Mark your calendars for this date – September 8, 2010. That’s the day that I will arrive at work around 7:00am, like I have for the past three years; but I will enter my school building for the first time as a tenured educator. I’m not going to lie to you, I plan on driving to my butcher’s after school that day and purchasing the largest steak I can reasonably afford, and promptly grilling it in my backyard. It will most likely be one the happiest days of my professional career, which has lasted now for almost three school years. I have worked very hard to make a reputation for myself, and have received positive evaluations from my administrators. I am humble enough to know that I have areas to improve on, but also proud to say that I consider myself a good, albeit young teacher.
Tenure will mean so many things for me as a professional and an academic. It will undoubtedly offer me a certain level of job security, and allow me to focus on furthering my own professional goals. However, I am more than aware of the amount of criticism that is directed at the issue of “tenure.” The lay public and critics often consider tenure to be fail-proof job entitlement, and the unmotivated educators of our field consider it to be an excuse for “taking it easy,” but academics across the field also view tenure as a protection from some innate problems that can exist in our field. I am truthful enough to say that I consider myself a moderately intelligent man, and I am proud to say that I am an academic; so in that spirit, I decided to do what academics have done for thousands of years – view the scholarly research of others, consider the current societal climate, and construct my own informed opinion.
Tenure is a protection negotiated between teachers and those that employ them, that protects teachers from arbitrary or unfair contract non-renewal or termination. Tenure is rewarded to teachers after a probationary period that is used to assess that teacher’s ability to perform their duties as an educator. The core protection that tenure provides is that a teacher has the right to due process, and the ability to contest any termination. It does not necessarily guarantee that they will not be terminated for legitimate reasons, just that they have the right to contest the evidence and reasoning used to recommend their termination.
Proponents of tenure cite a myriad of reasons on why tenure is an essential part of education. James Scottexplained that teachers need tenure in order to protect them politically motivated firings, purported by administrators or school boards who disagreed with a teacher’s viewpoints or beliefs. In short, he stated that tenure is used to protect an educator from being fired for “…reasons unrelated to the educational process.” Time magazine provided a report on the history of tenure, and I was amused to see that New Jersey was the first state to grant tenure to professors. Tenure was later added in the early 1900′s to include elementary and secondary teachers to protect the largely female workforce from being terminated for marrying or taking leaves for pregnancies. . In the article, M.J. Stephey notes that tenure is as important now as it was then, due to the fact that many polarizing topics still exist in education today, such as creationism and evolutionary biology. Stephey also cited teachers as stating that resolving issues with tenure, such as abolishing it or modifying it will not fix other fundamental hurdles in education in America; “Abolishing tenure doesn’t address problems of underfunding, overcrowding or improving students’ home environments.”
I felt that after perusing scholarly research and third party research on tenure, that I could summarize the pros of tenure by saying that it was designed to protect teachers from being fired for anything that was unrelated to their duties as a teacher, but still be terminated for misconduct or poor performance.
Critics of tenure often cite the lay public’s perception that tenure means that teachers have a risk-free, easy-going job for the duration of their career. Scott Reederperformed a half-year-long study of tenure in the state of Illinois, and drew some conclusions that led him to express that the tenure process is dysfunctional and ineffective. Reeder found that the expenses to terminate a teacher, or force them to resign were often in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. He also found that the process by which termination begins, the critical evaluation of teachers’ performances, was inadequete and in his findings – falsely reported or too kindly worded. He described evaluations that glossed over a teacher’s inadequacies, but also cited administrators who explained that they offer evaluations in a collaborative sense and in a spirit of diplomacy. The administrators felt that if they were too harsh with poor performing teachers, that they would become discouraged or bitter, and not as receptive to retraining or remediating experiences. His most pressing issue with tenure, however, was not improvement of teachers, but with the costs of terminating a poor performing teacher or a teacher who was negligent or unethical on the job. He cited specific cases where teachers who were proven to have been unprofessional on the job, or had not fulfilled their duties cost the local and state governments large amounts of money in legal fees, salary, and other inherent costs.
Often the public sees what politicians, civic leaders, or celebrities say about issues of public concern. All too often, people form their opinions without consulting with academic research or hearing information from thsoe who have the knowledge and authority to speak about such topics such as tenure. While I was graced with a plethora of research to consider, I also wondered what teachers themselves think about tenure, when their opinions could be shared in confidence and without fear of reprisal. George Clowes collected data from teachers for the Heartland Institute and described his findings on how teachers felt about facets of tenure. His findings suggested that teachers enjoy the protection that tenure provides, and feel that it is important to the field of education, but that there are problems that exist with the tenure process, such as protecting teachers who are actually doing a poor job. In short, like many things in our world – tenure provides good for many people, but a percentage of those that are aided end up abusing the system.
As an educator, I cannot ignore the fact that tenure provides me with protection from unjust termination or ill-minded attacks on my career, well-being, and professional identity. I can plainly see how tenure can be abused by teachers who simply ‘go through the motions’ of teaching, instead of being the committed, talented professionals that make our field one of honor and nobleness. We protect our good teachers, but must face the reality that some unfortunate few will abuse that protection. At the heart of that issue is the concern that it is too costly and difficult to fire a poor teacher. My question to that notion is, what needs fixing then? Do we lessen the protection of good teachers to get to the bad, or do we try and remediate poor teachers, or even still – do we tackle the issue of large legal fees that are incurred by questioning those imposing those fees? As teacher preparation and training improves in our field, as it has for a long time, teachers who relax once tenure sets in will certainly become less and less. As state mandated testing measures student performance, and collaborative teachers share lesson plans in an environment that fosters teamwork – our students will continue to improve in their mastery of areas of study. Tenure was provided to protect teachers and allow them to perform their duties in a environment where their work mattered, not their beliefs, viewpoints, or personalities – and it still does that today. The question of improving teacher evaluations and teacher training are issues that can be resolved without tinkering with tenure, and without lowering the shield for teachers who have earned tenure and deserve that protection.
So on September 8, 2010 you can come and see me in my backyard as I grill a moderately priced steak and you will be able to hear the pride in my voice when I tell you that I am a tenured teacher and that I love doing my job well. After that, you will be able to find me the very next morning at work, at around 7:00am, putting in the same kind of effort that I have been for almost three years now.