I’d like to take a moment or several today to discuss the national hallucination about the unbreakable, unshakable power of teachers’ unions. My beloved spousal unit (also a recovering teacher) told me the other day that lobbyists are trying to get “anti-seniority” laws passed that would allow districts to retain newer teachers they think are better and fire more senior teachers whom they think need to be fired, in contradiction to the “last hired, first fired” tradition that has applied in schools and…oh… every single other industry since the beginning of industry.
So-called education reformers consistently point to unions, and the teachers who join them, as the sole and most recalcitrant obstacle to improved education in schools. They claim that tenured teachers cannot be fired, and that schools are stuck with malcontents and incompetents eternally because the union won’t let them be fired.
Which is utter horseshit.
Let me tell you a little something about tenure. First of all, in most school districts across the nation, a teacher is on probationary status for 3 years before they are offered a continuing contract (which is what people commonly call “tenure,” though it’s not quite appropriate at the K-12 level). 3 years! During those 3 years, they can be let go for any cause, or no cause at all. And the union won’t even raise an eyebrow, because that’s the deal and they support it. The point of the probationary period is that your administrator will make it a priority to keep an eye on you as a new teacher in charge of molding young minds. They should be in your classroom observing you multiple times over the 3 years, so that when it comes time to make a decision about continuing status, they have data upon which to call. The goal, ostensibly, is to monitor and mentor new teachers, cull the bad from the good, and offer continuing status only to the good ones.
It’s really not a bad system, if properly applied. Noobs do need to be mentored until they’re more experienced, and if administrators are doing their jobs, bad teachers don’t get tenure. The fact of the matter is that tenure exists so that teachers cannot be fired without due process. This protects teachers from whimsical firing because a student or parent makes trouble, or an administrator wants to give your position to a pal, or someone doesn’t like a unit plan of yours. With due process, however, and adequate documentation, you can fire anyone if they deserve it. Problem is, administrators aren’t doing it. They whine and cry about how their hands are tied and they cannot get rid of incompetent teachers because of the unions, but the truth is, they’re just not putting in the effort to get the job done by observing and documenting and ultimately firing. Nobody wants bad teachers in schools—especially not good teachers; they are the ones who will suffer when students arrive in their class woefully unprepared by the bad teachers that preceded them.
I can only draw on my own experiences, but in my first teaching job, I had a split position between two different school districts. In the first year, I had to beg my principals (there were 2 that year) to come observe me at the one school, and at the other school, the principal flatly refused, saying it was the other school’s responsibility, as they held my actual contract. Apparently, he was fine letting a rookie teacher do whatever she wanted to 90 of his students for a year without supervision. I chose to teach them Spanish, but it could’ve been juggling flaming pigs, or worse, for all they knew.
I left there after a year, so tenure wasn’t an issue. In my second job, my principal observed me once a year at best, for three years. In December of the third year, I was told I was going to be recommended for tenure, which was good news for me. Come April, however, I was told that the enrollment wasn’t there and my position was being eliminated (which is what happened to the person who previously held it as well.) But as I was still probationary, there was nothing I could do, and nothing the union would do on my behalf.
At that same school, a 30-year veteran who was known for leering openly at the girls (and their mothers before them) and making inappropriate remarks (and I can confirm that) was comfortably ensconced in his classroom, making a new bunch of girls uncomfortable every year. It was an open secret, in the school and in the community. But nonetheless, he was a 30-year veteran; that doesn’t happen unless the administration wills it so.
It takes a little effort to adequately show cause for termination for teachers, but it can be done, and the unions cannot stop it; their job is to make sure districts provide teachers due process to determine whether the teacher is actually doing anything wrong, which is not unreasonable.
Ideally, suboptimal teachers are removed from the classroom during the probationary period (which generally starts anew if teachers change districts). If a district rubber-stamps tenure, they have no right to complain later; they’ve got the staff they deserve, either through laziness or negligence. Continuing status was never meant to cement bad teachers in place against the best interests of students, other teachers, schools, and communities. So when district administrators whine that they’re stuck with bad teachers, it merely tells me that those districts are rife with bad administrators, too, who don’t know what to do to clean house, and how to do it correctly. It’s easy to blame unions for district inability to create quality schools, but that shows an unconscionably simplistic view of the problems facing schools, many of which are not just institutional, but individual and societal. There is no one universal problem to be blamed for lack of student achievement, and no one silver bullet of a solution. Unions are not the problem; they’re just the latest scapegoat of a society unwilling to take an honest look at the myriad roles they play in student education, or the lack thereof.