George Lucas Educational Foundation
Professional Learning

The Truth About Teacher Tenure

December 21, 2009

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.

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