Wherever we stand along the political continuum, we have to resist the tendency--the passion?--to reduce to cliche and caricature those who are standing elsewhere. Those who are opposed to welfare programs, for instance, like to point to some flagrant examples of welfare cheats (ignoring the far greater problem of, say, cheaters in the financial industry--and in every other arena of human endeavor, for that matter). Those who are opposed to firearms sometimes characterize gun-owners as slack-jawed cretins who value their right to bear arms more highly than the rights of others to draw breath. And so on.
I mention this because of some conversations I've heard and read recently about teacher tenure. Actually, they are conversations and comments I've heard for decades. Those who are opposed to tenure for public school teachers (or university professors) like to say things like I'd like to have a lifetime guarantee in my job. Or complain about those teachers who, having earned tenure, transform immediately into slackers who phone it in the rest of their careers. (See the image above!)
So ... some thoughts about teacher tenure.
- First of all, tenure is not a lifetime guarantee. The law in Ohio when I was teaching (1966-1997) specified that tenure was no protection in cases of (1) incompetence, (2) moral turpitude, (3) insubordination. In other words, tenure did not protect me from dismissal on grounds that can lead to the dismissal of anyone else in any other position or profession. It's true that superintendents and school boards were often hesitant to go after tenured teachers. (Hearings could be nasty; negative publicity benefited no one.) But they could have ...
- School boards can be unpredictable. Most of the school board members I worked with over the years were dedicated folks who wanted to do what was best for kids. But very few of them had ever taught one minute in a public school classroom and had only a flickering idea of what it was like to face classrooms of kids, day after day after day. And--every now and then--a wacko would get elected, someone with an agenda, a vendetta, a dull axe in need of some serious grinding. Tenure laws protected teachers from the whims and caprices and prejudices of exercised board members.
- I also taught for about ten years in a private school that offered no tenure protection for teachers, all of whom were on "at will" contracts--i.e., either party could terminate at any time for any reason. Job anxiety among faculty was much higher there than in the public school where I taught, and I watched with sadness the swift and surprising departure of some very fine colleagues.
- For most of my career, I taught in a comfortable suburban middle school with a minimum of serious problems. My experience, I am quick to acknowledge, was not typical. But ... I can't think of a single example of a colleague who, having acquired tenure, just shut down and collected his or her paycheck. There was too much peer pressure from the rest of us--too much artful and compassionate work from our building administrators--to allow that to happen. Sure, some teachers were better than others; some worked harder than others--the same as in any other enterprise. But I never really worked with that cliched tenured teacher who was just marking time.
- A vaguely relevant aside: Movies about teachers invariably get everything wrong--and promote some stereotypes that have stuck. Teachers with Nick Nolte (1986--image above) featured a character nicknamed "Ditto" who did nothing but pass out ditto worksheets all day; atop his desk towered a pile of papers, behind which he would sleep. One day, Ditto dies in class, and no one even knows it until the end of the day. And the more recent Bad Teacher (2011) with Cameron Diaz offered an even more egregious caricature of school life. And the films that show crusading teachers are also invariably wretched and fail to use but a tiny fraction of the pixels that color an actual classroom. (End of rant.)
- The lazy tenured teacher cliche also implies that teaching is an easy job. (Hey, all those weekends, vacations, summers!) But as I've written in this space before, most of the teachers I knew worked seven days a week--plus evenings--during the school year. And in the summers, many were going back to school, doing educational travel, reading, other school-related activities. Firing the intellectual furnaces. Sure, there were probably some who lay around all summer, sunbathing and letting their brains atrophy. But not many--not where I taught. And during the school year? There's nothing easy about teaching six classes of eighth graders every day, about supervising the lunch room and the bus arrivals/departures and the torrents of humanity in the hallways between classes and the meetings and the paperwork and the parent conferences and the extra-curricular assignments and the ... I could go on. I'd love to see some prominent critics of teachers give it a go for a few days ... weeks. How long would they last?
- I was very relieved back in the early 1970s when the board voted to give me tenure--not because it meant I could coast for a couple of decades but because it meant I was free to dedicate myself to my job without looking over my shoulder each spring to see if the Grim Reaper were in the building. Yes, other people in other jobs have that worry--that constant worry about job security. But is that a good thing? Instead of whining about teacher tenure, shouldn't we look at it as an opportunity that employers should offer to all workers? Do a good job, keep your nose clean--your pants zipped, keep a civil tongue in your face, and I won't fire you! Sounds like a good, humane contract to me. For everyone.