I’ve been an educator for five years, which means I have tenure. We actually don’t call it tenure — we call it Career Status — but the basic idea is still the same. In talking with non-educators and educators alike, and also in listening to, watching, and reading various media, it appears that a lot of people are really confused about what tenure actually is and what it isn’t.
There’s a misconception that tenure means a teacher can’t be fired. They believe that tenure laws allow bad teachers to keep on being bad teachers and nobody can do anything about it because they are floating on a fluffy cloud of protected, elite status. Apparently teachers just work really hard for four years until they are handed a golden key and then they are untouchable.
All tenure really does is allow teachers the protection of due process when their job is on the line.
The Track to Tenure/Career Status
(This is all based on how this works in my district, but the general process is the same across the country)
Years 1-4(ish) — For the first 2-4 years of a teacher’s career, he or she is hired on a probationary status. The teacher’s contract is renewed for each year and the teacher can be let go for any reason. There is support given, including a mentor and professional development (whether these actually help is a different story). Probationary teachers are also reviewed more often. In my district, probationary teachers have four observations and follow up reviews each year. These can include a combination of announced and unannounced observations, peer and administrator reviews, a self-evaluation, and formative and summative evaluations.
After four years — The teacher is given career status/”tenure” if she or he has had good performance reviews. Teachers may become probationary for a single year if they move to a new school in the district, or for several more years if they move to a new district or state.
What Tenure Is
Tenure status essentially means that a specific process must be followed to fire a teacher. There must be a specific reason for firing the teacher, documentation must be provided, and a hearing must be held with the school board.
Tenure protects the teacher from being fired without reason. For example, a principal cannot fire an experienced teacher, who makes more money, simply to hire a cheaper new teacher. They can’t be fired based on their political beliefs, sexual orientation, disagreeing with administrators, personal conflicts, or any other arbitrary reason unrelated to job performance.
Tenure does not protect teachers who break the law or codes of conduct, teachers who have poor job performance over time without improvement, or teachers who fail to show up for work on a regular basis. Essentially, tenure protected teachers before employment laws protected all employees, but now they are essentially the same thing.
Why Tenure Gets A Bad Reputation
Tenure gets a bad reputation because bad teachers are still in the classroom. The general public, as well as educators, wants to believe that all teachers could, would, and should be GOOD teachers and all bad teachers should be fired. This is simply not possible — in ANY profession. I would ask professionals of any profession to think about your coworkers and how hard it is to fire an employee at your company. Do people just get shifted around? Does it take six to twelve months to get a person out? Does a manager not see the whole picture of the employee’s performance? The same things happen in education.
Bad teachers are still in the classroom because:
- There are varying definitions of “bad” — A parent may believe a teacher is bad because of issues arising with an individual child. The parent perception of this teacher may be negative, but that does not mean the teacher is a “bad” teacher. There is no such thing as a perfect teacher.
- “Bad” teachers get shuffled around — This happens either because the teacher voluntarily moves around, or because the administration finds excuses to move the teacher out. It takes a while to realize a teacher isn’t performing, and sometimes the teacher has moved on before their poor performance can be documented.
- Due Process takes time — A principal can’t walk in an see a teacher having a bad day and immediately terminate the teacher. The “bad” teaching must occur over time consistently and be documented. The teacher must be notified and allowed to attempt improvement. Teaching is a profession of constant learning, and we have to allow for that.
- The evaluation tools lower the bar — Sometimes the evaluation instruments are too easy. Under these, everyone looks like a good teacher. No one ever gets an “unsatisfactory.” Many school districts have changed their tools to make them stronger and more accurate.
- Administrators are too lenient — Whether from lack of knowledge or assertiveness, some administrators mark teachers as “proficient” even when they aren’t. They also may not follow through on the process of eliminating a bad teacher because it’s too time consuming, they aren’t organized, or they fear the repercussions.
- It’s hard to know what a teacher really does — The only people who really know if a teacher is good or bad are the students and the teacher himself/herself, and both of these are biased. We rely on administrator observations, both formal and informal, to make “objective” decisions about teacher performance. Some teachers teach differently when they know they are being watched…which is a very small percentage of the time. Test scores and grades can’t even tell the whole story.
When “bad” teachers are still in the classroom, the public thinks these folks are being protected by tenure. That simply isn’t the case. There are many other factors in place. Teachers are subject to judgement from such a variety of sources with completely different agendas (students, parents, the public, policy makes, administrators, and other teachers) that the definition of “good” and “bad” is so subjective, anyway. Tenure isn’t a matter of protecting bad teachers, but rather a manner of protecting good teachers from unnecessary termination.
Overall, tenure in K-12 education seems to be a dated concept. Employment laws protect many folks from discrimination, and civil suits can be filed. But I don’t think the system is doing any harm at this point, either. Tenure is not keeping anyone in a job who doesn’t deserve it, those people would still be there without the tenure system due to the reasons listed above.
What Tenure Is — And What It Is Not (Article from NEA Today)
Pros and Cons of Teacher Tenure from ProCon.org
Nobody Deserves Tenure by Chester E. Finn, Jr. from Education Next