Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Teacher Tenure


When I was a kid, I thought my dad was saying ten-year. But he was, of course, talking about tenure, which he had just earned at Phillips University in Enid, Oklahoma, where we were living at the time (mid-1950s). I remember asking him what it meant, this ten-year thing. He said it meant he had job security. Or something like that. What I really remember is that he was supremely happy about it. (He would later earn tenure again at Hiram College and for his final academic position with Drake University.)

Tenure was in the news recently because of the ruling on June 10 by that judge in California who said granting public school teachers tenure denies students equal opportunity to experience great teachers (link to full text of the ruling). The judge apparently accepted as fact the stereotype of the tenured teacher--someone like Cameron Diaz in Bad Teacher (link to trailer) or some of the characters in that older film (1984), Teachers, with Nick Nolte (link to trailer for Teachers). I remember one of the caricatures in Teachers--a guy whom the kids nicknamed "Ditto" (played by Royal Dano) because all he ever did in class was have students fill out worksheets all period--every day. There were piles of them on his desk; behind them, he read his newspaper and slept ... and, one day, died, a fact no one discovered until the end of the day. (See what tenure has wrought!?) (Link to some scenes in Ditto's class.)

According to the stereotype, when teachers get tenure, they shut down, go through the motions, collect their fat paychecks, enjoy their fat benefits, and flip off their supervisors, who can do nothing because of, you know, tenure.

I have to say, though, that in my own forty-five year experience I rarely saw the stereotype. (But I confess, as well, that I taught in some fine schools--so perhaps my sample is not representative? Perhaps. But I stand by what follows.) What I saw instead? Senior faculty who, freed from worries about losing their jobs for a trivial or arbitrary reason, used their limited job security to create, to expand academic freedom (for themselves, for their students), who became, in a word, professional.

Another reason for tenure: Senior faculty earn more than beginning teachers. In fact, there's quite a difference between a rookie and a twenty-five year veteran (just as there is in most every other occupation). So ... without teacher tenure, what's to prevent Principal Scrooge from releasing the vet and hiring two rookies? (Hmmm ... seems as if that would deny youngsters access to great teachers?!?)

I know that lots of people in other occupations and professions can get grumpy about teacher/professor tenure because they do not have it in their work. Too true. (Perhaps the practice ought to be more widespread; I mean, if people are skilled and professional about their jobs, why not enjoy some job security? The Masters of the Universe certainly have it--not a job guarantee, of course, but a Golden Parachute. I'm sure you've seen the stories about them.)

But I would also argue that teaching is ... different. Tenure is supposed to be a way to attract and keep good teachers, job security's being a benefit for those who labor in a vineyard that still does not pay all that well, no matter how many grapes you pick. I'll grant you that it hasn't always worked out that way, but whose fault is that? Let's look at some of the issues.

One great misunderstanding is that tenured teachers are invulnerable, like Achilles--but with no heel to worry about. In Ohio during my career this simply was not true. Tenured teachers could lose their jobs for three categories of reasons: (1) incompetence, (2) insubordination, (3) moral turpitude. It's true, I know, that school boards did not always pursue tenured teachers for reasons 1 and 2 (they certainly did for 3). It's difficult to prove incompetence (making it even harder: The teacher could well ask, If I'm incompetent, why did you give me tenure in the first place?), and insubordination? Where is the line between insubordination and sticking up for what you know is right?

A superintendent once threatened me with dismissal because I wanted to go see my son perform for the last time on his high school stage (a daytime assembly presentation). It was late morning on a teacher workshop day for our district, and I would have missed only about a half-hour of the proceedings. Anyway, when the superintendent used the phrase direct insubordination with me (I'd just told him I might have to go despite his decision), I knew he was preparing the foundation for a case against me. I was nearing retirement (only a half-dozen years away), and, to my shame, I backed down. I was worried about finding another job at my age and stage (I had a Ph.D. with 25 years' experience), about hurting my pension. So I sat down and shut up. And have spent the ensuing years regretting what I did.

Receiving tenure, in my day, was not automatic, by the way. As I remember it, I had to have taught seven years--which meant the Board had, several times, considered and renewed my limited contracts. At any point in those seven years (or was it five?), they could have simply (in that quaint phrase) "non-renewed" me by a simple 3-2 majority. The law did not require them to give me a reason--just, buh-bye. And I did see this happen to some colleagues. But often renewal was more automatic than it should have been. Some years this was due to teacher shortages (the old "devil you know" conflict). But I also think that superintendents and school boards sometimes just did not want to do the difficult thing. They knew it would bring bad publicity, that the union would probably roar in protest and charge to the teacher's defense. And--maybe, maybe--they thought, in some cases, it just wasn't worth the hassle.

I could go on and on, but I want to raise one more thing here. We need to ask: If senior faculty actually are bored and burned out, why? In some cases, it's this: Their jobs haven't changed in twenty-five years. They're still overwhelmed with too many students, too many class preparations, too much busywork. I was able to avoid this for several reasons, and a significant one was this: Our school system--later in my career--tried to keep class sizes smaller, to make sure teachers had "free" time during the day. Also, because I was an English teacher, I was able to pick books and projects and writing assignments that I knew the kids would like--or that they ought to experience. I saw teaching as a way to continue my own education. And I did the school plays, too. Directing kept me animated and interested, as well.

But then the Testing Ogre arrived, bellowed and roared, announced that Big Changes had arrived ... and I bolted at the first opportunity, retiring the first day I was eligible.

As I've written here before, teaching today is a much less attractive profession--at least for me--than it was during my career (1966-2011). For most of those years I had considerable academic freedom/responsibility; salaries and benefits went up; parents supported the teachers (mess up at school, you're in trouble at home). Now, of course, standardized tests have become the curriculum, drilling and training are replacing education, more parents seem to think their kids are Innocents (and teachers are ... not). From my point of view, being  in such an environment would be soul-killing--for kids, for faculty.

The greatest teachers I ever had (from kindergarten through my doctoral work)--the ones who had the most enduring influence on me--were not those who drilled-and-filled like dentists but the ones who inspired me, who showed me the wonders of the world--seen and unseen, who showed me some pathways, who taught me that I would need to find my own ways, as well, who showed me that I could never learn it all (so I would never be truly competent), who showed me that education has no end, who animated me to try, try, try until the darkness falls.

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