Thursday, September 30, 2010

More thoughts on Tenure

More Thoughts on Tenure

My last blog post inspired some great discussion on Facebook. I hope some of those folks will start reading my blog. It's over here at

"Tenure exists to protect bad teachers."

"Tenure keeps you from being fired."

These are two comments that are commonly thrown around. As Lawence O'Donnell says, "When you come to my show you are entitled to your own opinions, but you are not entitled to your own facts."

These two statements are simply not true. Tenure make sure that seasoned teachers are not dismissed without cause and due process.

Twice I sat on a tenure panel. For those who don't know how the process works in New York it goes like this.

When a tenured teacher is brought up on charges they must go before a panel of 3 people. One is chosen by the school board, one by the union and the third is a professional arbitrator. These charges may include incompetence, insubordination or moral turpitude (look it up, it's as ambiguous as it sounds) among other things.

A lawyer represents the teacher, another the district. They each present their evidence and the panel renders a decision by majority vote.

When I served the first time the teacher was dismissed by unanimous vote. The district had documented clearly through observations and attempts to offer support to improve performance that this person should not be teaching.

The second time, the documentation and the evidence presented by the district was poor. The witnesses presented by the teacher were convincing. That teacher's credentials were not revoked.

So why is an educator entitled to this kind of protection? Well let's suppose that a parent or a group of parents show up in the Principal's office with a complaint that evolution is being referred to as if it were science, or that rumors were running around that that teacher was a homosexual and the Principal decided that rather than standing up for that teacher it would be easier to start writing poor evaluations and... well, you get the picture.

The concept here is something called "academic freedom." It allows teachers to open up discussions on controversial issues without the fear of being muzzled or fired. (This is certainly more of an issue at the middle, high school and college level.) Dealing with controversial issues in an academic setting is important. It allowed me to read aloud books by Mildred Taylor. She writes about the realities of a segregated, Jim Crow south in wonderful and blunt terms. I lived that segregation growing up in Florida and collecting "mortgage" payments from people in shanties and wondering what was so cool about the "colored" bathrooms that I could not use. I expect I brought a reality to bigotry that many other white teachers could not.

I have been blessed to work with some wonderful principals. They supported me. They allowed me to bring my passions to the classroom and the school. But once upon a time...

I walked into school and was greeted by the principal who called me into his office. "Your in some deep shit now," he said. The blood drained and I search my mind for what I could possibly have done.

"Last night at the dinner table one of your students told his parents that you said _____ in class." Please insert the most offensive word for vagina that comes to mind. "They have called the Superintendent and he is meeting with them in an hour."

My response was, "(name), do you believe that I would have said that?"

He replied, "Well, you never know what might slip out."

"That is a word that I DO NOT USE. EVER." I left the office and went to a planning space to gather myself for the day. My colleagues covered for me, I was so upset.

After a half an hour of going over the previous day, I finally figured out what had probably happened. The kids were playing a word game. One smart aleck (probably a Facebook follower), came up with a smirk and said, "Mr. H, is 'prick' a word?"

"Yes," I had replied, "You can 'prick' your finger with a needle. Remember Sleeping Beauty?"

My best guess is that the old "telephone game" had taken over and by the time kids went home the word had been changed. I called the parents and explained. All was fixed.

With that kind of administrative support, who needs enemies? Well I know I was glad for tenure.

And of course there are the times when I chatted with several students (and one fellow teacher) about why "That's so gay" is hurtful. (So, like you meant that's so 'WONDERFUL?')

A few parents with torches and pitchforks and no tenure and this "non-crappy" teacher may not have completed a 35 year career.

I hope that some of you might rethink your positions on tenure. And thanks to "Academic Freedom" we can agree to disagree about that.

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