Let’s talk about tenure. It is a hot topic right now and bares some scrutiny. Anyone who has watched Waiting for Superman has heard that tenure was originally created to protect college professors from being arbitrarily fired because of political reasons and reasons not linked to performance. Once a college professor made it through the vetting process and gained tenure, they were virtually untouchable. In some states, this may also be true for teachers tenured in public schools. In Missouri it isn’t so.
In Missouri, and in our district, teachers sign a contract on a yearly basis. After completing their fifth year of teaching, a teacher receives his tenure contract. This tenure contract enables the administrator to put the teacher on a different evaluation plan than non-tenured teachers. Tenured teachers still have to participate in the evaluation process, but because of the professionalism and expertise they have exhibited, they earn the right to participate in an evaluation process that is more reflective and personal. Tenure doesn’t guarantee the continued employment of a teacher. As a matter of fact, if an administrator thinks that a tenured teacher isn’t performing according to expectations, he or she may place a tenured teacher on a personal plan, take them out of the reflective evaluation process and hold them to a more formal, scripted system of evaluation.
What tenure does, at least in my experience, is provide a required level of due process for teachers who have dedicated a substantial amount of time to a school and district and who in turn have been invested in by the district. Not only do salaries represent around 70% of a district’s expenditures, but districts and governments also spend a significant amount of money keeping teachers well-trained. Year after year teachers receive training in best practices in educating children and implement those practices in the classroom despite difficulties. It doesn’t make fiscal sense for a district to cast out the personnel who should have the most experience and who should have the deepest understanding of the education process.
Another reason I see for due process is to provide a teacher a fair chance to reform and by default perform. I think any school administrator who genuinely cares about his or her school also cares for the personnel that serve in that school. Due process allows a teacher ample opportunity to change according to clear, specific expectations prescribed by the school administrator. Public education is about nothing if it’s not about the opportunity for a second chance. We would be remiss as educators if we did not extend that same dynamic to how we deal with our teachers.
If, after the teacher has been given due process, he is still not meeting expectations he can be fired. What this generally looks like is that the teacher being fired is “non-renewed” or just not given a contract for the next school year. In fourteen years of education I have never seen a teacher removed mid-year. Finding talent at that time of year is incredibly challenging. Think about it. If a teacher was really really good, he would probably have a job in December. After all, we start school in August.
As a concept, the way tenure is handled in Missouri isn’t bad. However, there are times when it might keep a teacher in the classroom for another year so that a school administrator can gather proper documentation. This piece is bad. A year of damage to the educational experience of a student can be recovered, but two years? That’s another story. Additionally, the process of preparing a teacher for non-renewal is labor intensive. It requires hours of work and is arduous to say the least. When you combine this process with the regular day to day madness of being a building administrator and maintaining a home-work balance, just two teachers going through due process can be overwhelming.
Here’s the thing, there is an underlying issue that no one seems to talk about in education reform. Education is about people. It isn’t about numbers, scores, performance reviews, lunches, etc. Education is about people and all of the complex relationships and emotions that drive people each and every day. Reforming education isn’t just about replacing teachers, which is the goal of repealing tenure. It is about reforming the society that contributes and creates public education. Repealing tenure won’t fix many of the issues that public education faces. I’m not sure, based on my understanding of it, that it will fix any of them. What I see most of all is that it isn’t tenure that keeps poor teachers teaching. For the cause of this dynamic I can only look in the mirror at myself and my peers. Administrators control this process. We have to love our students and schools enough to do the incredibly hard work of holding each other, our teachers, and our students accountable.