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To Be or Not To Be: Will Teacher Tenure Exist in Your Future?

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I am fairly certain that most prospective teachers and even many first-year educators do not spend much time pondering the topic of tenure. Indeed, aside from possible mention in the introductory courses in education I would daresay tenure is considered germane to the actual training of teachers. I don’t think much about the topic, either, until I come across articles about its eminent demise. These articles appear to be occurring more and more frequently which is why all prospective and current teachers should increase their awareness and knowledge of tenure policies and laws. Whether or not you agree with the principles of tenure, you need to understand the history, as well as the current arguments, in order to know your present situation and speak intelligently on the topic.

I encourage you to start your research with the current laws in the state in which you are searching for jobs or presently teach. That state department of education’s website and the school district’s human resources or professional development website should contain this information. If you have questions about these laws you owe it to yourself to ask for clarification. Think of this information as you would your car or home insurance policies. We tend not to read those in detail until something bad happens. That may not be catastrophic with your car, or even your home but with your job, it is definitely better to know your rights before dire situations arise.

You must next proceed to the political arena and attempt to gauge the prevailing attitudes of elected officials, from your local school board members to state legislators and the governor, to our newly elected and appointed officials in Washington. For example, there have been very recent legislative actions in Florida, New York and Ohio that were designed to alter the tenure laws in those states. It is incumbent upon you as an educator, especially those of you teaching in those states, to know more about those efforts. I highly recommend that you regularly monitor EducationWeek and other reliable sources for developing trends on this topic.

Obviously, it is in your best interest to know more about your own current and projected tenure status. Beyond that, however, it would be advantageous to the entire teaching profession for you to at least be prepared enough to intelligently respond to the question, “Will Teacher Tenure Exist in the Future?” If you are not, it is much easier for others to make it go away.

7 Comments

I have been in education for 35 years and still hope to remain a few more. However, I have never wanted or needed the insurance of tenure. I feel education should be like business. Those who are the best should be in the classroom. Age truly makes no difference as I have way more rapport with kids than many young educators. The problem with tenure is that it is too difficult to get rid of those in their last years that are riding out the time. They have lost their effectiveness and need to pass the job to one who will do it better regardless of age. I have been on a team trying to rid the weak teachers and I have seen the job security they have but do not deserve. No one should be guaranteed job security; they should earn it! The education of our youth is far too important to allow weak teachers to continue. The fact remains that by fourth grade a student with 3 weak teachers in a row has little chance of performing well in our education system. Turn our education around by allowing us to weed out the weak! If you do not agree, you have not been in education long enough to experience those who have the "8 to 4 and out the door" mentality!

Although I do not believe the entire problem in American education lies with poor teachers in the classroom, guaranteeing that an incompetent or lazy teacher has a job unless a lot of work is done to get them out of the classroom is one of the major failing policies of our education system.

I have just completed my student teaching with 3 teachers. None of whom are intellectually qualified to teach social studies in a classroom. All three were coaches two of whom have coaching as a first love and the other was never educated to teach history but was shifted around in the school district to fill a hole so that he could still have a job. Two are teaching subjects that THEY don't feel they are qualified to teach, but not once did I see them lugging textbooks back and forth from school to home as I did during my stay. Moreover, they often didn't know what they were going to teach until 5 minutes after class started and they had glanced at the reading for the day. They didn't teach either, instead they monitored student reading in class and made sure there was plenty of time in class for the students to finish worksheets because homework isn't cool.

Thus, we have a whole middle and high school full of students who know little to nothing about history, government, economics, and geography. Vital skills and knowledge needed in today's world. Scenerios like this are why Americans lacks skills to make informed political and economic decisions that affect all of us.

I have always said that one sure fire way to improve education is to make the teaching profession accountable just as other professions are accountable. This means having to go to work daily and produce results not just take up time and get through the day whether an objective (other than retirement benefits and receiving a paycheck) is accomplished or not.

Making teachers accountable every day is only one part of improving our education system, but it can be done by changing tenure laws. Motivating parents and students to do their part is another more difficult task that needs to be accomplished. Why not make the teaching profession accountable and start focusing energy and money on campaigns to motivate parents and students instead of fighting loss of tenure? Perhaps if students and parents were motivated to do their part, those who worry about losing their job if tenure is gone could become more successful through hard work, thus retain their jobs through honest means.

Opponents of tenure contend eliminating the practice would free school districts to dismiss incompetent teachers. But what about the effective and dedicated teachers who would be at risk because of the many people who have the power to influence a teacher’s job status.

Teachers are evaluated daily by students and parents, and they are observed and scrutinized regularly by school district administrators. If a teacher disappoints, fails to impress, or antagonizes just one of these interested parties, his or her job could be in jeopardy.

A middle school teacher in New York who I interviewed for my book, "The Teacher Chronicles: Confronting the Demands of Students, Parents, Administrators and Society," said she has overheard students proudly claiming responsibility for the firing of a non-tenured teacher at her school. She has also overheard students discussing their plans to get certain teachers fired because they harbored animosity toward those teachers.

A former guidance counselor at a California elementary school said parents aggressively campaigned against teachers they didn’t like and spread disparaging rumors about them. “I watched a very good teacher become so demoralized by one parent’s rumors and accusations that her class did become unruly and disorganized,” she said.

It should also be noted that tenure does not guarantee job security. Although it is more difficult to discharge teachers with tenure, they can be dismissed for legitimate reasons, typically related to serious misconduct or job performance. Also keep in mind that school districts have the option of denying tenure to teachers who fail to meet their expectations during the probationary period.

I work for a school district in Virginia. It's an union free state. The teachers have no tenure and are at the mercy of the principal, parents and other administrators. I have seen many good teachers terrorized by the principal and parents. They are afraid to speak up for fear that their contract will not be renewed. We are made to eat lunch with the students at the discretion of the principal regardless of our right to a 30 minute duty free lunch. We have to comply because there is no tenure.
PTA parents have banned together to get a good teacher fired because the teacher did not respond to an influential parent with enough respect. The parents have told us that we're here to serve them considering that they pay us with their taxpayer money.
We have been hit, kicked and threatened by kids. Yet we are not allowed to restrained them. Only staff that are trained in restraining can do it. If you complain you are considered a trouble maker and your contract will not be renewed.
Yes, there are bad teachers that will abuse the tenure policy like people abuse the right to free speech or you're innocent until proven guilty. Yet no one is saying that we should get rid of our right to free speech or our right to a fair trial. It should be the same with the tenure law. Let's keep it and find another way to get rid of bad teachers.

I am a retired educator. I have been a classroom teacher, reading teacher, staff developer, literacy coach, and an assistant principal. I worked in a private school with no union for 10 years and a unionized public system for 20.
During my term as a non-union teacher I always feared someone would have a relative who needed my job and my contract would not be renewed. I also worried that to achieve my removal I would be criticized unjustly and my professionalism would be questioned. Fortunately, my principal liked my work and treated me with respect.
As a union member I never felt that I could just sit and bide my time. I knew I didn't have to worry about contract renewals each year, but I was never complacent and I always felt that my students came first. I was born a teacher. It was never a career by default. I know there are those who are teaching because they couldn't use their college degrees in other fields. During the first years of probation, administrators can purge the system of those who are not qualified or who do not have a mission to teach. I believe this is the time to weed out these people.
As to senior teachers who may be biding their time and not performing properly, the administration can do its homework and purge them as well. I know. My principal did her homework and removed a teacher with 30 years experience who was just marking time.
Tenure is wrong when it protects the unqualified and the uncaring. It is right when it gives qualified and competent teachers the security of knowing they have a position as long as they teach their students to the best of their ability.

As a teacher in LA Unified's Division of Adult and Career Education, where we have fought tooth and nail for years to try to get a fair and functional system for teachers to get permanent status, I can tell you that an educational system that functions without tenure is a feudal system, not a business-like one. With no requirement to evaluate teachers' performance, most administrators never do and simply play favorites, giving people hours out of special funding sources to get around the state ed code requirement in CA that if you work more than 2/3 of full-time for two years, you are permanent the day you start the third year. With the cuts coming down in CA now, particularly in adult education, teachers are having assignments cut to as few as 8 hours a week (losing their health benefits, holiday pay, and even their meager "longevity" with the district that gives them a slight priority on getting rehired. Tenure exists to protect the academic freedom of teachers and students, to prevent districts from shedding more experienced (and more expensive) veteran teachers in favor of a revolving door of newbies who are gone before 5 years are out. Eliminating tenure is about giving administrators and bureaucrats a free hand to hire their pet teachers and carry out their pet projects without any countervailing force of experienced educational practitioners with real-world classroom experience with real-life students. If you think eliminating tenure would promote educational reform, let me tell you from a quarter-century of bitter experience with a system where tenure is the exception rather than the rule, that the lack of tenure has throttled the best thinking of the most serious and dedicated teachers and promoted a bloated bureaucracy and administration, featherbedding and nepotism, and strangled any vision of how to better meet the needs of the students.

As a novice teacher, I believed that I never needed the security afforded by tenure and lamented that it protected some weaker teachers. When staff cutbacks were necessary due to financial considerations, I did not enjoy when I was among those laid off, solely because I had less seniority (although I understood and reluctantly accepted that practice).

More than three decades later, I am still proud to call myself a teacher, but am far less willing to scrap tenure than I had been in the past. In the years that have transpired, I have held teaching and administrative positions (including principalships) in several districts. I have witnessed favoritism, crony-ism, nepotism, incompetence, and down-right vindictiveness by administrators who have no concept of what effective leadership entails. I have worked in a district where the superintendent kept a "hit list" of people whom she wanted to purge from the district, and not for the proper reasons. I have worked under a principal who tried to intimidate teachers, usually non-tenured, and who would have attempted to employ the same tactics on me had I not had the advantages of tenure.

After 35 years, it is not the dealings with students, or even with parents, that cause me the most dismay. I have much more patience with children than I do with adults.

Does it rankle me that some incompetent teachers are protected by tenure? It is important to realize that this is not the case. Lazy or fearful administrators who do not want to properly execute their duties use that as an excuse.

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The opinions expressed in Career Corner are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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