Don’t Hate Me Because I’m Tenured

By Jane Weinkrantz

2/17/11

Recently, I met a group of fairly educated and successful people at a birthday luncheon for a friend. My new pals asked me about my job, and I told them I was a teacher. They expressed their admiration for my cleverness in choosing a career that had complete job security. After all, everyone knows teachers get tenure the day they are hired, right? The union demands it, right? They were shocked when I explained that I earned my tenure after a three -year probationary period, that unions have limited recourse in the protection of untenured teachers and that all that is guaranteed to tenured teachers is a fair hearing before dismissal.

No wonder people are so cranky about teacher tenure lately. They seem to have confused the terms of our employment with those of Supreme Court Justices or Communist dictators.  In fact, while tenure offers some protection from job loss at the hands of an arbitrary administrator or because of race, gender, sexual orientation or salary scale, it is still quite possible to lose one’s position after being granted tenure.

The media’s recent attacks on teachers and tenure only perpetuate the notions my lunch partners had. In Trip Gabriel and Sam Dillon’s article “G.O.P. Governors Take Aim at Teacher Tenure,” (The New York Times 2/1/11 ), Gov. Brian Sandoval of Nevada states, “It’s practically impossible to remove an underperforming teacher under the system we have now.” What Governor Sandoval and The Times don’t discuss is how easy it is get tenure in Nevada ; teachers there can be tenured after one year and a mere three evaluations.  In the casino state, this is the closest you’ll come to a sure thing. According to The Las Vegas Sun (“Are Teachers Getting Tenure Too Soon?” 1/23/11 ), ninety five percent of the teachers in Clark County , Nevada , were granted tenure after one year. Nevada ’s tenure system allows for a maximum two-year probationary period.  Rather than investigating why Nevada administrators are so eager to grant tenure after a single year---Less paperwork? High turnover? --- or moving Nevada to the three-year tenure model that exists in 47 states, Sandoval has reacted with a backlash against the tenure system as a whole and now seeks to end protection for teachers. According to the Sun, “Lynn Warne, president of the Nevada State Education Association, said the system works and ineffective teachers can and should be removed if they can’t improve — even after they earn tenure. “We don’t protect bad teachers,” she said. Warne blamed administrators for waiving the second year of probation too often. “The process that is in place is a good one,” she said. “Unfortunately, administrators do not practice and apply those procedures correctly.”

In the Times article, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel asks , “Why aren’t governors standing up and saying, ‘In our state, we’ll devise a system where nobody will ever get into a classroom who isn’t competent…Instead they are saying ‘Let’s make it easy to fire teachers.’ That’s the wrong goal.” Indeed, it seems that if tenure reform is taken seriously, the hard-working, knowledgeable majority of teachers will be punished not so much for the shoddy work of a few as for the poor hiring decisions of administrators.

Much of the reaction against tenure has to do with the stereotype of the “old, burned-out teacher.” I think this caricature, whose enthusiasm for education has presumably waned with years of teaching, is a myth. Most new teachers gain additional confidence and insight with each year of work, making them better at presenting material and managing classrooms.  (How often retirees tell me, “I envy you. I miss school so much!” Some of them can’t stay away and return as substitutes.) I also wonder why teaching is the only profession in which a long career is presumed to make a person less proficient at their job.  Do critics really believe years of experience makes teachers worse, or do they just think it makes us too expensive? Should I assume my physician, attorney or accountant will burn out after a couple of decades of work as well?     

Another misapprehension tenure-bashers seem to labor under is that we teachers want to recruit as many tenured teachers as possible.  It doesn’t matter if you are a good teacher, a great teacher, a bad teacher or a criminal; we just want to say: Welcome to the tenure club! Let me teach you the secret handshake!   What stings about this misconception is its implication that we have no pride in our work and can’t or don’t care to tell the difference between a competent colleague and the fairly rare one who is a train wreck.  Likewise, as in any other career, people who work hard are resentful of those who don’t. And why not when a colleague’s poor work just guarantees that you will have to re-teach old material before going forward with your own? If teachers granted tenure, it would be tougher to get.

Then, there’s the odious theory that effective teachers don’t need tenure because it’s a protective shield for the mediocre to hide behind. Florida Governor Rick Scott told the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, “Good teachers know they don’t need tenure. There is no reason to have it except to protect those that don’t perform as they should.” In fact, there are many reasons good teachers need tenure. How else can we prevent districts from letting teachers go when they reach a certain point on the salary scale? How else can sexism, racism, homophobia or political differences be kept out of firing decisions?  Without tenure, couldn’t a perfectly wonderful teacher be let go to make room for a new teacher who happened to be the child or spouse of an influential community member? Couldn’t a bitter student or parent make baseless allegations that might lead to firing?

            It seems to me that the tenure system embodies many of the lessons in character we hope to transfer to our children. Tenure tells us that experience makes us wiser, that no one should be discriminated against because of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation or political beliefs and that no one should be judged without getting a chance to tell their side of the story. If we destroy a model based on those values, what will replace them?

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