Why teachers need tenure

The article in the 19 May New Yorker about the push for reform in the Newark, New Jersey, public schools — a push led by local politicians and outsider rich donors — contains a lot of anecdotes that fuel the arguments of those who would be skeptical of such highly hyped (this particular effort was first announced on the Sept. 24, 2010, “Oprah” show) endeavors.

This particular reform was led by Newark Mayor Cory Booker, with support and permission (as the state of New Jersey had official control over the Newark school district) from Governor Chris Christie. Through connections with Wall Street supporters, Booker also got the support of Facebook billionaire Mark Zuckerberg, along with a promised donation of $100 million.

It was remarkable to read about how fluidly connections can be made among people at the upper echelons of government and business, particularly in contrast to the lack of helpful connections obtained by the teachers and students in these public schools. The article describes it thus:

At the start of Booker’s career, Ed Nicoll [Booker’s Yale Law School friend] had introduced him to a Silicon Valley venture capitalist named Marc Bodnick, who became an admirer. Bodnick was an early investor in Facebook, and he married the sister of Sheryl Sandberg, who later became the company’s chief operating officer. In June, 2010, Bodnick tipped off Booker that Mark Zuckerberg was planning “something big” in education. Bodnick also told him that in July Sandberg and Zuckerberg would be attending a media conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, where Booker was scheduled to speak. Booker said Bodnick told him to be sure to seek out Sandberg, who would connect him to Zuckerberg.

And it’s not entirely novel for the Facebook founder to be interested in paying to advance a particular ideology of education reform, as wealthy people have been doing so for a while:

In the previous decade, the foundations of Microsoft’s Bill Gates, the California real-estate and insurance magnate Eli Broad, the Walton family (of the Walmart fortune), and other billionaires from Wall Street to Silicon Valley had come to dominate charitable funding to education. Dubbed “venture philanthropists,” they called themselves investors rather than donors and sought returns in the form of sweeping changes to public schooling. In addition to financing the expansion of charter schools, they helped finance Teach for America and the development of the Common Core State Standards to increase the rigor of instruction.

When Zuckerberg started learning about public education, he was struck by the contrast between the cultures of public education and software start-ups:

Zuckerberg attracted young employees to Facebook with signing bonuses far exceeding the annual salary of experienced Newark teachers. The company’s workspace had Ping-Pong tables, coolers stocked with Naked juice, and red-lettered motivational signs: “STAY FOCUSED AND KEEP SHIPPING”; “MOVE FAST AND BREAK THINGS”; “WHAT WOULD YOU DO IF YOU WEREN’T AFRAID?” In the Newark schools, nothing moved fast, and plenty of people were afraid. Like almost every public-school district, Newark paid teachers based on seniority and on how many graduate degrees they had earned, although neither qualification guaranteed effectiveness. Teachers who changed students’ lives were paid on the same scale as the deadwood. “Who would want to work in a system like that?” Zuckerberg wanted to know.

On reading this quote, I realized Zuckerberg and the other leaders involved in this effort had no idea of what brings teachers into the classrooms and motivates them through the 30-plus years of their careers.

As a teacher myself, let me try to explain why I want to work in a system like that.

Sure, at first hearing, it sounds like it would be nice to get a big signing bonus, free juice, and merit pay. But instead of taking the upside reward, I’d prefer to teach under a union contract that protects me against downside risk. Zuckerberg may see that as an attitude of fear, but his attitude that teaching is just like any other job is part of what I fear.

First, let me say that becoming a teacher is, for most of us, a career-long commitment. While some teachers become administrators, and many leave teaching altogether, those teachers who stay understand that there are no promotions (which promotions are a primary motivation for most corporate-type employees, I’ve been told). Teaching requires a different mindset from private-sector employment. Teachers expect to be doing the same job — in my case, spending every workday trying to supervise and teach over 100 teenagers — for 30-plus years. Not every adult would want to take on this job, but in all honesty, what is worthwhile about the job is seeing growth in the particular students — funny, creative, smart, shy, difficult, frustrating students. Also, while my job definition is the same every year, what I do in class is not: every year has new students to work with and new assignments to create and use, and every year I’m a different, hopefully better, teacher.

But this is also a job where successes are not always easy to see. Students continue to make mistakes in their essays that I know I’ve corrected for them earlier in the semester. Students who have disabilities and disadvantages may require more of my time and energy and still not accomplish things as well as students for whom schoolwork comes easily. Particular combinations of students in a class may work well together, while other groups have clashing personalities (and thus may accomplish less). And when school reformers want to measure my teaching performance by a test (of questionable validity) that is mostly meaningless to students themselves taking it, I don’t expect the resulting test scores to really be meaningful for my teaching, either.

And there is almost no way to truly measure one of those aspects of teaching that matter most: how a student responds emotionally and intellectually to a teacher. Does a student feel respected by the teacher? Does the student feel the teacher is “with it” and capable? Does a student feel interested in the classwork and motivated to try to learn?

These are just some of the multitude of issues that affect teaching and learning. So when ideas to fix education by introducing “sweeping changes” — such as charter schools and more high-stakes testing — come from politicians seeking promotion, we teachers tend to be skeptical. We’ll keep our union contracts that ask us to keep at the never-resolved struggle to teach without having to concern ourselves about whether we’ll get merit pay. We’ll keep our tenure protections that, not unlike civil-service protections, keep us front-line workers insulated from the whims of political leaders. We’ll still be in the classrooms when the politicians have moved on (as Newark Mayor Booker did, just three years after his announcement on “Oprah”) and when newly elected politicians, all too often ignorant of what actual teaching is actually like, have announced new and different reform measures.

Education is not a problem that will ever have a clear and simple solution. The problem/solution formulation may be a business paradigm (the “putting out fires” mindset), but it’s not the rhetoric of teaching and learning, endeavors in which every individual starts from his/her own unique perspective, and advances in his/her own way, and heads toward an outcome (of life-long learning) that may never be fully known. Learning has no end, no goal, ultimately, and is an ongoing, nebulous thing. Any attempt to define ideal or perfect teaching and learning is absurd.

So of course, there are schools and teachers that are not as good as others. (And half of all doctors graduated in the bottom of their med-school classes.) It’s a shame when any student must spend time every day with an inept or cruel teacher. But short of us all living in a perfect world, I don’t how to prevent that. We do what we can. We try to improve. And maybe students will learn the social skills of how to deal with teachers like this — as have we adults all had to learn to deal with people like this.

I see the public school system as an effort to help as many people as possible to become more educated. This attempt occurs within certain constraints — for example, we don’t have resources to tutor students, so we put them together in classes of 20 or more; we have school calendars and day-schedules to stick to; we have limited, sometimes severely limited, resources — and most of us in public education try to do as much as we can for students under these conditions.

Our public schools are for the children of the public and are operated by the representatives of the public. This sometimes puts schools in the position of reacting to the shifting demands of democratic voters and bureaucratic “visionaries.” As a teacher, I would not reject oversight, but I would hope that such oversight interrupt as little as possible the daily, never-ending challenge of helping each student partake more fully in the intellectual and cultural life.



2 responses to “Why teachers need tenure

  1. This is an insightful, thoughtful article on education as a career and on life in the classroom. I was hoping you would also mention that without tenure, teachers could be subject to the vagaries of a superintendent or principal or the ire of a disgruntled parent. Teachers who coach are in an even more tenuous position because if he or she doesn’t play Johnny or Jenny enough or at all, the coaching AND the teaching positions could be gone.

    You made the point that “successes are not easy to see.” That’s what makes teaching different from a lot of other careers. Young people/children are not things. They are not pieces of wood or yards of fabric or piles of money. At the end of nine months of school, teachers do not hope to see finished closets or stylish jackets or bigger piles of money. They do hope to see change, growth, gain, but many times all teachers can do is hope they’ve planted seeds that will mature with the experiences and educational opportunities of passing years.

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