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Seniority and My Wife

From Students Matter to Campbell Brown, reformsters have been working to erode teacher job security and end the use of seniority in furlough decisions. The current system, they say, is unfairly hurting great young teachers. I have some thoughts about gifted teachers at the beginning of their careers, because I'm married to one of them.

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My wife and I teach in two different districts in Pennsylvania, and like all districts in Pennsylvania that don't mainly serve rich folks, our districts are caught in big financial vise. Now in budgeting season, both districts are looking (once again) at some serious cuts. But my wife and I are in different situations; I am at the top of my district's seniority list, and she is at the bottom of hers. She and two co-workers have already had The Meeting-- the one where an administrator tells you that your future with the district does not look good.

My wife is good. Really good. Before she landed this full-time job, she was the go-to sub for maternity leaves, the sub always requested by teachers at all levels. She has been hugely successful with her first graders-- creative, loving, gifted, inspiring, and hugely dedicated. I know this not just because I'm married to her, but because people who work with and around her tell me, often. She does all the things you hear about dedicated elementary teachers doing-- spending tons of money on supplies, working a sixth day in the classroom every weekend, going the extra mile to get her students the support they need. If there were ever a teacher who deserved to have a job, my wife is just such a person.

Co-workers have said many things to her in attempts to be supportive. One such comment is "If only we could just find three teachers who don't deserve to be here and just fire them instead."

We've talked about this. "How would that even work," is her response to Just Fire the Worst. She wondered who would make such a decision, and how. I allowed as how lots of reformsters like the idea of doing it based on teacher ratings, but of course in a K-6 school, some of those are based on test scores and some are based on the yet-to-be-fully-explained SLOs, with a helping of school performance ratings and VAM sauce. I've yet to meet anybody in my wife's position who thinks they'd be more secure under such a system of randomly assigned test-based student-dependent numbers.

My wife also notes that the stack-rank, fire-the-bottom-5% model is for lazy managers. "They don't ever have to try to raise anybody up. They just sit in their office and wait. And if they want to get rid of somebody, they can just refuse to help make them better." How would that help a school improve?

And what about building morale. If you're competing with the teacher across the hall for a job, how do you justify lending them the great teaching idea you just came up with? My wife works at a great school, and one of the marks of its greatness is the collaboration and teamwork among the staff; how does that survive a Thunderdome fight for survival?

Morale always takes a hit from furloughs. Just the idea that they are now That School, where people can lose their job because bureaucrats and politicians can't manage finances, is depressing, stressful. My wife is living with uncertainty, sadness, strain (while still doing a kick-ass job). How would it affect a building if every budgetary crisis meant that every single teacher in the building had to live with that uncertainty?

Some PA legislators are once again trying to float anti-seniority laws that would let school districts under financial hardship handle layoffs based on teacher ratings. They would also, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "permit school districts to furlough teachers based on the economic needs of the district."

This is exactly the sort of law that would conceivably save my wife's position. Ironically, it would probably end mine. For a district in economic hardship, the most attractive layoffs would be to axe the most expensive teachers. Under an "economic hardship" rule, my career would have ended a decade ago. So in state like Pennsylvania where the legislature has been systematically underfunding schools, either my wife or I are vulnerable to furlough.

I asked her what she thought about devoting herself to a career in which every step up the ladder of success would mean one step closer to being fired. She responded with some NSFW language (my wife is quite the sassmeister when she wants to be). And that's the thing about non-seniority rules. Under the current system. it's hard to get a lifelong teaching career launched and safely under way. Under anti-seniority systems, it's impossible. The world needs more teachers like my wife, and my wife is not a dope. How do you recruit and retain her by saying, "You can have a short-term job in teaching, but you will never have a career."

Look, nobody has to tell me that the way this is working sucks. Sucks with a giant suckness that could out-suck the suck of the biggest darkest suckingest black hole in the universe. But as much as this sucks, every alternative proposed by reformsters sucks even more. Pennsylvania schools should be properly funded. My wife should be in a classroom for the rest of her life, and all present and future students deserve to have a teacher of her caliber and dedication. That's the world we ought to be living in; destroying seniority gets us further away from that world, not closer.

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