Positives & Negatives Regarding Teacher Tenure

When I started teaching in the late 90’s early 2000’s, every teacher talked about tenure. “Do you have tenure?” “When do you get tenured?” “What do you have to do to get tenured?” These questions seemed to surround and consume my fellow teachers no matter who they were or what they did.

Not knowing much else about tenure other than it must be what we all need to obtain as a teacher, I began to find out the tenure meant you could do your job in a way that defined efficacy via an evaluation system that took place over the first 3–5 years for all of us. Once you were issued a letter stating that it was earned you would get a pay raise and most likely were viewed by the school as competent and more permanent.

taking risks get rewards!

The intent behind tenure in public education was to provide a sense of security for the teacher so they aren’t feeling the threat of losing their jobs due to ‘summary dismissal’ — or too hasty without proper process or even cause.

At that time, from a new teacher’s perspective, I didn’t need much more than a simple understanding that tenure meant once I got it, I most likely could keep it until I wanted to leave. The notion of teacher tenure, made me try harder to obtain it, and gave me something to work towards in my first few years.

“Be careful, you don’t have tenure!!!”

This was a quote some of my fellow English teachers in the department would say. My first school had almost 40 of them. Everyone said it all the time. I remember putting the students in groups one day and making noise moving the desk around with the students to arrange the classroom.

I got a phone call complaint from the “teacher” downstairs directly below me. He said to stop making noise, they are reading. I said it’ll only be another few minutes so we can set up group work, and the response I got before being hung up on was,

The following day I waited downstairs below my classroom to get a look at the professional who blessed me with his advice, and saw the saddest excuse of a man, with no smile, no reaction, speaking in a monotone voice to no one in particular, while the class was bananas. I thought it would be a good idea to work in groups again that day…

After I got it, the process of obtaining tenure changed repeatedly and almost every 3 years or so, where reports and papers, and evidence, and statements, and on and on and on it went — all needed to be prepared and sent in by the teacher, and New York City’s “specialist” office would take it from there.

Once I got it, I felt so much better about my job.

  1. Politicians change based on terms, chancellor’s come and go regularly, superintendents, network leaders, district administrators, principals, and leadership as a whole — all eventually move on. These are the people that have a say in your employment, and can change the course of that outcome for whatever reason they’d like. Tenure gives you a process that must be traveled so the above can’t do what ever without considering everyone.
  2. The notion that you’re not going to lose your job because you put kids in groups is liberating and gives confidence that can be exhibited through creativity in planning and delivery of instruction. Teachers with job security can now try new and engaging ways of teaching without thinking the “teacher” in the classroom below them is going to be some sort of whistle blower and end their career.

My lesson planning changed due to the latter of the two reasons, and I began to really think outside of the box. It wasn’t because I wasn’t creative prior to, but I didn’t think I could without ruining the chances of being able to try them down the road.

I did also see the negatives of tenure and they were magnanimous in their impacts. The same fine specimen that taught in the classroom below me, seemed to go the opposite route post his tenure. I asked in a department conference with my fellow English teachers if anyone knew him, and they all did. He was notorious for doing next to nothing. I became even more curious and went to see him in action again.

This teacher would give out handouts, have his name and date on the board, and not a single stitch of student work or content covered were hung on the walls. Only the tagged sign that was in every room saying something like, “No Weapons, Drugs, or Tobacco are allowed in the school” hung next to the chalkboard. Piles of papers littered the teacher table in the front, and stacks of old newspapers in the corners seemed to move from frequently traveled roach paths.

I would walk the halls and notice teachers sitting reading the newspapers during class, teachers playing movies constantly, and the famous “no homework” policy was really so teachers didn’t have to grade them while not being paid at work.

The teacher’s contract was really to blame here, not the tenure system. The contract language supported tenure, but then gave letter to the law of said protections — and that’s where those that read it could use it to do and get away with practically anything. If a meeting extended 1 minute past the contractual school day time — they would stand up and leave. If we only had to call “x” number of parents a month — that’s the number of calls recorded on the log. It defined a minimum of process that would enable continued employment, and was turned into a basis for performance.

Parents hated it, because it was commonly interpreted that tenured teachers just don’t care as much as those that aren’t because they’ll never get fired. I could see the point when considering my friend in the classroom below me.

Consider this example:

What if a teacher had an important announcement to the students, and called the entire 30 from the roster in class and left messages about it — and the recommended amount of calls per month were 30. The following week within the same month, another crazy twist to the current times comes and this time the teacher thinks, “I reached my quota, so I technically don’t have to call anyone.” Later in the same month students cause commotion in the class, half the class bombs an assessment, and barely no students are turning in work by the month’s end. No calls have to be made, because the mandated amount has been surpassed.

When the system outlines measurements that seem to prevent education rather than protect, it’s categorized as a “tenure system” problem — not a contractual union led problem. No one in their right mind would describe the above as keeping the best interests of the students in mind, however they can get away with it due to the contract language.

My current school does not have tenure, and like everywhere else in the world, the staff have contracts, they are unionized, but we do not have tenure, because teacher’s should be held accountable, and nothing should make them exempt.

Non tenured track positions means very little job security, which may mean: very little risk, very little outside of the box type thinking, no one is pushing boundaries out of fear of failure, and therefore engagement is minimal.

I am not a fan of tenure as it’s not what’s best for students. No other industry has something so unique that basically prohibits going above and beyond for any reason, and when a person is the product — complain as much as you want — that’s where the intent of “tenure” can prove dysfunctional when without accountability.

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Joseph Clausi

Joseph Clausi

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My name is Joe Clausi, and I have over 20 years of experience in secondary education, on both coasts of the United States, and with all kind of schools.