What is the ultimate security blanket in a career worth? What lengths must one go through to get it? Should such insurance be provided to every teacher?
In theory, tenure is supposed to protect qualified teachers and ensure job security in an ever-changing educational landscape from undo persecution against personal rights.
Unfortunately, tenure doesn't always do what it should because the qualifications have been inconsistently enforced over the years.
Getting tenure now is more challenging than when I got it over a decade ago. There was no binder to submit or extra hoops to jump through; I just had to do what I do well for a set number of observations and commit to improving my practice always.
Frankly, the things most great teachers do instinctively because getting better is not just a prerequisite, but a necessity of personal need.
According to Procon.org, tenure has benefits and pitfalls like, "protecting a person's personal and political freedoms within a job, promoting risk-taking without fear of firing, complacency due to job security, challenging requirements for dismissal of poor, unqualified teachers, etc". Administrators have to weigh the pros and cons and determine what requirements are necessary to achieving tenure and then adequately and transparently communicate those requirements to probationary teachers.
What concerns me more than if tenure should exist is how this decision gets made in the first place. Who should determine someone's fate in a career?
Far too often, the decision is left up to one professional who may or may not know the body of work of any particular teacher. Perhaps too few observations were done or the binder submitted wasn't reviewed appropriately. In fact, worse than this would be if observations were done, weaknesses were noted, but no recommendations or strategies were provided to help a new teacher improve.
How can a new teacher be expected to meet the tenure qualifications if no feedback is adequately provided in a timely fashion with multiple opportunities to improve? Mastery can't possibly be achieved if no work is put into the growth of new teachers in a meaningful way.
Most probationary periods last 3-5 years and in that time, new teachers are expected to develop at a maddening pace. Often, although all new teachers should have mentors, they often don't or, if they do, they aren't in their content area. Personally, I had an amazing mentor, but she was a social studies teacher and I have a license in English. Gratefully, I accepted and implemented her feedback, as she was in my room observing my practice, providing feedback regularly. She took making me better personally and it mattered.
Unfortunately, many schools are already overburdened and understaffed, and too often new teachers don't get the support they need and then are at the peril of one person who may or may not like them, which is, ironically what tenure is supposed to prevent.
Looking to the future, we need to find better ways to improve this coveted accolade. Here are some things to consider as educators reform the process:
Communicate requirements in a clear, consistent way.
Develop standards to show proficiency or mastery like the National Board and make a certain number of standards required for tenure.
Set and adhere to a number of observations (from more than just one person), somewhere in the range of 5-7 in a year, requiring a pre-observation and timely post-observation where goals can be set together and strategies for improvement put in place.
Teacher reflection should be necessary as a part of a portfolio of work that would support observations. In this portfolio, student work and assignments should be present, commitment to the school community evident, and evidence of outside professional growth articulated.
Exit meetings should be conducted where teachers up for tenure get to present their portfolios. They can discuss evidence of learning showing their portfolios and answer questions about their experiences. This meeting should be done with a committee of individuals who have participated in observations as well as colleague representation and a union rep.
Final decisions should be made by the committee and then submitted to the higher office like a superintendent for final approval. No one person should be responsible for another's future; this can easily be prejudicial and unfair.
Teachers should be required to renew tenure every 7 years to ensure continued growth and progress. This renewal process doesn't need to be as tedious, but rather a portfolio or written evidence like a blog that adequately documents growth over time.
If educational professionals want to be taken seriously, we must adhere to the standards of other respected professions and continue to grow regardless of tenure status. Technology and research are ever-changing and if we opt to ignore it, we become complacent and stale, incapable of helping students be successful in the world they live in.
How do you feel about tenure? I'd love to have you weigh in.
This piece originally ran on my Ed Week Teacher blog in May 2015