Although administrators have much latitude in firing newly hired teachers, firing tenured teachers is a completely different ballgame. If they are hesitant to be straight with new teachers who have no legal standing to question the reasons for termination, imagine the caution dismissing tenured teachers brings. Tenured teachers do have the right to reasons for their dismissal, and they can challenge those reasons through legal procedures.
“Just Cause” means tenured teachers can’t be disciplined without an explanation. In other words, just because I’m a union activist is no reason for me to be fired; but if I’m late every day or not grading any papers, I need to address documented problems with my upholding the standards to which all parties have agreed. And that’s the key concept that leads administrators to bemoan tenure as protecting the incompetent and making it hard to fire anyone—documentation.
All that means, though, is that before disciplining tenured teachers, administrators have to provide evidence proving teacher failings and be prepared to present proof to an impartial third-party that the teacher’s performance warrants disciplinary actions. To most teachers, this is a reasonable standard, not an undue burden on administrators.
Of course, things don’t operate like that in the corporate world—those high-salaried middle-managers can be fired instantly—but that doesn’t make what happens to those guys right. Maybe managers should organize and unionize, too. I don’t understand that realm, but the rules protecting teachers from arbitrary and capricious discipline make sense. I would go so far as to argue that we should expand those rules to protect every worker. If it’s good enough for the president of the United States—who can’t be fired unless very specific procedures are followed and evidence is presented to Congress—shouldn’t it be good enough for the assistant vice president in charge of sales at Motorola?
My ignorance of the corporate world aside, tenure gives teachers the right to see proof of their wrong-doings and to challenge the validity of that evidence. Apparently, administrators feel constricted by that standard.
So they find ways around them. Before we explain this process, though, it’s important to understand this happens in its entirety rarely, maybe once every five years in a suburban high school. Portions happen regularly, but targeted teachers usually change to address administrators’ concerns once they start feeling persecuted. The frequency of these methods isn’t as significant as the long-lasting impact these tactics have on all teachers. An atmosphere of intimidation is the worst thing a school could have, but unfortunately, that’s what results when the following happens:
Initially, administrators assess the fortitude of the teacher in question. The more unassuming the teacher is, the better. Those who insist their rights be upheld are much less likely to be besieged, regardless of their teaching skills. I know that’s idiotic, but the union grievance chair (the person most likely to understand teacher rights) is rarely attacked, no matter what he’s like in the classroom. So, once administrators determine the teacher won’t fight back much, they begin.
The opening gambit is to mess with the teacher’s schedule. Can it be made worse? There are many ways to punish teachers with scheduling. Are the students tracked? Give her all the low kids who require consultations and extra paperwork. Make sure that she has only large, difficult-to-control average classes.
Or go the other way: Take away a class he has been happily teaching for twenty years and give it to some first-year teacher, but offer no explanation for the switch. Maybe the ordering of teaching periods can be tweaked so that a morning teacher has all afternoon classes. What about scheduling his five classes consecutively? That’ll get his attention.
Preparations can then be manipulated so that she has three or four different classes to get ready, preferably ones she’s never taught before.
Rooms can also play a role. Some teachers are sensitive to their surroundings and moving them from classroom to classroom wreaks havoc with their equanimity. Multi-floor buildings can be especially helpful with this, since traveling from the first to third floor in consecutive periods will test his ability to negotiate crowded halls while lugging all his materials up two flights of stairs.
I’m sure there are other techniques, but that’s the idea. Using schedules, administrators can let a teacher know she’s not loved. Even if this is as far as the process goes, at least the teacher in question has been buried in lower-status classes, causing administrators to forget about her.
Sometimes, however, the schedule is only the beginning. Now that the teacher is off balance, slogging through a stressful schedule, the pickier stuff can begin. If teachers’ work days begin at 7:30, watch the clock to document the teacher is regularly getting to his desk at 7:35. Watch to see if he leaves his class unattended to go back to his office for papers he forgot or to go to the bathroom—small bladder equals weak teacher, after all. Hold numerous meetings for which you give short notice and then keep track of how many he misses.
Parents can also provide ammunition. No matter how unreasonable or petty the complaint, keep a record instead of redirecting the parent to the teacher (which is what should be done). Don’t tell the teacher about the call, though; you lose the ambush power of a later confrontation if you don’t save issues to dump on the teacher all at once. In short, track all the trivial issues you can so you can attack at will.
The imperiled teacher is now stressed with five average classes of thirty unruly kids each five periods in a row in four different classrooms and is falling behind in grading papers and contacting parents of failing students. The department chair has a record which includes the following sins: Four parent emails complaining about “unrealistic expectations;” six days when the teacher left five-to-ten minutes before the end of her contractual work day; two department meetings she missed; and student surveys in which she was criticized for being too rigorous.
Although this would be absurd evidence for discipline in most cases, the goal isn’t to prove this teacher should be fired through some legal proceeding, but to push her to the point where she’ll quit. Remember that the laws require much more significant matters be used to support a teacher’s dismissal; “just cause” and “due process” are supposed to protect teachers from nonsense like this. Human relations, however, are more complex than any statute can anticipate, so if the administrators wield their power adroitly, laws won’t come into play.
The teacher knows something is up since she’s had that honors literature class she’d been teaching for ten years taken away to be replaced by an inclusion class in which 25% of the students have “individualized education plans,” necessitating the teacher’s making adaptations to the way she would normally teach to allow for the special needs of each student. These children’s parents are used to a system which caters to their child’s needs and ensures that their children, some of whom are reading many years below grade level, always get top marks and make the honor roll. The teacher has been struggling with the transition from demanding taskmaster to supportive helper.
Additionally, she’s noticed her department chair has been testier with her lately. When she questioned the loss of her literature class, he coldly told her assignments were made based on what was best for the students, that nobody ”owned” any preparation, and that standard practice was to rotate classes. From the discussion’s tenor, she could tell it would do no good to bring up her colleague who’d had the same schedule for the past twenty-four years, and who was regarded as incompetent by most.
She didn’t want to make trouble and had always shied away from controversy, ignoring those unpleasant union people, since she didn’t need any of that contractual mumbo-jumbo to protect her. She’d been a team player and had gotten along famously with the recently retired department chair who had rewarded her felicity with favoritism. When the new department chair had come in, however, she’d been certain she could win him over. Anyway, she only had six more years until retirement, so she knew he didn’t really matter much.
Little did she know that the chair was anxious to make improvements that would get him noticed in order to continue his trek up the administrative ladder to assistant principal and beyond. In his first administrative position, he wanted some teachers who were “his,” that he had trained himself. The stagnation and inability to innovate he saw were the result, he felt, of the rut into which his department had fallen.
Unfortunately, no one in his department was especially new (the youngest had eight years in) or close to retirement (the oldest had five years to go). “Creativity” would be required in order to do a little house-cleaning. Unfortunately, our teacher didn’t know that she was seen as collateral damage, a necessary sacrifice to the progression her department chair envisioned, specifically, his promotion.
To be fair, I don’t believe older teachers are targeted for dismissal, at least initially; the process is more subtle. It begins with readjusting departmental priorities: Youthful enthusiasm is favored over festering seniority instead of seasoned experience trumping callow naïveté. Once that crucial Jenga block is pulled from the tower, everything topples.
The older teacher who’d had special treatments is suddenly forced to do everything differently. She sees the department chair as the sole reason for her discomfort, and while she doesn’t openly rebel, her body language and facial expressions make it clear she disapproves of him.
The chair, who’d been coming to his own judgments on his teachers, doesn’t judge her as a competent professional who’d been a cog in an efficient machine. Instead, he sees someone who questions his judgment and seems unable to take care of the simplest assignments; someone whose bad example is a threat to his authority and needs to understand who’s in charge. Everything escalates from there.
What began as a polite but cool relationship deteriorates: The teacher withdraws into passive-aggressive behavior; she sits mutely through any meetings where changes are discussed, offering no objections or ideas. Yet, when a decision is made where everyone supposedly understands what is to be done, she refuses to comply, dragging her feet on things she purportedly agreed to do.
She turns in required surveys two weeks after they were due; she doesn’t use the novel the other teachers agreed to pilot; and she ignores the latest teaching technique—say, Sustained Silent Reading Friday—which her department chair has been urging everybody to try. All the chair sees is somebody who doesn’t have the decency to disagree with his ideas when they are being discussed, but is insubordinate about giving these innovative techniques a chance. The hostility between the two is now obvious to the department; and while there are no confrontations, tension increases.
If the chair hasn’t already taken away her pet classes, he will now. He begins looking for flaws in her performance, which become easier to find. She feels betrayed by how little her years of faithful service now matter, and becomes more withdrawn and irritable. That’s when all those small rebellions start: lateness to department meetings, excessive absences, leaving early, and ignoring departmental edicts only serve to enrage the department chair further.
Since she already irks him with her lack of cooperation, these “unprofessional” acts really piss him off. What was once a desire to assert his authority has now evolved into a desire to be rid of this albatross forever. When year-end evaluations come out, you would think that this teacher has no redeeming qualities whatsoever—she’s blasted for her lack of cooperation and failure to comply with basic contractual teacher behaviors.
Things can only get worse, as we’ll see next time.