From Novice to Expert in 90 Days! (Give or take 25-30 years.)

The Truth About Tenure

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.

Mr. L

Who says you aren’t qualified?!

Interesting questions abound in A Qualified Teacher in Every Classroom? (Hess, Rotherham, and Walsh, 2004). Deep questions about the fundamentals of what constitutes quality instruction and how many things affect that idea.  

 Eduwonk’s blog considers this book as well, noting that the change in classroom size, whether to increase or decrease, hinges more on quality of instruction than on the smaller sizes. I can see how these two concepts can be so divided in some people’s minds; but my own opinion would be that the two go hand in hand.

 As a young teacher, the most daunting task of trying out new things is the fact that when things go wrong with twenty students in the room – things get out of hand. If teachers are ever to grow in their instructional practices and methodology, risks need to be taken and new ideas need to be tested out. It can be quite intimidating to step out of your instructional box when you have twenty-odd students to consider, each with unique needs and skill sets. A smaller class size allows young teachers and veterans alike to try out new ideas or perspectives without the daunting task of trying to reign in twenty askew minds or uninterested students.

Smaller class sizes also mean less paperwork for teachers, allowing more time for pedagogical research or professional development. How often do you wish you had more time to read an instructional magazine or catch up on what’s new in the field? Less leg work would mean more time to grow and more time to reflect on your teaching. Certainly, numerous experts have authored on the important of self-reflection as part of moving up the continuum of “novice to master teacher.” Less time spent on papers means more time to actually sit down and consider what works for you and what doesn’t.

Speaking of less time spent on things, how about negative behavior? With over twenty students in your class, you probably feel more like a counselor than a teacher sometimes. We have all had times when we spend more time out in the hallway than in the classroom. Again, smaller class sizes allow for more meaningful management plans and character education.

All of these things hinge on a professional who is committed to the field. We are not naive enough to think that giving teachers more leeway will result in perfectly crafted, dedicated professionals: but the idea is still beneficial. Giving teachers less to worry about and more time spent on themselves and individual students results in better instruction. If we are to ever get past the large issue of “Who is qualified?”, we must first realize that the notion of small classes and quality instruction go hand in hand, not one or the other.

Mr. L

“Retaking our Professionalism!”

      I recently attended an outstanding seminar entitled, “Powerful Strategies for Dealing With Difficult Parents,” by BER. While being an excellent presentation about specific strategies for proactively and reactively handling difficult parents; another topic that was touched upon was professionalism. One area that always fascinates me and seems to be one of debate is the issue of professional attire.

     The presenter, Kathryn Phillips, touched on ”retaking some of our professionalism.” I couldn’t agree more with her. I really feel that this might be something that puts me in a different category than some teachers bu I feel that we often don’t get the respect and professional treatment we deserve because we don’t exhibit that professionalism.

Lawyers and doctors command respect, therefore they receive it. I feel that a big part of that is dress code and overall appearance. Lawyers wear suits, while doctors usually wear professional attire and a lab coat of sorts. Teachers often complain about being treated as a second-tier profession,  but how many doctors show up to work in a pair of casual pants and a cotton long sleeve shirt?  Would you want a lawyer litigating in jeans and a hooded sweatshirt? What hospitals have casual Fridays?

I urge everyone, take back our professionalism. Little by little we can become more respected in society. We all know this world is image-based, and we need to cash in on that. Wear your Sunday best, not your casual Friday attire. Leave that for when grade your papers at home, not when you’re in the field – and shaping the future.

 Mr. L

The future of books in U.S. education…

I was browsing some blogs, and stumbled across the good old Encyclopedia Britannica, albeit in blog form. I think blogs have come a long way in a short time for sure, but when the Encyclopedia has a blog, you know blogs have made it. But I digress…

 While reading Encyclopedia Britannica’s Blog, I began reading about the future of books in Britain. J.E. Luebering blogs about how Britain is focusing on making 2008 the “Year of Reading.” Mr. Luebering then begins to discuss the motivations behind this spearhead of sorts, citing that a recent survey by the British Government that shows the 25% of Britons haven’t read a book in the last year. Mr. Luebering then asks the poignant question that others have started asking in this technology driven age, Do we really even need books?

Mr. Luebering counters the argument that books are an outdated mode of research and an inefficient means of becoming informed with the advent of the Internet, radio, and TV by reminding his readers that at one point in time – books were utilized both for pleasure and for being informed.

I agree with Mr. Luebering in that books were and still are both for being informed and for enjoyment. Certainly most children would rather read for enjoyment than a required text, much an adult rather read a NY Bestseller than a work-related article. Surely in the age of endless Harry Potter books, movies, and video games someone out there enjoys reading as opposed to sitting in front of the TV.

The more I thought about how little it seemed that people read the more I thought about my own classroom. I assigned my students homework over this weekend, the first time i ever have. They were shocked to see that in the place of my standard Friday, “Have a great weekend. I’m proud of you all,” was a dauntingly ominous, “Read one chapter from any book.” I had eighteen children asking me if I was serious. Read on the weekend?! Outrageous, I know.

Reading is a dying form of learning it seems. In a world with instructional strategies that can hit every known intelligence, differentiate for any level learner, and accommodate any behavior issues, we sometimes forget that people just don’t read books like they used to and we need to prepare our students to find information in the same way adults do. Every morning I read the news, from Yahoo. Every night I check the headlines, on Yahoo. I even watch my sports clips on the Internet. Seldom do I read the paper, the only written text I touch is professional materials and books read for enjoyment.

So how do we prepare our learners to do both? Simple, we use both. The future of books isn’t a simple yes or no answer. We can’t throw all our books out or trash all technological research either. We can show our students how to find information from both, which for the most part we ultimately do. We need find a good old fashioned “compromise.”

In terms of compromise there is a hybrid method to using books in schools. With Amazon’s introduction of the “Kindle,” an electronic device that displays written text, suddenly we can read from what looks like a 1990′s Gameboy. I picture a student having a device like the Kindle to store text books, comic books, and books that are read for fun. Remember the saying, “A laptop for every student!” What a more economical compromise and method of injecting learning and technology into the classroom. As educators, we need to find both an effective and economical solution to our problems, schools will always be part business. Most e-books on the Kindle cost  less than the paperback versions of the same book, you can subscribe to newspapers, and even magazines. How much more economical would a school license to share books amongst it’s population than to continually buy new textbooks, store them, and replace them.

Now don’t confuse me for an Amazon salesperson. I’m not saying the Kindle is the only way and certainly I hope that other developers bring some competitive pricing and alternate versions of the machine. I’m just saying that perhaps the future of books lies in a device that bridges the gap between clunky textbooks and sleek technology media.

Hello world!

This blog serves the purpose of sharing my experiences and teaching journey with the educational world. Also, I’d like to give a shout-out to my homeboy, Differentiated Instruction.