Timothy May: Teacher tenure essential to our educational system
As a retired professor with 45 years of high school and college experience, I was disappointed by a recent column by Terry McAteer on teacher tenure.
Please understand I’m someone who supported Terry McAteer as our school superintendent years ago. But after reading this article, I found myself asking: Why the anti-teacher bias? Why the popularist sentiment against tenure and the call for so-called “reform” of teacher tenure from an erstwhile progressive educator?
Believe me, I understand McAteer’s frustrations: I had a five-year stint as an educational administrator and like bosses everywhere, I sometimes drifted off to sleep in those days dreaming of certain employees, invariably teachers, I would have dearly loved to dismiss. (I was too green to recognize that often the teachers who gave me the worst time outside the classroom were often damn good teachers, revered by students).
Firing professionals — any professionals, not just teachers — is invariably an expensive and exacting process. I once complained about getting rid of so-called “bad” teachers to my brother-in-law, the manager of a non-union coal mine in Southern Utah, and he assured me that firing a coal miner was also an expensive, legally demanding process. I also recall how the superintendents of my own school district more than once resorted to a “management restructure” to eliminate a single position, and along with that position an administrator, a supposedly “at-will” employee.
According to McAteer, firing incompetent teachers is so difficult that in the Los Angeles Unified School District, as well as “other large districts,” administrators have given up trying to dismiss or rehabilitate their poor teachers and instead ordered tenured incompetents to sit in rooms where they do nothing all day but still collect full pay. Had a college freshman used such an absurd anecdote in an essay against teacher tenure, I would have simply written: “Sources?” “Specifics?” or “Quotes by school authorities?” in the border of the paper and requested a revision. At another point in his article, McAteer maligns teachers by repeating a joke by a disgraced Sacramento politician fond of quipping that “many marginal teachers bounce from district to district, a dance of the lemons.”
“As a public high school teacher, I never needed tenure,” wrote Mr. McAteer, “except for the freedom of academic expression.” To me that’s like saying, “You know, I never really needed the freedom to speak my mind in the classroom, except when I needed to speak my mind.” And that’s what good teachers do, isn’t it? They are simply honest and open with their students concerning their areas of expertise, as most of us want them to be. Freedom of expression is a necessity for a teacher, not a luxury, and community members who believe otherwise are dangerously mistaken.
In 2019, tenured high school civics teachers are helping students recognize the unprecedented actions by federal officeholders that pose a threat to our democratic system, despite pressure by school administrators to never mention “politics” in class.
Tenured high school English teachers are insisting that classics such as “Huckleberry Finn” can help young people recognize and overcome the inherent racism of our culture, even as some insist that Twain’s masterpiece should be banned from our schools for being, of all things, racist.
Tenured college speech teachers are encouraging students to recognize and combat the bias in cable news broadcasts popular with their own parents, challenging students to be more discriminating in choosing the sources they use to obtain their own news and to think more critically about current events.
Tenured fifth-grade teachers are helping youngsters cope with the commercial propaganda of the food industry, teaching them how to eat better, even as their school districts are once again offering students junk food like macaroni and cheese and hot dogs as part of their school lunch program.
Tenured high school science teachers are demonstrating to young students that evolution is an absolute foundation of science, even while fundamentalist parents or the Twitter mob object, claiming that evolution is simply a “theory.”
And when school administrators attempt to dampen a community controversy by insisting that middle-school teachers tone down explanations of the science of climate change, or that a college history teacher stop criticizing America’s endless, 21st century wars, then a union representative is right there to defend that instructor’s academic freedom and integrity. And to this I say: thank god for our teacher unions. The center is holding. The integrity of the educational system is being upheld.
When administrators complain about hopelessly incompetent teachers, they are really admitting that their own hiring and evaluation standards are deficient. They are attempting to deflect the blame for their own incapacity or unwillingness to insure that new faculty hires are carefully, thoroughly evaluated before tenure is granted. And when we hear calls for still further “reforms” to teacher tenure laws, don’t be fooled: what we are hearing is a call for getting rid of tenure altogether.
The teacher credential and tenure process in California is more rigorous than ever. To gain a credential these days, prospective teachers must excel in a long, involved process of course work and testing, followed by many demanding hours of teaching training under the supervision of a master teacher. (To avoid the expense of maintaining high standards, school districts sometimes grant provisional standards and hire non-tenure track teachers.) Once full-time teachers are hired, their job performance is carefully scrutinized by administrators, colleagues, and students during a challenging process that stretches out over years before tenure is eventually earned. And even then, tenured teachers are evaluated often and can indeed be dismissed for incompetence.
Philip Roth once remarked that so far the great lesson of the 21st century is that all of the grand assurances of our American system have been rendered merely provisional.
Our teachers’ ability to speak freely and openly in the classroom — that is, our teachers’ freedom of speech — is one of those grand assurances that we need to protect if we wish to maintain a healthy democracy.
Timothy May, who lives in Nevada City, taught English at Yuba College for 40 years.
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