Thinking about Tenure: The Nichols Case

In the Sunday WaPo, Emma Brown discusses the case of Fairfax, VA sixth grade teacher Violet Nichols, who was recently recommended for termination by Terry Czarniak, her principal. Czarniak provided several pieces of evidence of Nichols’ incompetence and unprofessionalism, including leaving insufficient work for students when she was out of school, not taking feedback well, wasting class time, and leaving emails unanswered.  Nichols, a 21-year teaching veteran, claims that she was unfairly singled out, pointing to her lengthy record as a strong teacher and valued member of her school community. She suggests that she was targeted because of the color of her skin or her leadership role in the local teachers’ union.

I’m not going to comment on the specifics of this case, simply because I have never met any of the parties involved, been to the school or school district, or seen any official documentation. Maybe Nichols’ practice and professional comportment have deteriorated; maybe Czarniak has a vendetta against unions. Ultimately, it obscures the more important point: tenure battles tarnish the reputation of the teaching profession.

The reality is that in any industry, hiring and firing is not entirely based on rubrics and foolproof data. When we interview for jobs, we are told of the importance of silly conventions that are irrelevant to our qualifications or future job perfomance.  Arrive early. Wear a well-pressed suit. Don’t forget a breath mint.  And while data can certainly be used to measure perfomance–particularly in fields like sales–anyone who works in an office knows that intangibles can be just as important in determining whether you remain employed. Are you a positive influence in the office? Are you ambitious and eager to improve? Even if they aren’t quantifiable, those factors matter.

So how does the system work? Ultimately, we assume that bosses have the best interests of the business in mind and so want the best team. They collect all of the information they can about an employee and make a decision about whether they are a good fit. Do bosses make mistakes and fire the wrong person sometimes? Sure. But it’s safe to assume that a boss who makes arbitrary decisions and gets rid of his strongest employees will not remain a boss for very long. The risk remains, but in general the right people end up in the right jobs.

Tenure changes the equation. Principals generally do not have the authority to make decisions about personnel, and if they decide to move to revoke tenure, they are usually in for a lengthy, expensive legal battle. While it is unfortunate that Ms. Nichols may lose her job, I think we need to ask ourselves a simple question: why should teachers be treated differently from other members of the workforce? Judging from Czarniak’s complaints, it seems that Nichols’ actions would have led to her termination in most other jobs. As I’ve previously discussed, if teachers demand unique privileges, we also have to accept a negative reputation and lack of respect. Regardless of the specifics of Nichols’ case, this battle only serves to hurt public views of our profession.

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2 thoughts on “Thinking about Tenure: The Nichols Case

  1. Pingback: Overthinking Evaluation | A Skeptic's Politics

  2. Pingback: Tenure Cases Hurt the Teaching Profession | A Skeptic's Politics

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