Et Tu, Whoopi?

By Jane Weinkrantz



           I’ve always loved Whoopi Goldberg, dating back to her one-woman Broadway show when she portrayed characters most actors wouldn’t go near and said things that people weren’t always comfortable hearing---remember the disabled girl discussing romance or the African-American girl wanting long luxurious blonde hair? So, I assumed that someone who makes her living trafficking in free speech and uncomfortable truths would understand the necessity of tenure laws. However, Whoopi, the daughter of a teacher, has pared down the tenure reform discussion to the notion that tenure protects bad teachers, and advising us on national television: “Teachers, in your union, you need to say these bad teachers are making us look bad.”

A very intelligent woman seems to have fallen for the facile argument that we could get rid of bad teachers if only we could get rid of tenure. She forgets that teachers don’t grant tenure and our unions don’t grant tenure. Administrators grant tenure. Whoopi’s beef should be with administrators who don’t hold new hires to the highest standards, who are afraid of how a bad hiring decision reflects on them, who don’t discuss ways to improve or refer weak teachers to mentors and who would rather tenure a bad teacher than have the courage to say to a teacher who is demonstrably incapable of improvement, “I’m sorry.  I made a bad choice. You’re not cut out for this.” In New York, a teacher must work three years before earning tenure. If an administrator doesn’t have the measure of a person’s talent and work ethic after three years, whose fault is that? Not teachers or their union.

            Before  Whoopi Goldberg asks teachers to support revision of the tenure system because “those bad teachers are making us look bad,” let’s talk about three little words that could have lost me my job without tenure: The Color Purple. Alice Walker’s beautiful, moving novel about Celie’s journey through oppression to self-discovery and strength and the magnificent film, which earned Goldberg her 1986 Academy Award for Best Actress, have worked like a charm for me over the years in engaging my high school students, particularly those who are difficult to reach. They relate to Celie’s struggle as they relate to no other character. Students have told me “It’s the only book I liked,” or “It’s the only book I actually read all the way through” or “I watch that movie every time it’s on.” Yet, The Color Purple includes vicious incidents of racism, a lesbian relationship, marijuana use and multiple painful scenes of sexual and domestic violence. Without tenure, I could be risking my position by exposing  students to a work some parents may find controversial, even sinful. With due process in place, I am assured of my job until someone proves that I’ve done something wrong, not just taught something that everyone didn’t agree with.

            Here are just a few of the other things tenure allows teachers to do without fear of retribution: speak candidly at district meetings; not bow to parental pressure to raise a grade; refer a potentially learning disabled child for evaluation when a financially strapped district does not want to spend any more money on special services; be absent on religious holidays that are not observed by the predominant religion; discipline or fail the child of a politically powerful parent; use controversial materials in class to stimulate class discussion and learning.

            Abolishing tenure won’t get rid of “bad” teachers. It will just make it harder for the rest of us to take the risks we need to take when we aspire to be great teachers.  

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