Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Without Tenure...

Yesterday, twitter blew up with responses to Whoopi Goldberg and the View having one more uninformed discussion of tenure (and, really, we need to talk about why education discussions keep being driven by the work of comedians).

"#WithoutTenure I can be fired for...." was the tweet template of the day, and even though I rode that bus for a bit, it occurs to me this morning that it misses the point.

It's true that in the absence of tenure, teachers can (and are) fired for all manner of ridiculous things. That's unjust and unfair. As some folks never tire of pointing out, that kind of injustice is endemic in many jobs (Why people would think that the response to injustice is to demand more injustice for more people is a whole conversation of its own). That doesn't change a thing. Firing a teacher for standing up for a student or attending the wrong church or being too far up the pay scale-- those would all be injustices. But as bad as that would be, it's not the feature of a tenureless world that would most damage education.

It's not the firing. It's the threat of firing.

Firing ends a teacher's career. The threat of firing allows other people to control every day of that teacher's career.

The threat of firing is the great "Do this or else..." It takes all the powerful people a teacher must deal with and arms each one with a nuclear device.

Give my child the lead in the school play, or else. Stop assigning homework to those kids, or else. Implement these bad practices, or else. Keep quiet about how we are going to spend the taxpayers' money, or else. Forget about the bullying you saw, or else. Don't speak up about administration conduct, or else. Teach these materials even though you know they're wrong, or else. Stop advocating for your students, or else.

Firing simply stops a teacher from doing her job.

The threat of firing coerces her into doing the job poorly.

The lack of tenure, of due process, of any requirement that a school district only fire teachers for some actual legitimate reason-- it interferes with teachers' ability to do the job they were hired to do.  It forces teachers to work under a chilling cloud where their best professional judgment, their desire to advocate for and help students, their ability to speak out and stand up are all smothered by people with the power to say, "Do as I tell you, or else."

Civilians need to understand-- the biggest problem with the destruction of tenure is not that a handful of teachers will lose their jobs, but that entire buildings full of teachers will lose the freedom to do their jobs well.

We spent a lot of time in this country straightening out malpractice law issues, because we recognized that a doctor can't do his job well if his one concern is not getting sued into oblivion for a mistake. We created Good Samaritan laws because we don't want someone who could help in an emergency stand back and let The Worst happen because he doesn't want to get in trouble.

As a country, we understand that certain kinds of jobs can't be done well unless we give the people who do those jobs the protections they need in order to do their jobs without fear of being ruined for using their best professional judgment. Not all jobs have those protections, because not all workers face those issues.

Teachers, who answer to a hundred different bosses, need their own special set of protections. Not to help them keep the job, but to help them do it. The public needs the assurance that teachers will not be protected from the consequences of incompetence (and administrators really need to step up-- behind every teacher who shouldn't have a job are administrators who aren't doing theirs). But the public also needs the assurance that some administrator or school board member or powerful citizen will not interfere with the work the public hired the teacher to do.

Tenure is that assurance. Without tenure, every teacher is the pawn and puppet of whoever happens to be the most powerful person in the building today. Without tenure, anybody can shoulder his way into the classroom and declare, "You're going to do things my way, or else."

Tenure is not a crown and scepter for every teacher, to make them powerful and untouchable. Tenure is a bodyguard who stands at the classroom door and says, "You go ahead and teach, buddy. I'll make sure nobody interrupts just to mess with you." Taxpayers are paying us for our best professional judgment; the least they deserve is a system that allows us to give them what they're paying us for.


  1. Another excellent article. And just to add, though it's obvious, being fired for political reasons (displeasing someone or not being a crony of someone in power) isn't just unfair for the teacher, it's bad for society, since we need good teachers and good teachers can be fired like this. And of course bad administrators are a whole other issue, but I have never understood why people who have taught very little and often were not very good teachers are allowed to become principals. It makes no sense. But your point that the threat of firing in itself impacts the quality of teaching gives a different perspective that is important too. Sometimes I despair of people who don't do what we do ever being able to get it, but we have to keep trying, and very few people (well, I don't actually know of anyone else) can articulate and express it as well as you do.

  2. You’ve been on fire this week. You’re dropping bombs left and right on the reformster platform (articulate, logical, beautifully written bombs).
    A due process story: Two years back I had a student at my Los Angeles middle school ask permission to not participate in the morning pledge of allegiance. I was fine with her exercising her right to conscientiously object but the teacher that had her first period on reverse days wasn’t so accommodating; the student was sent to the dean and told she needed to at least stand at attention.
    I checked the LAUSD website and eventually found the Office of General Counsel Handbook PDF; sure enough, the handbook clearly stated that students have the right to quietly sit out the pledge. My admin was skeptical and put up some mild resistance, but in the end they were fair enough and let the student exercise her rights.
    What if my administrators weren’t so accommodating? Due process allows me to do my job and advocate for students.

  3. This is the best response to the tenure naysayers I've ever read. I have tried to articulate it that well myself, but have always fallen short. Thank you for providing me a link which I can share with people who just do not understand the real issue.

  4. Bingo! Brilliant point- lack of tenure haves EVERY teacher and student by making it far less likely that teachers will innovate, challenge, think and act independently. Most of the #WithoutTenure tweets I wrote and retweeted said without tenure, I am not free to....and this hurts children.

  5. There is no doubt that tenure is power. Getting rid of tenure doesn't get rid of the power, though. It flips from being a power for teachers to a power against teachers. The reformsters are avidly trying to get this power. They will not go through the effort and expense to get it and then not use it.

  6. Thank you for writing and sharing this!

  7. IMO, this is your best work yet.

    "Civilians need to understand-- the biggest problem with the destruction of tenure is not that a handful of teachers will lose their jobs, but that entire buildings full of teachers will lose the freedom to do their jobs well."

    This articulates the problem with loss of tenure so well, I wish we could put it on billboards.

  8. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6XAPnuFjJc&list=TLl49Tcyc7oKbSLkW6Ccr0cX8SE4-SWrNJ

    For me, this video provides the best reasons of what does NOT motivate educators and what does motivate them. Traditionally, tenure has been the device that provided autonomy, mastery, and purpose, particularly for teachers who generally do not care about the money.

  9. Your reference to "civilians" reminded me of the similarities between teacher tenure and the military separation board process. I wonder if it would be useful to make comparisons between the two.

  10. teachers are cut not only to save money but also to replace them with younger Lower paid teachers who can be indoctrinated and molded to fit the agenda of a principal who loves all that REFORMY stuff like the very costly #InternationalBaccalaureate #commoncore #UNAgenda21 #sustainabledevelopment #PopeFrancis #newworldorder
    do the research, it's all there...

  11. The link between #internationalbaccalaureate #unagenda21 #popefrancis



  12. Well written and spot on. 100 bosses indeed. At least 100...