Monday, December 9, 2013

Why Tenure Matters: The Teacher as Advocate and Innovator

Tenure is a necessary component for achieving the kind of schools we all want.


Teacher tenure is under attack. Some states have already done away with tenure through executive or legislative fiat. Other states have severely limited tenure rights. Still other governors and legislatures are in the process of revising tenure laws.

By now you have heard all the arguments against tenure. It makes it too hard to get rid of “bad” teachers. Tenure creates complacency because teachers know they are unlikely to lose their jobs. Tenure is not earned, but virtually given away after two or three years of teaching. The process is too cumbersome and too costly, so many administrators do not even bother to try to remove under performers. For a good discussion of the pros and cons of the tenure debate please see this article.

For the education reformers, tenure is a major hurdle in their quest to create schools in their market driven image. In order to put children first, they say, we must get rid of tenure. This argument has great resonance with many in the public who do not have such protections. The problem is that the reformers have this entirely wrong.

While Walmart, Ford and Microsoft may desire dutifully compliant workers who do what they are told and perform their functions as prescribed by their supervisors, that is the last thing we want in education. Tenure is a necessary component for achieving the kind of schools we all want. The kind of schools that take to heart the interests of every child, that have a rich and varied curriculum and that provide engaging instruction for all children. Here’s why.

Think of the very best teacher you ever had. I am willing to bet that that teacher was an innovator, constantly bringing new ideas into the classroom. I am willing to bet that that teacher took risks by creating a variety of engaging and sometimes out of the box lessons that were fun and exciting, if a bit noisy. I am also willing to bet that that teacher was a child advocate, going to bat for kids who might be a little different or a little odd or a little non-compliant themselves. When I was a supervisor, I worked with many very good teachers. The very best of these teachers were innovative risk takers who advocated for students.

Innovation, risk-taking and child advocacy only happen in a secure environment. One way that educational leaders can provide for this environment is by being open to teacher curriculum ideas, supportive of risky lessons created with student engagement in mind and by listening when a teacher advocates for a child. The other way is by providing the protections afforded by tenure.

Innovation is a hallmark of American education. In September 2013, the New York Times, ran an article that discussed how China, that world class test performer, is looking to the US to improve its science instruction through innovative and hands on approaches. Chinese students, it seems know the right answers, but they don’t know the right questions to ask that might lead to scientific advancement. Secure teachers have the freedom to design curricula that will challenge the status quo, get students out of the textbook and encourage critical and creative exploration of a wide variety of topics. Sometimes these topics may be controversial.

I once had my students in a Problems of Democracy class research why the words “under god’ were in the Pledge of Allegiance. The students’ research and their attempts to square those words with the constitutional protections of the separation of church and state made for a lively and open discussion of McCarthyism, the Cold War and religion in America. Some parents were not pleased with my chosen topic and they complained to the administration. Fortunately, my administrators handled the controversy well and the kerfuffle passed by without much notice, but I can certainly imagine a scenario where this did not go well and where, without tenure protections, I would never do the lesson again.

A strong educational system also requires teachers who are passionate advocates for the children they teach. This advocacy can take many forms. It might be the advocacy that gets the ESL student the needed services, an abused child protections from abusive adults, an athlete a chance to compete despite lackluster classroom performance or academic assistance for a hard working student with a learning disability.

Often times advocating for students involves risk. Perhaps an administrator is attempting to keep down special education costs and does not want to add to the growing disabilities roll. Perhaps the school board is thinking of eliminating the elementary music program and the teacher must go to a public meeting and advocate for every child’s need for the arts. Whatever that advocacy situation might be, it is a vital role for the educator to take on. The classroom teacher and the coaches know the children best. They are in the best position to advocate for the child. Tenure protections allow the teacher to provide that advocacy without fear of reprisal.

Yes, removing an under performer should not be as time consuming and costly to a school district as it is currently. That problem can be solved without throwing out the needed protections of tenure. Job insecurity breeds compliance and compliance does not lead to the best teaching. Tenure allows the education professional to fill his/her vital role as innovator and advocate.