Wednesday, May 30, 2012

We Need to Talk About Tenure

The idea and privilege of "tenure" in public education has garnered a lot of attention as of late. Most people who have never worked in education a single day in their lives seem to feel that tenure is unfair and teachers should work under the same expectations that other "regular" and hard-working Americans work under. At least, that's the narrative being presented in the media. Three years ago, I would have agreed, but I didn't know any better.

At the college and university level, tenure is difficult to obtain and can take 4-8 years. Correct me if I'm wrong here, but from what I think I know, the candidate usually needs to have published some sort of research and have demonstrated a strong teaching record, among other things. Before becoming a high school teacher, I understood why tenure was necessary at the college and university level as it protected academics when they published work that went against the mainstream, and thereby prevented professors from being too scared to delve into something "radical" because their jobs were on the line. I really didn't see how it could be so important to public school teachers, who weren't conducting and publishing research - they're just teaching curriculum.

One of the advantages of coming into the education world as an outsider has been that I constantly feel stupid about my prior beliefs. I, like many others, erroneously believed tenure was something dated. I mean, I came to teaching with job experience, but in that job experience I received no protections from my boss(es). I had to work hard and exceed expectations everyday, or else I would be subject to a negative review from my peers and supervisors, which would likely put me on the getting-fired trajectory. Wouldn't receiving tenure and union protection make me lazy? I questioned. That's probably why I was so quick to jump on the Michelle-Rhee-get-rid-of-teacher-tenure bandwagon during my Teach for America summer institute training. Later, I learned that those deserving to be teachers, those who actually joined the profession out of ambition and love, did not put tenure on a golden pedestal because students belonged there. Tenure was significant, but for reasons other than "the ability to get lazy."

Tenure, as I see it, simply means that after a period of x years (varies by state) and adequate fulfillment of requirements, a teacher cannot be fired for the sake of being fired without receiving a hearing. This idea came to be as a result of teachers being fired by their principals without reason, often because their political views, personal lifestyles and/or teaching methodologies didn't align with their principals'. As most people who have ever had a job know, not all bosses are fair and all-knowing - it's the same in education, maybe even worse.

In New York specifically, a public school teacher must teach for three years (a.k.a. "the probationary period") with a satisfactory rating before being considered for tenure. The process is straight-forward: a teacher submits to his or her principal a "teaching portfolio" that contains a resume, teaching and education philosophy, reflections, lots of samples of student work, evidence of student achievement, professional development, examples of service to the school, and three years worth of administrator's formal classroom observation reports. Ideally, the principal already knows what's in the binder as he/she (or an assistant-principal) has been helping the teacher develop this binder throughout this teacher's probationary period. If the principal recommends the teacher for tenure at the end of the third year, then the principal submits this teacher's portfolio to his/her district-level superintendent. From there, it's either green-light for tenure or yellow-light, which means the probationary period gets extended to a fourth year. There is no limit for the number of extensions, so this process could go on forever.

What would cause a superintendent to delay giving a teacher tenure if all requirements have been met satisfactorily? In NYC, politics are involved. Apparently, the Bloomberg administration has been pressuring school districts and leaders to begin denying tenure, which has resulted in an increased number of teacher probationary extensions. There are stories of NYC principals who have admitted they felt their jobs were on the line if they didn't deny their teachers tenure. That's ridiculous.

Superintendents don't deal with teachers, they deal with principals and school-wide administration. They base most of their tenure/no tenure decisions (or at least used to) upon on a principal's recommendation and the quality of the teacher portfolio. What it ultimately comes down to, is how effective a principal a teacher has, since principals should be mentoring and observing their teachers as often as possible. The question is: what kind of principals are running our schools? Do they have a significant amount of teaching experience with an ability to view their teachers and students as individuals within a community? Or, do they view these people as human capital that can be exchanged, traded, or weeded out? Do principals find and apply one-size-fits-all solutions, or do they treat each and every problem as a unique experience?

I'm not going to let someone judge my teaching, my kids and my school because my principal can't articulate and demonstrate how amazing his school's staff and community really is. I think it's about time we started talking about how few effective school leaders there really are in this system and how the ineffective ones are screwing us all over. Including me.

My principal proudly displays a poster in his office detailing our school goals, one of which is "teacher development" in the form of six formal observations per school year. I've been formally observed once this entire school year and I'm in my third year of teaching. The school year is nearly over. In fact, I don't think I know a single colleague who has been formally observed more than twice this school year. As a second year teacher, I was formally observed twice. As a 24-year-old-I-have-no-idea-what-I'm-doing-first-year-teacher, I was still only observed twice. This later comes back to bite me in the ass.

I was instructed to begin making my teaching portfolio during my third year (when, as I learned afterward, many teachers begin their first year under the guidance of an assistant-principal). I was given minimal guidelines and little advice. Once I submitted my draft portfolio to my principal, he lost it in his desk for a few months until a week before the superintendent was scheduled to show up. He told me to throw in some additional items. He gave me a deadline, but then asked for the portfolio two days before the deadline. It wasn't ready.

You know where I'm going with this. You can already tell, can't you?

My principal did recommend me for tenure. In fact, at this point in the school year, I was the only probationary teacher recommended for tenure. We have no other third-year teachers. I imagine the conversation between my principal and superintendent regarding my tenure went something like this:
"He's got a lot of student work, and seems to use data well, but where are all his observations? I don't have any evidence from you on this guy. How can I just give him tenure? You know what it's like out there, everyone is looking at us under a microscope."
"I didn't do the observations," my principal probably admitted.
"Then we can't give him tenure."
I didn't put tenure on a golden pedestal, so I got over it two seconds after I was told. The messed up part about it though, was the manner in which I was informed that my probationary period was being extended to a fourth year. After the dust settled from my school's Quality Review, my principal called me into his office. I walked in, thinking he would admit that he messed up, that he hadn't done his own job properly and given the tough political spectrum, we'd both agree that yeah it's messed up, but we'd move on. Nope.

"Have a seat. We're going to have a tough conversation." My principal took a deep breath.

"Okay. What would you like to talk about?" I asked as I munched down on a turkey sandwich I'd made the night before - my lunch for the day. I make damn good sandwiches, by the way.

"As you know, the superintendent observed your class twice during the Quality Review. She did this specifically because you were up for tenure and your third year is wrapping up."

"Yeah, I figured that's why. It was good though, I thought both classes went well, and was happy she got to see a mix of direct instruction and group work."

"Well, as you know, I recommended you for tenure. However, in her observations, she wasn't happy with the academic rigor she saw. She also saw a lack of differentiation in your classroom. So based on this, we are going to have to extend your probationary period. You'll have to try again next year."

"Wait, what was the reasoning? Rigor? She knows I teach 9th grade Integrated Algebra to twenty-year olds with historically low math skills right?" I asked, completely shocked that he was giving me this BS.

"Unfortunately, that's the challenge we face at a transfer high school from the higher ups," he replied artificially. He's really bad at pretending to be empathetic. I decided to see if he'd flinch.

"Does this decision have anything to do with the fact that I wasn't observed enough? I mean, the observation section in my portfolio was pretty light."

I looked at him square in the eye and he looked right back at me and shot back, "No." He went on for five minutes using a lot of circular logic and jargon to try to BS his way out of this awkward situation. I was impressed by his poker face, but not his language.

Later that day, I told my union chapter leader about what happened and he informed me that a superintendent simply cannot make a tenure decision based off a short classroom observation and that the real reason my probationary period was being extended was because quite frankly, my principal messed up: the number of observations in my portfolio from the past three years should have been in the double digits.

Ultimately, I don't care. If you don't play the game, your opponents don't get to enjoy their victory. My only mistake was expecting anything from a guy who clearly doesn't know how to run a school, as my last three years have increasingly informed me and as I've written about here. He's lucky I'm not pursuing this and getting the union involved. I really just wish my principal had two things: balls and foresight. Like this guy.

Don't worry kids, class is still in session tomorrow.


nh said...

your principal clearly doesnt get how lucky he is to have great teachers in his school - you guys are single-handedly keeping this sinking ship afloat. it's sad that the kids loose out in the process.

ps: we need to talk about kevin is out on dvd - can we watch it please??

Yo Mista said...

@ nh:
Thanks! :)
And yes!

Anonymous said...

careful. you don't have tenure.

Yo Mista said...

@ Anonymous:
And as you can tell from this post, I don't care!

NYCDOEnuts said...

This is the best post about tenure, from a younger teacher's , that I've ever read. With or without tenure, I'm sure your job security is just fine, as it clearly sounds like this bozo needs you a whole lot more than you need him. That said, I hope they give it to you next year.

Yo Mista said...

Thanks! And yes, that is definitely the case.

High Arka said...

That was a beautiful rendition, like a fine oil painting of a man slowly drowning in a septic tank.

Anonymous said...

Amazing how teachers love to bash Principals. Do your job or get a job in a private school! The UFT can't save you! Remember, this job is about children.

High Arka said...

Presuming that the principals are actually low quality, "bashing" them should be acceptable. You might also note that "principals" shouldn't be capitalized when it's not being used to refer to a specific principal.

Correct: Principal Johnson spoke to a meeting of the principals for the Kennebunkport school system.

Incorrect: Principal Johnson spoke to a meeting of the Principals for the Kennebunkport school system.

Anonymous said...

Hope your school doesn't get phased out and you become an ATR.

Yo Mista said...

@High Arka:
Thanks for your comments! The septic tank visual was pretty much what I was going for ;)

Yo Mista said...

@ Anonymous:
"Amazing how teachers love to bash Principals."

I'm pretty sure no matter where you work, whether in education or not, that employees bash on their bosses (regardless of whether these bosses are actually competent or not).

"Do your job or get a job in a private school!"

Did you even read this post?

"The UFT can't save you!"

No seriously, did you even read this post?

"Remember, this job is about children."

Wait, I thought it was about living paycheck to paycheck. Dammit. Note to self: Shouldn't have quit i-banking.

Dr. James Norwood said...

You really hit the nail on the head! Tenure in public education is not about being lazy but it is about protecting us from people like your principal who can capriciously fire teachers for no reason.

In California, you have to teach 2 years and survive several evaluations before getting tenure. Sometimes, it can go to more than 2 years depending on the status of the employee (I.e. an intern teacher's years don't count in the probationary years).

However, I can see the viewpoint that some teachers with tenure are rotten apples, but I can make the same comparison about higher education and the private sector as well.

Great post, I will be sure to add you to my RSS feeds!

Yo Mista said...

@ Dr. James Norwood:
Thanks for your post. You are right - you can make the same case for higher ed and the private sector.

Most people fail to understand tenured teachers can still get fired. You just get a hearing and paperwork needs to be filed. If I learned anything from "Waiting for Superman," it's that principals are just really bad at this whole "hearing" and "paperwork" business. They'd rather have complete authoritarian control to think less and "do" more.

In my opinion, you should get a hearing no matter what. And if I were a school leader, I would make sure my staff felt valued and invested in MY vision for the school. If a teacher's vision isn't aligned with mine, he/she will leave themselves.

If he/she doesn't know what I believe in, then I failed as a school leader. Plus, I should have hired someone who believes in what I believe in - rather than hiring someone I think is "malleable."

Anonymous said...

I love your post because I can truly relate to it. As an untenured teacher at a transfer school my self, I am in the same boat as you are. I am up for tenure next year and haven't received enough observations to qualify. My principal is an extremely lazy and incompetent leader. This year, a teacher at my school, who was up for tenure, was denied because, like you and I, did not have enough formal observations. At this point, I am looking to transfer to another school by the next school year, even though it would be my tenure year.

Yo Mista said...

@ Anonymous:
Thanks, although it's actually unfortunate that you could relate to this situation.

Currently, there is no incentive really for principals to do their observations, especially if there is pressure from the top to increase the number of probationary extensions given. Why should we, as teachers, go above and beyond our job duty to ensure our bosses do their jobs? Don't we already go above and beyond our job descriptions already?

My advice for you is to get out of there. Hopefully you're a young teacher, and can risk experimenting with different schools and systems before you finally settle down. Don't hunker down because others are. And never take crap from anybody, that's how mediocrity in charge continues to persist.