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Got Tenure?

Tenure is a tricky thing.

On one hand we might ask how the hell can anything get done if everyone is so secure in their job that they have no real reason to to be innovative, progressive and motivated.

On the other hand we might ask how the hell can anything get done if everyone is so scared for their own jobs that they can’t find it with in themselves to risk being innovative, progressive and motivated.

This is quite a conondrum…

To settle this paradox, we must sort out who we trust…

And who we don’t trust…

If we don’t trust teachers then we need to abolish tenure… and lay our faith in policy makers, politicians and administration.

If we don’t trust policy makers, politicians and administration then we need to enable tenure… and lay faith in teachers.

So which is it?

Let’s get one thing clear, the cynic who chooses to trust no one is dibilitating and offers nothing of any value. So we can toss them aside.

In all likely hood the real answer probably requires a balance. It’s probably a bad idea to give any one a blank cheque, but I’ll go a step further and say that if we don’t trust teachers, then why the hell do we send our children to school?

Are there bad teachers out there? You bet there are, but like any profession there is likely no more bad teachers out there than there are bad doctors, carpenters or accountants. Deborah Meier reminds us that, “every time we respond to our distrust by wiping out institutions close to ordinary citizens in favor of more distant authorities, we strengthen cynicism and weaken democracy itself.”

Countries like Finland understand that trust is an essential part of any reform policies. Without trust, we fall into a never-ending pit of control based accountability where top-down policies turn teachers into nothing more than instruments controlled from afar.

One key element to education reform is in teacher preparation. Rather than placing our time and effort into catching the bad teachers, we need to do a better job of making good teachers and then trust them.

John Merrow explains:

We don’t have a teacher shortage problem. We treat them so badly, they leave. We have a teacher leakage problem.

If we continue to teacher-proof education by promoting a “paint by numbers” pedagogy with a premium on compliance, what kind of person will wait in line to become a teacher?

We have to trust teachers because we can’t afford not to.

Tenure is entirely necessary but not wholly sufficient in providing teachers with a working environment where they can show a tolerance for risk and a bias for action.

Got tenure?

I hope so.


About joebower

I believe students should experience success and failure not as reward and punishment but as information.


4 thoughts on “Got Tenure?

  1. I’ve been teaching in independent schools for ten years, without any tenure safety net, and I’ve never felt a need for it. True, I’ve had good, supportive administrations, but I’ve served under many different specific administrators during those ten years, and they’ve all been supportive. So from my perspective, as a teacher, I’ve never understood why tenure is necessary. I can’t imagine the parents at public schools are more interfering or demanding than the parents I’ve dealt with. Are public school administrators worse than independent school administrators? If so, then rather than just defending tenure, we should reform administration.

    Perhaps a grand bargain: teachers give up tenure, and in return they get more flexibility and autonomy. I’m not necessarily a fan of charter schools–they seem to have upsides and downsides–but it seems to me that the flexibility they seem to offer is something that public schools, and public school teachers, might welcome. But then, I’ve never taught in public school, so I don’t know what the downsides of that flexibility might be for public school teachers.

    Posted by David | May 26, 2010, 7:00 pm
  2. Thanks Joe,
    I enjoyed this entry on Tenure. I believe there is a fundamental flaw in what Tenure is associated with, rather than whether it truly is necessary or not. I believe if what Tenure became associated with was good teaching, authentic learning, progressive and democratic education, quality of lesson plans, ect. ect. ect. Then, having tenure might have some merit.

    Unfortunately, the assocation with Tenure, it seems from my observation in public schools and university, is one that speaks to the inability to be fired and a constant paycheck. Rarely, do I believe that teachers, especially in public school, look at Tenure as there to help them explore, be daring and open to teaching differently. Another cause of Tenure is what happens BEFORE tenure is grantid, the first few years, teachers become temid, not wanting to “rock the boat” so that they can achieve tenure, this too is a detrament and disgrace to their students.

    Tenure should also be directly associated with things like lectures, conferences, innovation and creativity. Tenure cannot only equal complete job security and I would argue that Tenure should be flexible, while it can stay in place as, sort of a symbol and benefit for, example, as David mentioned, more flexibilty, it should never be seen as something completely permanent and irreversable.

    Posted by educationalrevolutionist | May 26, 2010, 10:36 pm
  3. Hey folks – I like the discussion, but would actually contest a couple statements in the post.

    First, the post makes it sound like we have the choice of trusting teachers and not administrators (and awarding tenure) or trusting administrators and not teachers (and not awarding tenure). That’s a false dichotomy, and we can certainly trust teachers without tenure, or not really fully trust either.

    Second: are there more bad teachers than bad doctors? I would argue “yes.” Becoming a doctor is an extremely difficult to do because it is extremely difficult and highly valued (both socially and economically) in our current society. Thus, only very capable people are able to achieve that feat, and there are plenty of measures after-the-fact to get rid of bad doctors that are good at jumping hurdles.

    Teaching has a very low economical value but a relatively high social value; the former causes capable teachers to find more lucrative jobs, and the latter attracts people for whom teaching is not a great fit. Because some schools always have a demand for teachers and it is easy to get a provisional certificate, to become a substitute, and even to enter an MAT program at a mediocre local college, many people use education as a fallback safety career when their primary aspirations don’t work out.

    Ideally, we would provide the economical incentives to match the social value of teaching to both attract and retain good teachers. Even then, I don’t know that I would protect a lifetime tenure, because you also need to “disbar” teachers that are good at hurdles.

    Barring that, I think a better system would provide stability for the teacher and insulation against a vindictive administration. Consider something along these lines:

    Let’s say an administrator thinks that a veteran teachers is not doing a good job teaching. The administration writes a year-end performance review explaining that the teacher is not living up to employment standards, detailing the teachers expectations, and notes milestones for improvement. This begins a probation year. During the probation year, an independent body with no accountability to the administrator evaluates the assessment, milestones, and teacher performance to determine if the review is accurate, if the milestones are appropriate, and if the teacher has achieved those milestones. Making the teacher aware of classes, services, and training that will help them achieve their goals would also be a mainstay of the program. They should also have some ability to censure administrators who appear to be writing false low-performance claims. Ideally the independent body would be on a state or national level and being comprised entirely of teachers or teaching professionals (and not administrators).

    I think such a system would be able to escape the kinship of administrators and the ability for a powerful local individual from pulling strings while ensuring that the children have competent teachers.

    Posted by Kevin | May 28, 2010, 7:58 am
  4. Thanks, Kevin, for your thoughtful response and suggestion. I agree that a useful tenure system attempts to help a teacher grow.

    Joe, this is the question that grabs me:

    “If we continue to teacher-proof education by promoting a “paint by numbers” pedagogy with a premium on compliance, what kind of person will wait in line to become a teacher?”

    I think any reinvention of tenure lives or dies by what it measures.

    Teachers, who do we want to be, and to what lengths are we willing to go in asserting that identity?

    All the best,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | May 28, 2010, 9:19 pm

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