Please feel free to discredit this post for opinions based on naked favoritism, but here goes: I like teachers. I think teaching is an honorable profession, often conducted under very challenging circumstances. Now it t is true that my wife is a teacher, that my sister was a teacher, that I have cousins who are or were teachers, and that about 80 percent of my wife’s extended family were or are teachers. In addition, much of what I learned during the first decades of my life was taught to me by teachers, and I’m grateful for their efforts.
Recently the tenure system has come under attack. Tenure, as you probably know, is an employment status in which teachers who have proven themselves after a few years on the job are protected from being fired without cause. It is often misdefined as a guarantee of lifetime employment. It is not. But it does make it hard to fire teachers.
Why is this important? Because schools are insanely political and emotional environments. Teachers work in buildings full of young people who are by definition immature, and who are prone to all sorts of irrational if not dangerous behavior. If these children are not among the many who are neglected, they are often overprotected by militant parents who try to manipulate the school for their child’s advantage. Teachers, like front line soldiers, are usually asked to carry the weight for systemic failures.
Why is tenure important? I know a teacher who did not have tenure, who complained that the dilapidated school where she taught did not have a science lab that met the State Education Department’s minimum standards for a functioning lab: it didn’t have a sink. That teacher was let go at the end of the term. I know a teacher who did not have tenure who protested when most of the school’s white students, even the mediocre ones, were placed in AP sections, while nearly all of the school’s black and hispanic students, even the bright ones, were left in regular sections. That teacher was let go at the end of the year. I know a teacher with outstanding credentials and reviews who was let go at the end of her probation period, while younger teachers who were less qualified and less capable but who were cheaper were kept on.
Here’s one: I know a teacher who did not have tenure who confiscated a cel phone from a student who was playing with it during class, a clear violation of school regulations. She put it in a drawer. When her attention was distracted during dismissal, someone removed it from the drawer. The student’s mother, who was an active school parent, demanded that the teacher pay for the phone–and the principal agreed! The teacher, represented by her union, fought the decision, and won. She was let go at the end of the term.
Now certain right wingers, like the New York Post and occasional journalist Campbell Brown are using a few bad apples who abuse the tenure system to indict the teaching profession, the tenure system, and the teachers unions. The New York Post found cases where teachers who were guilty of incompetence, of insulting students, and even changing test scores escaped dismissal and received lighter punishments. A California court has said that the system tenure violates students’ rights.
No one is going to defend incompetence. Teachers who are incompetent or who misbehave should be punished appropriately. But maladministration of the system is not a reason to get rid of the system itself.
It’s not really a mystery who is at the root of this campaign. Teachers unions are among the last strong unions in this country. They are a powerful political force. The right is using the bad apples in the system to discredit the union, and along the way, to strip protection from some of the hardest working, most dedicated, least fairly compensated professionals in the country.
In attacking teachers, the right is doing something similar to what the left did in the sixties when it attacked police. Sure, reforms were necessary, necessary, and today’s police are far more professional in the past. But those police were not existing in a vacuum. There were massive social changes taking place. The tensions and the disturbances that those changes created were played out in the streets every day, and we thought nothing of asking undertrained, underfunded, underpaid police to go out and keep a lid on racial tensions, a drug explosion, changing family structures and so on. Today’s teachers are in the same posiiton, asked to teach children amidst an rconomic stagnation, social divisions, racial tension, and so on.
It all gets dropped in the teacher’s lap. Instead of of supporting them, instead of protesting inadequately funded schools, the right plays this nasty, disgraceful game.