I believe that a great new teacher should be given the respect of being wooed with everything in education's power to retain that teacher. I believe that veteran teachers who are still awe inspiring in their ability to reach out to generation after generation of students should also be given whatever we can to reward their ongoing efforts.

I believe that experienced teachers willing to train those new to our profession, passing on their knowledge and experience, and helping prepare our next generation of educators, should also be offered whatever we can to reward and encourage their continued support.

But I also believe that teachers, regardless of their years in this profession, who still struggle to prove their effectiveness should still feel the pressure of having to improve their craft.

The bottom line is this: Tenure should be a precious thing. There should be a process to receive it. It shouldn't be granted just because you made it through the first two years without offending anyone.

It should exist. It needs to exist. But it should be awarded only to those who have earned such shiny plate armor.

What are your thoughts about teacher tenure? Please share with us your opinions and ideas.

Comments (18)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Stephen Hurley's picture
Stephen Hurley
Grade Eight Teacher, Group Moderator, Facilitator/teacher arts@newman
Blogger 2014

Hi Heather,

I enjoyed reading this post, mainly because it is something about which I have been doing quite a bit of thinking of late. Frustrated by some incidents of incompetence and laziness of late...all of which have gone relatively unchallenged, if not unnoticed by those in the position to do the appropriate challenging, I've begun to think more carefully about my view on tenure or job security.

Here in the province of Ontario, our profession has long been blessed with the idea of the "permanent contract", a designation earned after just two years of teaching. It used to be that a district superintendent came in to your class to watch you teach, check lesson plans and the general orderliness of your teaching practice and made recommendations.

Now, the supervision process has been largely turned over to the principal and is administered several times during the first years of practice, and every five years once a "permanent" stamp is placed on the teacher's file.

Although we don't refer to ourselves as "tenured" professionals, I suppose there is comfort in the fact that it would be very difficult to get rid of a permanent teacher!

So, in reading your post, two initial questions come to mind. (I'll leave the "battle metaphors" for another time!!!)

First, what is the level of quality that we need from our teachers in order for our students to do well? Do we need "midnight oil burners" who eat, sleep and drink (!) their jobs? Is the only effective teacher the "high performance" model, or is there a level of mediocrity/simplicity that is acceptable? This question comes from the fact that teacher sweat isn't necessary the best indicator of student success. I've begun to think more about this as my young family has started to grow and the demands of home are more prevalent!

Second, what sort of rubrics do you have in mind to replace an satisfactory/unsatisfactory designation. We've been toying with fuller rubrics up here in the Great White North, but I'm not sure that they have been successful in fostering better teaching.

A final thought. Our teacher unions here have worked very hard to develop ways of protecting teachers from unfair treatment by management. I'm thinking that this protectionist mentality has landed us in the place that you so eloquently describe.

That's all for now!


Heather Wolpert-Gawron's picture
Blogger 2014

Great questions, Stephen!

I actually really resent the feeling that one must be a superteacher in order to be a super teacher. I, too, have a growing family, and I refuse to feel guilty when I leave to pick up my son from his pre-school before the final student has been picked up at my own. Again, I think it all comes down to teacher evaluation and assessment. How does that teacher spend their day? How does that teacher improve their craft? How does that teacher reach out to solve the problems in the classroom or with student achievement?

Which brings me to your next point. That of rubrics. This is a toughy and one that many great educators are currently working on. In California, for instance, there's David Cohen and Anthony Cody (creators of the ACT ning - http://accomplishedcaliforniateachers.ning.com/ There's Renee Moore as well. So it's an issue in progress, as it were.

At my school, I have asked that teachers in my department be involved in developing a rubric that administrators can use during observation. This one is based on what we as a department agree should be visible in the classroom, heard from the teacher and students, etc...At least the rubric isn't some mystery if we're involved in its creation and its language.

About your third point: I agree, there was a reason we have been granted this protection. There is a history of our abuse at work here. And, as you know, I'm not against the shield, merely what has evolved as a result of the swinging pendulum.

Thank you so much for your comments! Always great to hear from you!

-Heather WG

Lisa Loschetter's picture
Lisa Loschetter
9th grade teacher

Let's be honest. Besides it being costly and time consuming for administrators to remove bad tenured teachers, isn't there an unspoken ideaology that principals follow in order to get kids through the system? I believe administrators feel that mediocre teachers (one's that don't challenge students) are a necessary component in the system; they know these teachers pacify underachieving students and allow low performers to float through avoiding angry parent phone calls and law suits claiming their child is being treated and, or graded unfairly. Principals, parents and teachers alike are happy when all the kids are passing, but the fact is when the child cannnot pass state test or get into or perform well in the local community colleges, the system has failed by not failing the student. Because they've not been challened enough in their high school and earlier classes, the student can't compete. This dilemma is an issue for administrators to deal with head on but not by firing tenured teachers, but instead by providing staff development, colloborative time, and professional support letting teachers know it is okay to fail students who don't do they work. Administrators cannot shy away from the fact some students are not going to pass. They must deal with parents sternly and possibly advise the parent to hire a tutor, pay for summer school or try another school. Our state is full of charter schools they can chose from which are tuition free. But we all know most administrators don't want to lose bodies; it is income. Administrators must also follow up on staff development teachers receive and get into to that classroom witnessing whether or not the teacher is actually is using what they learned within the courses or conferences they are required to attend. Teachers must complete growth hours to maintain their certification but do prinicipals ever check to see if the learning is applied within the classroom? Also, teachers need support. If they are asked to improve their teaching, they need a buddy/mentor to help them complete their transformation just as if they were on a wieght loss plan or other life changing journey. It is too easy to fall back into old habits without a support system. Administrators need to give teachers time to collaborate and support one another instead of forcing them into meaningless meetings where costly guest speakers rant on about current fads in education.
It's common sense. Teach educators new skills, make sure they use them and continue to follow-up and recognize improvements by seeing it in the classroom and within the class performance ulitmately.

Steve Owens's picture
Steve Owens
Pre-K - 6 music, Calais VT, Sharon VT

Heather, unlike you I do not struggle with tenure. First of all, I do not regard it as "tenure" but as due process. Yes, due process is precious, but precious in the sense of something that every worker should have a right to, but few actually get. Civil rights are precious in the same respect. We can weaken our due process rights by questioning them and failing to defend them, but the consequences reverberate far beyond our classrooms by making it harder for every worker who deserves due process to receive it. "Tenure" implies academic privilege which frankly does not exist in public education. The due process we get is simply that we can only be fired for cause. Not because the boss doesn't like your hairstyle or your husband's politics or woke up on the wrong side of the bed or for no reason at all. For cause.

I speak as president of my VT-NEA local, and as a labor activist. I am in my third negotiations cycle and spend at least three nights each week in meetings working to guarantee due process and professional growth for the people I represent. I have spent many hours working to help people who have run afoul of the system. Unfortunately, I often have to cringe at what I am defending, but in defending people who are either not competent or who have brought their problems on themselves my goal is to assure that everyone receives the due process guaranteed by our hard won collective bargaining.

My experience is that even in cases of incompetence, negligence or malfeasance administrators generally fail to adhere to the simplest of procedures that would facilitate remedy without violating the collective bargaining agreement. For example they miss deadlines, neglect to create a paper trail, and fail to effectively evaluate personnel - in short they behave incompetently as administrators. If we tolerated this sort of this behavior with those who deserve disciplinary action, we would be putting all competent educators at risk of similar arbitrary administrative behavior. The truth is that any improper administrative action that goes unchallenged can be become precedent for everyone within a bargaining unit, and beyond.

I have also tried to be of assistance to people who lack due process in the workplace. All of my training and skills are of little help to people who are employees "at will." The tragedy is that people who need this sort of help or who must resort to labor assistance hotlines have very little recourse - and tend to be deserving persons who are simply being wronged by their employer.

As for rubrics, models exist. In one of my supervisory unions we have what is called the "Blue Ribbon Document", which is referenced in our CBA. It was developed by a team of teachers and administrators and is based on the work of Charlotte Danielson. The wonderful thing about this document is that it doesn't go looking for incompetence, but rather tries to support people in developing their practice. On the other hand if a teacher scores less than basic on any part of the rubric they become a "component III" teacher, and have a year to develop and execute a plan in coordination with their administrator to address the deficiency. This assures due process while providing a mechanism for weeding out folks who can't cut it. Yet, incredibly, administrators still cannot figure out how to use this tool effectively in personnel management.

But I have gotten away from my primary point. Due process in the workplace is a human right. Just because it is messy to implement - too bad! If we want to promote a humane world we need to defend our due process like tigers and work like mad to extend the right to everyone else. And two years? Two years is plenty of time for competent administrators to figure out who belongs in the profession before they are subjected to some rules about their own behavior.

Please stop this talk of "tenure" and "armor plating". Tenure creates an image in the public mind of something far more effective (or unfair) than it really is, and armor plating is usually a function of administrative incompetence. Remember, people suffered and died for your due process rights. Use them. Appreciate them.

Heather Wolpert-Gawron's picture
Blogger 2014

I am grateful to hear your perspective on all this as a union leader and supporter. As you read in my article, I am a supporter of the history of what we call tenure because it is due process. And, yes, I agree with you, we are entitled to it. In fact, I will share that I've even posted on the subject in the past at my own website in an article entitled, "Bad Teachers Are Not Tenure's Fault" where I talk at great length about many of your points about incompetent administrators not taking the time or effort to put in the due process necessary to clean our educational houses.

But despite its good intentions and my knowledge of the horrors that created its necessity, this system has broken. It has broken because in its attempts to be equitable, it has managed to be a champion of the mediocre. You yourself have said that you are forced to defend the incompetent. Well-intentioned it might be, but our students deserve better then the incompetent. Tenure should be protecting the best, not the so-so, and especially not the Eeek!

I believe in it. I support it. But it needs to be reformed.

On another note, I look forward to researching the rubric that you've mentioned. Why reinvent the wheel if there's something effective already in place out there? Thanks for the tip.

Thank you so much for jumping into this debate. I believe that your voice is a powerful one with a viewpoint that needs to be heard. Thank you again, and I hope to hear your thoughts again soon on this or any other topic.

Have a happy holiday.

-Heather WG

Steve Owens's picture
Steve Owens
Pre-K - 6 music, Calais VT, Sharon VT

Heather, thank you for your kind words. To clarify a couple of points:

When you refer to defending the incompetent, remember that it is not the incompetence we are defending, but rather your due process rights. An analogous situation is when the ACLU defends the KKK. They are not defending the reprehensible viewpoints of these people, but rather OUR right to free speech (and to speak freely and critically in forums such as these.)

Secondly, after having spent endless hours in negotiations trying to stave off the attempts of board members to deal with some pet peeve about some knuckleheaded teacher by means of draconian changes to the CBA, I've come to the fatalistic conclusion that in any organization there will always be a percentage of folks who will game the system. If you change the system one way, they (or some other group) will find a different way to game it.

I often have to fight my own sympathies in these cases in order to remember the rights and working conditions of all of the good people I work with, who work hard and strive to be the very best for their students. Changing tenure, or other working conditions, carries a danger similar to punishing the class for the misbehavior of one or two students. If you wouldn't do it in the classroom, don't do it in your workplace.

We have before us the example of NCLB, a well intentioned (I'm being generous) law that made perfection the enemy of the good, with a raft of unintended consequences. I think one needs to be very circumspect about reforming workplace rules that are the product of many years of collective experience and case law.

Finally, since you mentioned your interest, the Blue Ribbon Document I referenced is at http://www.wcsuonline.org/index.php?option=com_docman&task=cat_view&gid=...

Thank you for inspiring me to think through my viewpoint so thoroughly. It will be a great help to me. I can tell you are a great teacher!
Happy Holidays,

Charley Marenghi's picture

In Connecticut, you must teach for 4 years in the same district before being granted tenure. In those 4 years it is quite easy for administrators to evaluate and mold a quality teacher. If that candidate is not deemed qualified they may be dismissed with with little to no difficulty as long as it is done before the four year period.
This is far from "Pass the mustard."
The key to this working is responsible administrative leadership when it comes to weeding out quality teachers from those that need to find another path. If the educational leaders just let people pass then the system fails.

Bonnie Bracey Sutton's picture
Bonnie Bracey Sutton
Teacher Agent of Change, Power of US Foundation
Blogger 2014

I had tenure. It was not a problem. I believe that we who demonstrate our talents should not only have tenure but what happened to the time out to learn, the time to take courses with funding. It used to be a function in a county in which I taught and you were given time to reflect on practice and enrich your skills.

I worry that those who only think of teaching as a two year commitment and opportunity but who
make fun of those who really enjoy teaching.

The variety of places in which one can teach shape your practice. I have had the experience of working in the best and the worst places. There would be a different outcome if one was not exposed to
new ways of learning. Unfortunately the administrative staff is often ineffective and certainly provides no
real leadership.

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