Once upon a time, teachers could be fired for wearing a skirt above the ankle, appearing in public after 8 p.m., or speaking on topics not approved by the school board and superintendent. Students were seen as empty vessels into which knowledge was poured. A teacher’s responsibility was to train students to work on assembly lines where they would not question their bosses.
Then unions won hard-fought and often bloody battles to ensure workers’ rights to fair wages, safe working conditions and a constitutional right to free speech. Teachers could freely engage students in topics that were controversial. In the process, teachers developed an education system that was and is the envy of the world—because it produces innovative thinkers and risk-takers.
Some believe the battle for equality in hiring and firing is now complete and that poor teaching is our greatest threat. However, we teachers need tenure protection now more than ever because the foundation of our democracy—public education—is threatened by those who want to dismantle it or make money off of it. Those parties include ALEC, and the wrong-headed reformers of both MinnCAN and Students First who operate on false assumptions because they have spent little time in schools. Teachers need job protection so we can advocate for our students and challenge bad policies that are rashly implemented in the name of improvement.
Tenure is not in place to protect bad teachers. Nor was it implemented just to promote race and gender equity. It is not obsolete. It was and is essential to protect the integrity of classrooms so teachers can engage students in meaningful learning. Tenure is also important to our work as advocates on behalf of students. I happen to have a principal who believes that multiple opinions only strengthen the fiber of our school, but I have colleagues in other schools, where principals are new and fear antagonizing the district. Even with tenure behind them, these teachers know that a principal can single them out for “improvement” or intensify observations. This is true. I know teachers who have even been told they are not paid to think. Really? Then, what is a teacher paid to do?
If Minnesota removes tenure, it only further weakens the voices of teachers to speak up on behalf of our students. Both the union and tenure give me and my colleagues the standing and protection to do that work—work that has led to meaningful improvements in the education of Minnesota’s children, including a stronger teacher evaluation program. Experience-based pay, which the bill proposed by Rep. Branden Petersen (R-Andover) would protect, is the least of my concerns.
Another fallacy is that Petersen’s bill ensures only good teachers are kept. Any human enterprise has those who perform at varying levels. That problem will not be fixed by nullifying tenure. These are two separate issues. Minnesota has just passed a law on stronger teacher evaluation. If the state agrees to Petersen’s system, you may find that the strongest teachers are weeded out while the mediocre teachers remain because they don’t rock the boat. This is even more disturbing in light of Petersen’s proposal to permanently remove any teacher who is laid off. Under his proposal, any teacher laid off loses all seniority and cannot be moved to another position for which he/she may also hold a license. To think that 14 or 30 years of work could be erased and that being rehired means to start with no credit for that service would be chilling and further discourage teachers from taking risks.
It is important the public understand that new isn’t always better. Schools that have constant turnover are much less stable and less able to address the needs of our most at-risk students. Schools need the institutional memory and collegiality that comes with a stable, seasoned staff. Research shows that teachers need 4-5 years before they become proficient practitioners. We grow stronger with age as we learn to juggle planning, grading and systems that hold students accountable.
A more consistent teacher evaluation system is the means to ensure we have the strongest possible teachers in our classrooms at all times. If there is an underperforming teacher, that teacher should receive support to improve. If there is no improvement, he or she should be removed—not just when layoffs are required. Then, when economic layoffs are needed, we can be assured that a good teacher is not lost while a bad one is kept. The argument that great young teachers are lost during layoffs implies that the experienced teachers are not also “great.” When does Wells Fargo lay off experienced executives because clients wanted to keep the newest loan manager?
Tenure—and its effect—is one of the most maligned and misunderstood aspects of teacher professionalism. Tenure’s purpose is to protect good teachers so they can continue to advocate for their students and to learn in classrooms unfettered by the political or administrative whim of the day. I suspect Mr. Petersen knows that—and it galls him. He would like to go back to the days when skirts were ankle length and students were empty vessels. Those days, thankfully, are past—once you open a student’s mind, it cannot be closed again. We teachers will not be silenced.