Previously, we saw how a hypothetical tenured teacher could lose her status and security as an ambitious administrator came to the conclusion that it was time for her to go. So far, we’ve seen the scheduling and evaluation ploys that can be used to make her work life miserable. At the point where she dreads coming to work every day, it’s all but over for her.
Her department chair seems relentless and poised to destroy what little reputation she has left in the district. She’s never been especially chummy with any of the higher level administrators, however, so she can’t imagine going to her principal, the superintendent, or a school board member for help—they would simply send her back to her department chair anyway (“chain of command,” after all).
Her union can do nothing for her until the potential trouble becomes real. And even then, all they can do is to ensure that the executioners follow correct procedures before the beheading takes place. In a surreal conversation with a representative of the state union with which her local is affiliated, a union official explained to her that the appeals and hearings to restore her to her rightful place couldn’t take place until AFTER she’d been dismissed. “Dismissed!” she’d exclaimed. “You mean that you can’t do anything to fight this until I’ve been fired? And how long will that take?” She hadn’t hit the man when he told her anywhere from three to nine months, if everything went smoothly—over a year if it got messy (and he’d never seen one of these that wasn’t messy)—but she’d come close. Of course, he had explained, she would get her back pay if she won. She managed not to start crying until she left.
She knows she can’t afford to hire her own attorney to fight for her, and she doubts that would do anything for her besides burn through her resources. She has hit bottom and has no idea what to do.
This is the point at which she has her summative conference based on her evaluations for the school year with her department chair. Before the summative essay can become part of her file, she has to be given a copy to sign and the chance to discuss its contents with her department chair who composed it. Should she disagree with anything in the summative, she has the right to attach a response, also for inclusion in her file. None of this has any real significance unless the teacher is rated “Unsatisfactory.” But everybody is convinced that will happen this time, and her colleagues all exchange significant looks when they see her enter the department chair’s office and close the door.
This is the part of the narrative where I don’t know exactly what happens. I’ve heard a couple of first-hand accounts from those involved, but with something as emotional as this, I can’t be sure how accurate their versions are. All I know is that once all the players get to the precipice of this unpleasant (administrative perspective) or nightmarish (teacher view) scenario—a teacher’s being placed on remediation prior to being fired—what the administrator wanted to happen all along is rolled out as a beneficial compromise that will make all parties happy.
Basically, this is how it breaks down: All the dismissal talk and “Unsatisfactory” rating will go away provided the teacher resigns. She doesn’t have to resign until the end of the next school year (this conversation typically taking place in May), but she needs to get her “irrevocable” resignation letter in before the current school year ends. Should that occur, her summative evaluation will be modified to reflect fewer problems, her schedule for next year will be improved, she will no longer have to submit to any of those humiliating checks of her lesson plans or grading, and she will essentially be left alone her final year.
Should she stick to her original plan of teaching for several more years to retirement, then she will be rated “Unsatisfactory;” remediation will begin at the start of the next school year; and unless she shows significant improvement, she’ll be dismissed after forty-five days. That’s it—she’s can have a decent final year and leave quietly, or she can be harassed until she is fired or retires. As complicated as I make the educational system sound, sometimes it is pretty simple. She turns in her letter of resignation the next week.
I realize the preceding example, meant to illustrate abusive administrative firing power, will be viewed by some as a perfect example of what is wrong with tenure. In the colder, crueler corporate world (I’m told), a CEO wouldn’t have to go through all these machinations to be rid of any employee he didn’t like; he’d merely have to snap his fingers and the offending party would vanish immediately, which some would claim as his prerogative. Tenure does prevent this, but I would argue that is its strength, not weakness. All employees deserve a few basic rights, and being protected from arbitrary and capricious firings is definitely one of those, in my book. And slowly but surely, the laws regulating the business world are coming around to my view: We’ve had countless lawsuits on age and sex discrimination, with new areas like appearance, health, and even weight cropping up as inappropriate criteria businesses are using to determine who gets fired. Maybe one day, all employees, even those without unions, will be able to demand justifiable reasons for job termination.
Nor did I present the preceding example to bemoan the fate of that poor, poor woman; she always had the tools to prevent her fate, but she ignored them. Even after that last summative conference, she could have fought on; going through remediation, being fired, challenging the decision, and being vindicated through the court system. A friend of mine who is retiring on her terms this school year did exactly that a while back; it is possible. (May you have a long and happy retirement, my tuneful little bird!)
I certainly understand this process is stressful and difficult, but had my fictional teacher understood her rights under current law, she could have prevented all her troubles simply by demanding those rights. As we explained, one of the first decisions administrators make in determining if they are going after a teacher is the fight in the potential target. Having been union president, chief spokesperson for contract negotiations, and grievance chair; I’m confident my administrators never seriously considered going after me in this way. I do believe they had no reason since I did a good job in the classroom, but an exchange from the Mae West’s film Night after Night is illustrative:
Hatcheck Girl: “Goodness, what lovely diamonds!”
Mae West: “Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie.”
Our friend from our example didn’t have to be in the position she was, so I’m not letting her dodge her fair share of the responsibility for what happened to her; teachers need to learn to exert their own strength, not to be dependent on the kindness of strangers, no matter how tempting the candy the strangers possess seems. No, although that example is most definitely an abuse of administrative power and the hypothetical teacher is most definitely a victim (if not completely innocent), the main problem with how administrative power is wielded in instances like this is the atmosphere of fear it generates throughout the school.
The last thing we should want in a school is an environment where teachers are nervous about their jobs, scared to do anything that might displease their bosses, paranoid that the slightest deviation from administrative directive will cost them their careers. Teaching should be one of those Top Gun kinds of jobs. Remember that movie? Those fighter pilots went through hell in flight school, but one of the main skills they needed to succeed was a little swagger, a healthy dollop of arrogance, a belief in self that transcended the system. Sure, they would follow most of the rules, but when difficult situations arose, they had a core belief in themselves: They had faith they could figure out some way to make things work.
Fear, in job situations, means that employees don’t have that self-reliance, that they don’t trust their own instincts, that they will always turn to authority for direction. Innovation, originality, and initiative wither away under systems that instill fear in their workers. Artistic professions, like teaching, cannot flourish in an environment that stifles the individual and the messy process of creation in exchange for an orderly obedience.
The main problem with administrative abuse of firing power isn’t the few teachers who get unjustly pushed out (although I do feel their pain), but the damage this process does to the soil that should be nurturing and growing our future sequoia teachers. The last thing the delicate ecosystems of education need are administrators salting the forest floor with poisonous fear.
The solution to this problem lies mostly in the people selected to be administrators. As I mentioned last year, the wrong people are going after these positions in the first place. There needs to be a more systematic approach to recruiting and persuading our best teachers to become administrators. I’m not sure I would want an administrator who lusted after the job too much. “Pick better human beings to be administrators” isn’t really much of an answer to the problem, but way back we did go over how the “recruiting quality candidates” method beats the current “picking from the wrong volunteer pool” approach which begins with a weak collection of applicants right off the bat.
As long as the most aggressive, ambitious, anxious-to-get-out-of-the-classroom people are the only ones applying for the jobs, administrative positions will be filled with the kinds of people who can and do go after teachers using some of the techniques illustrated above. While my example crammed a whole bunch of the morally questionable and quasi-legal things administrators do to harass teachers into one situation, I have witnessed everything included in that story at a variety of times. When tenure is seen as an inconvenience to be worked around, you’ve got a seriously flawed administrator.
Remember that all administrators were once teachers, so to see the protections you once enjoyed as a bother around which to work speaks volumes about the character of those people. I do think that if we changed the way we hire administrators, my “recruit the reluctant” style could significantly improve the administrators we get. The possibility of this happening seems remote, however, so we need a more radical solution.
Next up: A More Radical Solution.