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The Truth About Teacher Tenure

Heather Wolpert-Gawron

ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA
Related Tags: Teacher Leadership
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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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Heather Wolpert-Gawron

ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA
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Heather Wolpert-Gawron's picture
Heather Wolpert-Gawron
ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA

I would love to hear from any of our administrator friends out there on this topic. I have recently befriended a great principal who explained much more to me about their role and efforts fighting tenure. It made me see things a little less black-and-white regarding admin laziness.

Now, we know admin laziness is out there. But there are also those principals out there who are working their tushies off to oust a bad teacher only to be held to the flame by legal threats.

I'd love a principal or super to jump into this debate!

Thanks to everyone for commenting. I learn from you all.

-Heather WG

Jeff Lambert's picture
Jeff Lambert
Parent of two wonderful children, 8th and 11th grade

So, I'm the proud father of a HS Junior taking mostly AP and Honors classes as well as a wonderful 8th grade daughter who is pulling in 4.0's.

It's funny as today I was pondering why the school administrators don't survey their students so as to get input on the teachers for yearly reviews. I know this happens in the business world to some extent. I say this because my son has one teacher that the kids love but who isn't too good at passing along knowledge and could do with some help so as to make him better. My son likes him but is suffering in the AP course. The teacher is motivated and younger and I could see him being a proponent of being protected by tenure if he could be helped to improve his teaching style. My son also has another teacher that is well educated (PhD), has worked in the industry but is really not good at educating. Again, my son is having a bit of a tough time in this AP course. Unlike the first teacher, though, the students I hear comment on this second teacher don't say good things, and many have dropped the class. My feeling is that this teacher would be less likely to get better and someone that shouldn't be protected by tenure. Anyway, the senior staff and administrators probably have no clue as to the students' perceptions, which is quite unfortunate.

I enjoyed your article and honesty. I'll admit I didn't read through the current comments so I may repeat. I'll also admit that I'm not much for unions, which would roll into my not being much of a proponent for tenure. I think the protection it affords is unnecessary. Other industries don't have such protections. What's the difference? Is teaching more important than other careers? I think most people are strong proponents of teachers, including myself, but everyone's role in society is important and should be considered as valuable. I believe there are laws that protect folks from unjust terminations. And where those don't work, there are plenty of lawyers willing to come to the rescue (don't ask me what I think about this).

Saying that a teacher can't be as good without tenure because they wouldn't be willing to try new things, or less willing to criticize, for fear of being terminated, seems a bit weak. Why? Because it also can protect those who's experimenting is flawed or whose criticism is not positive in nature. The good are good and will be seen as such and rewarded. They don't need a firewall to protect them.

I do agree that an administration, especially in tough times, might be more apt to let an experienced, highly paid instructor go in place of bringing in two less experienced staff. I definitely don't think this is an appropriate practice at all but it happens outside of education too. However, I think the flip side is worse. Our district, like most, has had to cut back on services, staff.... With fewer educators and larger class sizes, we need to retain the good educators and trim the bad or, unfortunately, less experienced, newer teachers. It burns me up to see a less-than-mediocre teacher retained due to tenure but the administrator's hands are tied.

If you truly think tenure is required to maintain a higher level of education, then I think it should be one that is awarded and maintained due to a teacher's effectiveness. Something like this:

-- Yearly teacher reviews are performed and recorded in a standardized manner. Reviews should include input from students and other staff peers. Subjective comments should be included.

-- After two years at the same school, and after meeting minimum levels of effectiveness, the teacher should be tenured.

-- Every two years, for the first 10 years, this teacher's tenure should be re-awarded based upon maintaining a minimum level of effectiveness.

-- After a 10 year track record of effectiveness, the tenure review should include the ability to flip a switch, such that tenure reviews can be pushed out to every 3 to 4 years. This is a reward for being an exceptional teacher for 10 years.

-- During any tenure review, tenure can be extended for the next period or retracted. If the tenure is retracted, the teacher is now unprotected but has the ability, at the next tenure review, to be awarded tenure again based upon their upping their game.

This is just an example of what comes to my mind but seems a pretty fair, high level outline to me.

Love you teachers and appreciate how you are there for my children.



Heather Wolpert-Gawron's picture
Heather Wolpert-Gawron
ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA

Thanks so much for the parent perspective! I also like how you ended with possible solution scenarios.

I think student input is invaluable. It's certainly routine in higher education. But as a student and a teacher myself, we've all seen witch hunts. Students, for all their good intentions, do not necessarily have the good of the class in mind, but do (rightfully so) focus on the good of themselves. So while I believe their input would be valuable, and we should entertain how to create a system that allows for student input, I don't know if job evaluation is one of them.

Also, in regards to why tenure is even allowed in the first place. There was a social contract that used to exist between society and education. We won't pay you even a living wage in many cases, but because you take help develop the brains of our children and keep them safe during their days, here's what you will have. Support. Respect. Good insurance. Tenure. That contract has since been broken in many ways. If tenure is to go away, something must come into its place. Teaching is, perhaps not more important than other careers, but it is unique and must be treated as such. But, perhaps I'm biased that way?

Thanks so much for commenting. It's a real pleasure to hear from a parent on any education matter.

-Heather WG

Jeff Lambert's picture
Jeff Lambert
Parent of two wonderful children, 8th and 11th grade


Totally agree that you have to be careful about kids playing games to sabotage teachers they don't like as well as the fact that they haven't really learned about constructive criticism. I think, however, that if all students are asked to participate you can get a general feeling as to how the students feel about a given teacher in teaching style, respect and effectiveness. If 30%-40% aren't saying nice things about a teacher then something is probably up.

I totally respect good teachers and think you are in a really tough situation trying to help our children while having your hands rather tied and having to deal with kids who are disruptive because they don't get the home support and/or just don't care. I definitely wish you all the best for the teachers' sake and for the sake of the kids that do want to learn and get ahead.



ErynTheLibrarian's picture

I wish there were more parents like you, Jeff, who took the time to become intellectually involved in their children's education. Few parents seek out forums in which academic, political, and theoretical issues of education are discussed by teachers. (Folks have no trouble researching medical conditions affecting their lives, or the lives of loved ones, but plenty of families seem content to leave "education" at school...)

In response to a couple of comments posted along this thread:

[Jeff's quote]
Saying that a teacher can't be as good without tenure because they wouldn't be willing to try new things, or less willing to criticize, for fear of being terminated, seems a bit weak. Why? Because it also can protect those who's experimenting is flawed or whose criticism is not positive in nature. The good are good and will be seen as such and rewarded. They don't need a firewall to protect them.

--> Jeff, I wish I could agree with you here. I teach in a large city school district, and teachers are bogged down by requirements to meet specific high-stakes testing success benchmarks. One of the most exciting economic-political shifts in my district during the past two years has been the shift of financial control (and, by extension, true administrative powers) from our central offices to the individual schools themselves. Our district's finances (like most) are tied directly to high-stakes testing results. [The glorious irony of the urban-student-low-performance-as-impetus-for-staffing/fund/program-cuts-which -begets-low-student-performance cycle is another issue for another post.] The point I make here is that teachers are not always evaluated on what you - or I, or most persons who are truly invested in and educated about issues of schooling - would construe as "excellent" or "effective" teaching. Teachers in middle school social studies classrooms in my district are NOT necessarily expected to improve students' abilities to analyze, evaluate, and communicate effectively their ideas about the evolution of and challenges facing contemporary human society; instead, the expectation is that students can write a "Brief Constructed Response" (known around town as a BCR) to a question about an informational text that follows a specific (and inflexible) format. No one would mind if students' learning was more advanced than the ability to regurgitate state-mandated writing "processes", and indeed many (most?) individual schools in the district hold both students and teachers to nationally-competitive standards that far exceed a "proficiency" rating on state-mandated tests.
As far as I can see, the issue regarding the impact teacher evaluation has - or doesn't have - on teacher tenure cannot be decided until school we can better articulate the mission and goals of the public school. More to the point, the expectations for public school administration (including but not limited to funding) must be aligned with these educational goals. When we all - teachers, school administrators, parents and community stakeholders, politicians - share an understanding of what we want students to learn, then we can create a set of high standards for teacher evaluation.

We cannot, however, say that excellent teachers' jobs are not threatened by low but unyielding expectations for standardized student success. I have seen excellent teachers be publicly criticized by school administers for teaching authentic social studies that didn't quite fit into her "voluntary" state curriculum - but I've never seen a teacher reprimanded for teaching to the test.

That all said, I am intrigued by your tenure-evaluation module. While in my mind tenure (by its very definition) cannot be "reevaluated" every two years, I do agree that a concrete system of checks and balances is in order.

We just need to be sure of what we are checking on.

S. Barber's picture

This is a topic that has been of great interest to me for some time. I am on the fence when it comes to this issue. I have witnessed tenured teachers who were great at what they did. Even if they have worked for 15 or more years, they remain dedicated. Dedication is not necessarily how many hours you put in. I do not have a family of my own but I can imagine that if I did, I would leave work a lot earlier than I actually do. Then there are those teachers who I would like to describe as incompetent. The relationship that one has with his or her principal definitely impacts the likelihood of a teacher receiving tenure. If it is a positive one, there is a higher chance of the teacher remaining. In my district you are tenured after three years and one day. The only time that I noticed teachers not receiving tenure in my district was when they had poor attendance. Other than that, most teachers usually make it. Believe it or not, this does not necessarily mean that they are highly qualified for the position. When my district had to lay off teachers, the first ones to go were non-tenured. Somehow it seemed unfair. Of course, some of the new teachers may have needed to leave. However, there were tenured teachers who were not as effective as the new ones who had been removed. Though I am an advocate of tenure, I can see how the system can be counterproductive. Teachers do feel a sense of security when they are tenured. It is a wonderful thing but only when the power is placed in the right hands.

Nicholas Mercier's picture

A teacher with tenure can still be dismissed. It is a longer process and there is a higher burden of proof, but it can be done. The problem is many school districts do not want to make the effort to remove ineffective teachers. So my personal solution to the tenure debate is two fold:

1. School districts and administrators need to be far more selective when granting teachers. Since tenure is granted after four years in CT then administrators should aggressively review their newer teachers for ability and growth over those four years. Teachers who are not up to mustard should be let go. This may result in higher teacher turnover in those first four years, but especially in terms of elementary education there is enough competition the administrators can afford to be picky.

2. Secondly, once teachers are granted tenure their effectiveness should still be regularly reviewed. In effective teachers can be placed on corrective action and informed that if there is not improvement that the district will initiate dismissal procedures. This was implemented in Manchester CT under Superintendent Beitman and was rather effective at clearing out some very ineffective teachers. Some showed genuine improvement, others left to seek greener pastures.

dave's picture

I would love for some of you to look at the rubric that we have been using in Tacoma for our professional development and our staff evaluations for the past 5 years. It's a great document, and having done the National Board process, appreciate the rubric and it's uses. We work with our peers, self assesment (also on the forms page), and the rubric to determine what we belive to be a genuine area of growth that needs attention, and also allows admin. to adequately differentiate instructional and managerial skills.

LJ5's picture

I speak from the opinion of a third year teacher. In the state I work you need to teach three full years (without filling a leave replacement) to receive tenure. I am on the verge of receiving this honor. But is it an honor? Yes, I have worked extremely hard throughout the past three years to do my best for the students. I have attended all workshops, engaged in countless hours of professional development, incorporated new and emerging technology in my classroom, and modeled lessons for veteran teachers. However, shouldn't I be doing all this anyways? Shouldn't I continue to be a life-long learner like I hope my students to be? Many look at tenure as an incentive. You work hard for three years and gain job security in return. I truly have mixed feelings about tenure. Yes, it is something I strive to achieve and hope I will soon attain it. However, I look at some of my colleagues and wonder if it is a needed procedure. I'm sure it is an awesome feeling to have the job security, but I feel that many educators feel that they can "go through the motions" once it is achieved. Obviously, this isn't the case for all. I work with so many amazing teachers who continue to try new things in order to improve student achievement. And they have taught me so much in the process. However, the ones that simply cruise through ruin it for the others. Once I receive tenure maybe I will feel differently. But I know that I will still attend all workshops, integrate new technology, and do my best to be a master teacher. Of course I know that one shouldn't eat, sleep, and breathe their profession - but it should be a major part of one's life. As educators we have a major impact on the future generations of society. It is a vital profession. Overall, my feelings are mixed and curious to see if they changes as I continue through my journey as an educator.

Cathy's picture

Before state testing began, I've had teachers who tell us they don't care whether we learn or not because they will still get paid. But on the other hand I've had teachers who go above and beyond. How do we reward these great teachers and get rid of the bad apples?

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