About Julian

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I teach math to kids. They teach me a lot of things, too. I think it's an even swap.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Do Professionals Require Tenure?

Here in California, the election last November included the race for State Secretary of Instruction, pitting the incumbent Tom Torlakson, with strong backing from the teacher's unions, against Marshall Tuck, the former head of a system of turn-around charter schools in L.A. and a poster boy for the corporate reform movement.  I will get into the issues of corporate reform in a later post, but in this post I want to limit the focus to the defining issue of these two candidates, or at least the one issue that I saw plastered on campaign materials leading up the the election, their positions on teacher tenure.  Torlakson vowed to protect teachers and their right to tenure while Tuck promised to do everything he can to ensure the enforcement of the recent Vergara v. California ruling which said tenure and other teacher employment rules violate the state Constitution by denying students a quality education.  These two candidates represented the polar extremes of one of the most hotly contested issues in education today, and I was expected to choose between them.  So what, did I do?  Obviously I wrote myself in as a write-in candidate, of course.

While I did, in fact, write in my own name for fun and for protest, I mostly did so because I do not feel it is productive to take either one of these candidate's positions on tenure.  I do not believe tenure needs to be the polarizing topic it has become, and with some discussion on the topic, my hope is we can move one of the most divisive issues off the table.  And I feel if we are going to get anywhere in this discussion, we first need to ask, "Do teachers as professionals actually need tenure?"

I am writing this series of blog posts with a theme of professionalism, and in doing so, I always ask myself, as a way of testing the professionalism of teaching, "what other profession does this?"  Now, we will get to other measures of professionalism in later entries, but what other profession grants tenure, and do any of them do it so readily as public school teaching?  What are the benefits and harm in granting tenure?  What would happen if we didn't have it?  Very few other professions offer tenure; in fact, I couldn't really think of any when I started asking these questions.

The other night I was having dinner with a teacher friend who has recently been awarded tenure at his school.  Like me, he is a second-career teacher who has never actually had tenure in anything he had done prior to teaching.  He also had a new principal arrive at his school recently, and with that principal came a feeling of the new sheriff coming to town to clean house, but with his recently granted tenure, he knew he was safe.  This was an odd realization to him, as he had been subjected to house-cleaning episodes in his prior career, but now with tenure as a shield he could still focus on his job and not worrying about pleasing the new boss. 

I found this argument of my friend very intriguing and it took me a while to figure out why, then it struck me - I have never worried about pleasing my boss.  This is both a good thing and a bad thing.  My motivation in any job I have had is to work my butt off for the mission of the company or the school, and I figure if I did that my boss would be pleased anyway.  This technique of mine hasn't always been successful, and in fact, in my first teaching gig, this method of operating came in direct conflict with my actually getting tenure.  I was the guy who never knew how to play "the game", and I still don't.  I am not very politically savvy nor diplomatic; I call things as I see them.  So, when I saw things like the practice of scheduling students who failed Algebra 1 their freshman year into a single class together during their sophomore year, and I told the principal this is flat-out wrong, I did not get on the good side of the person who would be ultimately approving my tenure.  

Oh, the principal there had other issues with me, too, such as a couple of unorthodox classroom management techniques, and ultimately I was not granted tenure after the customary 18-month stint of teaching that traditionally leads to a de facto lifetime guarantee of employment, so I was asked to leave the school.  Even though I was a new teacher I was supporting the other teachers in curriculum development and my students were very responsive and successful with my approach. I had been incredibly successful  and very well-liked at this school.  When others learned that I would not be granted tenure, every single tenured math teacher at the school along with nearly every single student of mine, signed a petition to reverse the decision, and ultimately the principal changed her mind.  But here's the key - I left anyway.  Why would I ever want to work in a place in which my own beliefs and methods were in such strong opposition to the manner in which things were done?  I felt the professional thing to do was find a placement where my views on education were more compatible.  

If the tenure decision had not forced the hand of the administration, I may have stuck around for another year or two until either the administration changed or I determined it wasn't going to and one of us determined it was time to move on. That is the natural process in any other profession; if you aren't a good fit for a system, either the system changes, you leave the system, or the system gets rid of you, but once you have tenure as a teacher that natural process of a professional institution is severely disrupted.  Unions will tell you that tenure only ensures that due process is upheld if an incompetent teacher must be removed, but it does far more than that.  Tenure locks in incompetence in three ways - first, by providing disincentive for teachers to leave a bad situation, second by enabling a system of "due process" that is far too cumbersome and expensive for most districts to take on should they wish to remove a teacher, and third by putting in place a "last hired-first fired" process should layoffs be required.

If teaching is to be respected as a profession, tenure must change.  I don't think it needs to be eliminated, but I would even be open to its elimination provided other measures of professionalism are also implemented - employee dispute recourse, better compensation, autonomy, training, etc.  Unlike the backers of Vergara, such as Students First, I don't feel there is an epidemic of bad teachers out there, and I absolutely don't believe eliminating tenure is going to magically increase the quality of our kids' teachers.  In fact, in the absence of other initiatives to increase the professionalism of teaching, eliminating tenure will do more harm than good.  Without tenure, one more amenity will be removed from a career that already has trouble recruiting and retaining quality candidates.  If you remove tenure without also providing adequate compensation or other amenities, you are telling teachers that they are worth that much less to our children's education.  

In my previous profession, engineering, there was no system of tenure, and in my nearly fifteen years of teaching, I have never had tenure, and I like it that way.  I do not feel bound to my system.  I am not trying to rack up years and seniority so that I have job security.  I have job security because I am doing a damn good job, and tenure or not, I will only stay here if I am happy with my administration and my administration is happy with me.  I do not want wish to work in a place where I am in opposition with the desires of the administration, and I fear tenure would actually limit my sense of professionalism. I have a responsibility to myself, my students, and the schools in which I teach to make sure I am a good match.  If not, as a professional, I will choose to move on.  

I realize some people do not have the option or opportunity to leave their positions as flexibly as I do, and I realize in some cases, such as a science teacher teaching evolution in a district with a school board pushing creationism, tenure offers a necessary protection, but I feel those protections should exist separate from tenure.  As a team of professionals, we should collaborate on the best ways to teach our students using the best pedagogy and curriculum and hiring decisions should be based on facts, not beliefs.  

If we do grant tenure, I feel it should be a difficult process to obtain, akin to tenure at the college level.  Teachers should demonstrate, over the course of many years, that they are not only adequate at what they do, but that they are exceptionally valuable to the school.  There are many people, teachers included, that believe tenure should be more difficult to obtain.  Of course, tenure is a form of compensation, and if we do not offer tenure, adequate compensation would need to take other forms, most obviously as higher salaries.  But therein lies there real issue in this discussion of professionalism - tenure is just another gimmick used to ensure teachers are not adequately compensated.  It locks people in and competition for talented teachers out.

My next post: How do we actually attract talented teachers? Hint: It doesn't need to be super expensive.

Monday, January 19, 2015

The "Professional"

I've never seen the movie "The Professional", about a hitman who takes in an orphaned 12-year-old Natalie Portman, but I know it is a thriller in which everyone is out to get him and I can only assume he escapes alive and all evil is vanquished and the child with whom he has been charged to care for gets the protection she needs.  I'm not as handsome or as cool as Luc Besson, nor can I handle heavy firearms the way he can, but there are times in my role as a teacher that I can kinda relate to this guy.  

I have a job to do, and I have a very particular set of skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you - Oh wait, that's Liam Neeson.  Anyway, I have indeed been trained very well for what I do, and throughout my career I have earned the respect of students and colleagues and repeatedly been validated that I am good at what I do.  And there are millions of other highly trained teachers in this country who are also very capable, if not better at what they do than me.  So why is it teachers are leaving the profession in droves?  Why do less than 50% of teachers survive five years in the field?  

The children I am charged with - girls the same age as Natalie Portman in "The Professional" - are in danger.  Well, in the interest of full disclosure, I am using them as a metaphor mostly because it amazes me that they are the same age as Natalie Portman in that movie; in reality I teach at a very affluent independent school in which few of the kids are struggling.  But I do feel under siege as a member of a profession that has been disparaged, ridiculed, and blamed for the problems in education in America.  Much has been written about how problems in the education field came about.  A very good summary of the story of the teaching "profession" is The Teacher Wars by Dana Goldstein, and I recommend anyone who thinks they know how to fix education read that book before jumping into the debate.  I also recommend anyone trying their hand at fixing education try working in education for at least a decade before claiming they know what's right.  

Well, I have now been in education for about 14 years, beginning with teaching undergraduates at UC Berkeley many years ago, then moving on to public high schools - both a large traditional school and a small charter - for nearly a decade, and now teaching middle school girls at a private school.  I've witnessed many different approaches, studied many more, and I want to hold a discussion on how to fix education.  Though I hope this discussion can leave politics aside, I know any time money and social issues are involved, politics sticks its nose in.  

I first will be focusing on returning professionalism, assuming it was once present, to the teaching profession.  What does it mean to be a professional?  Are teachers really professionals?  Why do they leave the profession?  What can be done about it?  And frankly, why does it matter?  

My next entry: Ask me what I think about tenure (Hint: I've never had it.).