Thursday, March 24, 2011

Tenure, Teacher's Unions, and Schools: My Experience

Most of you know that I am a teacher.  I am not currently working in a classroom, but I am, and forever will be, a teacher.  This means that I have not stopped paying attention to education in the news, stopped worrying about my colleagues and their immensely strong desire to make a real difference despite all the challenges being thrown their way, or stopped worrying about the children that sometimes need so much more than we can offer them. 

Last night my husband and I finally watched "Waiting For Superman".  I have struggled all day to organize my thoughts surrounding the movie, the current economic crisis and its impact on education, and how much of the debate that goes on in the movie and in the news was not my experience.

The biggest discrepancy between what I knew to be true and what has been both in the news and this movie is about tenure and unions so today that is what I want to talk to you about.  I will address the other stuff another day. 

Let's start with tenure.  According to the movie and the news tenure means that teachers can't be fired or if there is a process, it is so difficult to go through that one simple mistake or date missed stops it in its tracks.  This is not what I know to be true. Is my experience not reality?  Is it a reality only in California and Oregon?  According to the movie and the news, most states aren't the same.

My reality is that in the districts that I have worked in, tenure did not mean you couldn't be fired.  In fact, not one single person in education has ever told me that...not a fellow teacher, not a principal, not a union member, not my tenure letter, no one.  What I have been told is that under our union contract, there are procedures that must be followed when a teacher isn't performing before they can be fired.  Tenure really only meant that I was guaranteed 'due process' in the event an administrator did not feel I was doing my job.

Does that mean that it is easy to fire teachers?  No. Does that mean that there are no bad teachers in any of the districts that I have worked for? No.  Does it mean that things can't be improved? Not sure.

But it does mean that when the system works correctly, teachers that need to improve are given the opportunity to do so.  When an administrator does their job and provides a clear, evidence based review of an employee that states that there are specific areas for improvement, there is a system in place to provide the teacher with the support needed to make those improvements. If they don't make those improvements, they can be fired (this is over simplified but basically this is how it works).  Based on my conversations with my husband about how it works at the big corporation he works for, it is pretty much the same system.  (Note: if they choose to cut the number of teachers, they can do this without this review process.  The same is true if a project is canceled at my husband's company.)  Why isn't anyone pointing this similarity out in the news? 

Now if in fact there are states out there where tenure means that teachers can't be fired, I am outraged.  I do not think we are doing service to our children when teachers aren't being held accountable.  In the movie they talk about how "bad teachers" that are tenured are rotated around the district each year since they can't be fired.  This idea makes me sick.  How is this best for our children?  No wonder people are furious. 

So next up is teacher unions.  I am aware that teacher unions are political.  Every election time the teachers are encouraged to vote for the particular candidates that the union supports.  Sometimes I agree with the unions (being the left leaning person that I am) and sometimes I don't.  I vote the way I believe, not the way they tell me to vote.  "Waiting For Superman" suggests that unions are the largest campaign contributor, therefore giving them more power than any other contributor, power that is being abused.  The movie suggests that the unions are the sole reason tenure has not been changed. 

The idea that the teacher's unions are so powerful that they have become blinded to the damage they are doing by protecting these teachers is really scary.  (Note: I am making the assumption that they are the ones blocking any change to tenure.  I tried to quickly search and see if this is true and the only document that looked promising was dated 1972.)  How can they say that they are focused on educating children when they stand in the way of placing quality educators in the classroom? 

Just to be clear, I am not anti-union.  I think that unions provide protection for teachers that didn't exist prior to their existence.  I think that unions allow for better bargaining during contract negotiations.  I think that unions provide services that districts sometimes can't provide, like staff development, prep courses for the variety of exams teachers take, and even random things like workshops on financial planning or wills and trusts.  I also think that there are unions that try to balance the needs of the teachers with the needs of students.

Most recently I was part of a union that, in the face of huge budge cuts, worked with the district to reduce the number of teachers that lost their jobs (that would have resulted in increasing class size) and limit the cutting of school days from calendar.  When the district proposed cutting district level personal, a few school days, and pay freeze (technically this meant a loss in pay because when they cut school days they adjust teacher's pay accordingly- 1% of days cut, 1% of salary cut), what did the union recommend the teachers do?  Take it and run.  They did this because they knew that class size was important to student learning. They knew that a loss of even more days would cause a reduction in student learning.  They knew that teachers would rather take home less money than see some of their colleague take home none.  Does this sound like the unions you hear about in the news?  See what I mean about a difference between what you read and my reality?

However, just like governments and school systems have gotten bogged down with bureaucratic nonsense (more on this another day), so have some unions.  In many cases (not all), they have lost their way, gotten drunk on power, and begun to cause some damage. 

So the question that has been bugging me all day is this: How do we move on from here?  Do you have any answers because I have no idea.  It frustrates, saddens, and annoys me that bureaucracy stands in the way of making any real change (not just in our school systems, but in government as well). 

I try and tell myself to focus on what I can control, to focus on what is in my immediate area.  The problem with that is this: We chose where we live because of the reputation of the school system and I was even more pleased to find that it wasn't just a fluke (or because of affluence), but that the reason for the success was that most of the administrators, teachers, and other staff were amazing!  In schools that were struggling (because even good districts can have schools that struggle) I found teachers working so hard to learn about worked in other schools with similar demographics and challenges and then using that knowledge to make REAL changes to their system.  They didn't blame the parents or the students or the community, they looked at children's needs, the research, and the capabilities of the staff within their building and created a plan to improve learning. (Note: I could go on and on about these amazing teachers, but will save that for another day because this is already long enough.)

So do I put blinders up and ignore the situation in the rest of the country?  Well it certainly is the easy solution, but not who I am.  I mean, heck, I am not even in the classroom and I am spinning on this.  But I don't have any least no realistic answers.  So what will it take for us to see real change?



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