Monday, July 12, 2010

Got Tenure?

Tenure is a tricky thing.

On one hand we might ask how the hell can anything get done if everyone is so secure in their job that they have no real reason to to be innovative, progressive and motivated.

On the other hand we might ask how the hell can anything get done if everyone is so scared for their own jobs that they can't find it with in themselves to risk being innovative, progressive and motivated.

This is quite a conondrum...

To settle this paradox, we must sort out who we trust...

And who we don't trust...

If we don't trust teachers then we need to abolish tenure... and lay our faith in policy makers, politicians and administration.

If we don't trust policy makers, politicians and administration then we need to enable tenure... and lay faith in teachers.

So which is it?

Let's get one thing clear, the cynic who chooses to trust no one is dibilitating and offers nothing of any value. So we can toss them aside.

In all likely hood the real answer probably requires a balance. It's probably a bad idea to give any one a blank cheque, but I'll go a step further and say that if we don't trust teachers, then why the hell do we send our children to school?

Are there bad teachers out there? You bet there are, but like any profession there is likely no more bad teachers out there than there are bad doctors, carpenters or accountants. Deborah Meier reminds us that, "every time we respond to our distrust by wiping out institutions close to ordinary citizens in favor of more distant authorities, we strengthen cynicism and weaken democracy itself."

Countries like Finland understand that trust is an essential part of any reform policies. Without trust, we fall into a never-ending pit of control based accountability where top-down policies turn teachers into nothing more than instruments controlled from afar.

One key element to education reform is in teacher preparation. Rather than placing our time and effort into catching the bad teachers, we need to do a better job of making good teachers and then trust them.

John Merrow explains:

We don't have a teacher shortage problem. We treat them so badly, they leave. We have a teacher leakage problem.

If we continue to teacher-proof education by promoting a "paint by numbers" pedagogy with a premium on compliance, what kind of person will wait in line to become a teacher?

We have to trust teachers because we can't afford not to.

Tenure is entirely necessary but not wholly sufficient in providing teachers with a working environment where they can show a tolerance for risk and a bias for action.

Got tenure?

I hope so.


  1. Quick question for you Joe. What do you think of teachers having tenure but being evaluated every 3-5 years as part of it? It is bad that teachers that get an evaluation after tenure is either because they ask for it, or it was prompted by something that was not desirable. As an administrator, I am evaluated a MINIMUM of every 3 years. Would this not be beneficial for all educators as we can grow from feedback. If it was not about "tenure renewal" and just about growth, could this not be beneficial. This would also ensure that administrators are also ensuring that students are always getting the best in their classes. What are your thoughts?

  2. George - you might be interested in this article.

    I was curious why we don't give admin. reviews? It's funny though - lack of trust, and all that-- any time I've ever been asked to fill out an "anonymous" questionnaire/survey for an admin, I've been paranoid. But you know what they say...just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you....(and I"ve seen this quote attributed to everyone from Woody Allen to Kurt Cobain--great job, Internet!) :)

  3. There is a misconception that Tenure insures a job for life. If admins do their job, a teacher after being given due process,may be terminated. After evaluating a teacher for a three year period, most of what is needed to be known about that teacher should be there. The problem is that the evaluators may not have been evaluating as they should. There are valid reasons for this to have happened.One frequent reason is that Admins change positions frequently and the evaluation process of the non-tenured teacher may be done by several different admins.This is also a reason why evaluations and procedures for evaluating teachers over the course of their careers may lack consistency. This makes it difficult to establish a case against those teachers who may need to be removed for valid reasons. At that time some find blaming the system is an easier solution than doing the work necessary to get the job done right. And so the myth goes on and people blame tenure for poor teachers.
    BTW it is not just policy makers, politicians and administration that may attack a teacher's academic freedom by threatening the job, but parents may also be involved. Anyone with a religious,cultural, or racial agenda that they believe should be addressed by the teacher.
    Additionally,often attacks on tenure are code for firing the most senior teachers to cut costs.This is a complicated situation which often has the facts muddied with misconceptions

  4. How about we only give tenure to teachers who are able to spell and proofread correctly. It is within not with in, conundrum not conondrom, likelyhood not likely hood, anyone not any one, there are not there is.

  5. Tenure is a hot potato. Tenure doesn't have much to do with good educational practises. Good practises come from a variety of techniques which have to be coordinated. Then there also has to be a whole lot of compromise. It may not be pretty but it gets us there. We may even defeat the nonsense if ficticious testing and test results.

  6. I recently was tenured at my second university (at the first one for 18 yrs). We ARE still evaluated by our students each semester and by the Dean for raises.

  7. George, if the 3 year process is simply a way to keep people on contracts that can be dismissed at the end of the time period, then this will only act a tool to gain compliance among administrators.

    For this to be authentic and real, professionals must regulate themselves. Administrators and teachers alike must work together on a regular basis to make themselves better.

    If someone opts out and goes rogue, that in and of itself is not inherently right or wrong. Guys like Mussolini and Ghandi went rogue - the trick is identifying which teachers or administrators are the Mussolinis and which are the Ghandis.

    I need to think on this more.


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