Don’t Know Much About…Tenure

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.

Even tenured teachers can’t throw kickballs at their students’ faces on purpose (photo from the movie Bad Teacher, staring Cameron Diaz)

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.

Not true.

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.

More Information

What Tenure Is — And What It Is Not (Article from NEA Today)

Pros and Cons of Teacher Tenure from

Nobody Deserves Tenure by Chester E. Finn, Jr. from Education Next

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14 responses to “Don’t Know Much About…Tenure

  1. Thank you so much for posting on this. When I entered education ten years ago (at the ripe age of 21), I had NO IDEA what tenure was and how the teacher’s union even worked. There’s a misconception that teachers get into teaching for “tenure and the summers off.” I really resent that people think this because many of us ended up teachers because we love kids and learning. I hope a lot of non-teachers read your blog and are enlightened.

    As far as firing a bad teacher, it’s such a slippery topic. I do like that teaching is not considered as “cutthroat” as the business world but by no means do I think that if I just sat on my butt all day “no one would be able to fire me.” Many people actually take pride in their work and want to make a living for their family. We come to work every day and do the best we can. Do we falter, slack of and get tired? Absolutely. As does every person in every job out there, it’s human nature. But there are systems in place to rejuvenate us and get us back on track as well. Not to mention we have to go with the flow of all the national and state changes educationally, attend trainings and revamp our lessons to suit the common core. But no one really talks about that when they are talking about teachers and tenure. It’s all about themoney we make that we don’t deserve. And for every hard working teacher, it’s really saddening.

    • Personally, I’m all for getting rid of tenure and for cutting teachers who don’t perform well in the classroom. I work hard, I’m sure you work hard, and most of the teachers I work with and respect work hard — and none of us would be let go. Sure we have things to work on, but we’re good teachers.

      Most of the teacher I see who need to be gone already don’t want to be there.

  2. Awesome topic! I’m not in the teaching world, but have an aunt and a cousin (both close to my age) who are elementary teachers (in different counties) and both got laid off at the same time. And were quickly replaced by younger, less experienced teachers who they could pay less. I don’t know how far either of them were from tenure, but it wasn’t very far. I want to say my aunt was up for tenure and my cousin was a year away. Either way, to me, the teaching profession isn’t so much flawed in the tenure system, but in the system to become tenured.
    I guess because I live in an “at will” state (meaning you can be fired at the will of your employer), laying teachers off because you want to hire someone for less money (i.e. budget cuts) doesn’t really break the law or whatever. And as you pointed out, they’re on probationary periods, so that doesn’t break that either. I just think it’s a shame that teachers who are well educated, experienced, dedicated, get passed up for renewal and a young, inexperienced teacher replaces them. Obviously there’s no good answer or solution to this problem and until our schools are better funded there won’t be much improvement on this issue.
    Thanks for explaining the tenure system and I hope it helps others to understand the teaching profession a little more; I know it helped me! :)

    • Eliminating the tenure system completely could have some positive and negative results, but I like to believe that good teaching and experience would still keep their value without it. I know that wouldn’t always be the case, though. But I also know many young teachers (a few second year teachers in my building come to mind) who are rising stars, and good, dedicated teachers. If I were an administrator, I would want to keep them in a budget cut situation because they are good, not because they are “cheap”! A lot of it comes down to good management of personnel, which is something I think education is lacking.

    • Haha, thanks, friend! I got one year of it, and now I’m quitting to go back to school.

  3. Thank you so much for this excellent post giving factual information about what tenure is an is not for teachers. This certainly makes clear that tenure status is not equivalent to saying that teacher is amazingly “gifted”!

    • Do people actually think that? Because it’s pretty much handed out at year four if you meet the minimal requirements (you can’t be listed at the bottom ranking on your evaluation points). It would be surprising to meet someone who ISN’T awarded tenure.

    • Thank you! This post was inspired by a conversation with a paraprofessional who didn’t understand something she heard on the radio, so I figured others might want to know!

  4. Thanks for posting this! I didn’t know too much about how tenure did and did not work, but I liked how you broke everything down. And congrats on 5 years of educating!

    • My explanation is specific to K-12 education, but a lot of it applies to higher ed, too. I’m looking in to being a professor after I finish my Ph.D, so I wanted to know the differences between the two systems!

  5. Here in TN, tenured teachers are a fading species. Here, it WILL become only the gifted few, and is revocable if you mess up. What it comes down to though is that regardless of tenure status, it is the PRINCIPAL’S JOB to make sure the staff is performing and to eliminate those who are not. If you’re not doing the job, there will be proof. Too many principals don’t want the headache/guilt and ignore too much. On the other end of the spectrum, too many principals have a “group” who can do no wrong and a “group” who can do no right, or who let the parents dictate policy (i.e.- how dare she give my darling an F (children earn grades, not receive them like presents)- you should fire her). THAT is when you need the protection of tenure. Thanks for the excellent explanation. I try all the time to tell folks that it’s like being a vested employee; NOT a lifetime appointment.

  6. Pingback: May Wrap-Up and Required Reading for June « The Librarian Who Doesn't Say "Shhh"·

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