Tenure Cases Hurt the Teaching Profession

Yesterday’s WaPo reports that the Fairfax County, VA school system has dropped its attempt to revoke the tenure of veteran teacher Violet Nichols. As I discussed last month,  Nichols was recommended for termination for  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. She claimed that she was unfairly singled out, pointing to her lengthy record as a strong teacher and valued member of her school community. She suggested that she was targeted because of the color of her skin or her leadership role in the local teachers’ union.

I can’t really comment on whether Nichols or her principal “were right” in this case–I don’t know either of the parties or the circumstances involved. What I do know, however, is that this outcome, though on its face a victory for teachers, is deeply damaging to the reputation of the teaching profession.

In any industry, people get fired; it’s a reality of employment. Whether the reason is a tight budget, “restructuring,” incompetence, or a capricious boss, when you take a job you accept that you could lose it. But teachers don’t really face that risk. To fire a tenured teacher, a school district will inevitably have to win a lengthy, incredibly expensive legal battle with the local union. And given today’s budget constraints, districts rarely can afford to do that. As a result, tenured teachers have essentially gained a “right” to their jobs.

Sounds peachy, right? But teachers accept this at the expense of reputation and societal respect. When teachers hide behind tenure after making a mistake, they flaunt a luxury of the teaching profession not afforded to other professionals. Is it any wonder, then, that teachers are not afforded the same respect? We need to realize that respect and trust is earned through measurable success and accountability; it is not simply handed to us. Teachers won’t be treated like professionals until we start acting like them.

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