I probably waited too long to write this post about teacher tenure, because it’s become a hotly-debated issue very quickly after the Vergara v. California decision ruled tenure unconstitutional. The basis for the ruling was that tenure violates the fair and equal access to education for all students, because it essentially guarantees that the best teachers will get tenure to stay in the highest-paying districts.
Of course there are opponents to the ruling who believe that tenure is a teacher’s only guard against unfair firing practices by schools. Many argue that eliminating teacher tenure takes away basic protections for the teaching profession.
But my question is this: in what other professional career are people guaranteed a job for life after just a few years of performing their duties?
Now, this question has obviously come up before but teachers argue that the education profession is unlike other careers, because there are more politics involved in school hiring and firing decisions. The elected school board officials, the principal and superintendent, as well as the entire school community of parents and students have say in a teacher’s position. Ultimately, it would be unfair to say that a teacher could lose his or her job at any time based on the opinion of anyone involved in the education system. In addition, school finances also play a major role in hiring and firing decisions. Experienced, tenured teachers are paid more because teacher pay matches experience and education. It would be unethical, and frankly unwise, for a school to fire an experienced teacher to hire a cheaper, inexperienced one. Unfortunately, school budgets cuts often dictate decisions like these which is why tenure can be valuable. Teachers believe that the protection is necessary because without it there would be biased judgment in decisions to fire a teacher.
As a young teacher who has yet to achieve tenure, I can agree that it is difficult for anyone in this system to get a solid picture of who I am as a teacher and how effective I am at my job. I also do believe that years of experience are valuable and a school should not have to take into account the cost of a teacher in determining its hiring decisions. Naturally, I would feel cheated if I were fired suddenly based on any of these factors.
However, as a young teacher I also currently experience the other side of tenure. Teaching tenure offers zero motivation for the best and brightest students starting college and university studies to enter the profession because it eliminates nearly all incentive to do so. Teaching, as a profession, is one of the most under-appreciated here in America. With most professional jobs come 1) a sense of respect from the community 2) a higher paying salary to match the years of education required to perform that job and 3) chances to improve and advance that are based on your performance. Sure there are other motivations for becoming a teacher–obviously the reward from teaching speaks for itself–however, there is no motivation for improving as a teacher in a profession that is constantly adapting to the times. So, what I am experiencing currently is a sense of frustration and in all honesty discouragement to utilize my skills at my job. Why? Because tenure and teacher compensation scales tell me that the two things that matters are how many years of education I have and how many years I’ve been teaching.
I think this is ridiculous, but I also believe that hastily written legislation such as Amendment 3 here in Missouri will not solve our problems, but rather it will only enrage the teacher unions that fight so fervently to maintain the status quo. I’m not saying all tenets of the teaching profession must be reworked, but I am saying that the teaching profession will require an overhaul if it is to attract and retain the best people for the job. I spent countless hours researching, reading, learning, and maintaining a professional learning community and all of this time spent does nothing to demonstrate my worth to my school district. I lead my school in technology training and integration in the classroom, but this does nothing to make me any more valuable than my veteran teacher counterparts who can’t use technology to engage their students. I embrace staff development time and new opportunities to learn from and share with my colleagues, but this is not represented in my yearly evaluation form nor will I get any bonus at the end of the year for it. I volunteer on so many school committees because I care about the direction my school is headed and I don’t view my job as isolated to my classroom and my students. Yet, despite these efforts I will not receive any recognition for my involvement.
I hear complaints like these from a lot of teachers my age. Sure, we need to get experience to become better. And there are many veteran teachers who have continued to learn and adapt their craft so that they are deserving of their tenure and pay. But overall, it is overwhelmingly true that the teaching profession is not designed in such a way that motivates teachers to be the professionals that they should be. Thoughts like these constantly challenge how long I am willing to stay in the classroom when I could be utilizing my skills and receiving just compensation for it in other career fields. I am not alone in my thinking, which is probably why teacher attrition rates are so high.
So if reformers want to incentivize improvement, their first step should be to figure out a compromise. How can unions get the protections they want for their teachers while schools get back some of the flexibility in hiring and firing teachers. And at the same time, how can these decisions give teachers more incentive for going above and beyond and really mastering their craft. Some reform would go a long way in elevating the teaching profession in the United States to what it already is in other countries. I hope that the decisions in Vergara v. California will dawn a new era in education reform. It is a very complex issue, but one that needs dealt with quickly if the U.S. is to prevent any further decline in international educational standing.