This is a repost of a recent post on Pass the Chalk – a blog on teachforamerica.org. First, a little disclosure: I work for Teach For America and am an alumnus of the program, but the thoughts represented below are my own and not a reflection of the organization. While Pass the Chalk does not offer a Comments section, I wanted to give readers an opportunity to discuss and respond to the post in the comments section below. I moderate comments only to ensure they advance the dialogue – all thoughts, opinions, and positions are welcomed.
respect, independence, innovation, and leadership
If you really want to understand tenure, go to happy hour with some teachers. Hell, buy someone a drink. No doubt you’ll hear some funny stories about the kids and colleagues, but most likely you’ll hear gripes about the lack of professional support.
The problem with tenure is not that it exists – it’s that it is still about protecting teachers from worst-case scenarios. That’s the subject of heated debate, but it misses the bigger issue of what teachers really need to be successful – professional support and development.
A better model for teacher tenure is the National Board Certification program. (Do you know how many teachers are National Board Certified? The number might surprise you – read on for the answer.) Here’s how it could work:
First, tenure should promote professionalism and independence. Tenure once stood as a way of protecting the individuality of educators because we trusted them. Like National Board Certification, which most people don’t get on their first or even second tries, tenure should be harder to get. It should be awarded based on peer- and board-review and other key inputs that set the bar of a tenured teacher as clearly distinct from untenured teachers. Some districts have tried to do this with “master teacher” programs, but they are too often weak and vague. The National Board looks at student work, to classroom observations, unit plans, teacher feedback,and contributions to the school community – a richer palette that paints a better picture of all that great teachers do.
Second, tenure should recognize that some teachers are better than others. I’m not advocating anything remotely along the lines of publishing test scores and teacher ratings – this is an abhorrent and misguided practice. Apparently, most principals are pretty good judges of their teachers’ performance and skills. Tenure should not be a baseline, but a truly extraordinary bar for only the top third of teachers. Then, schools should be freed to compete for talent within a district, with those that need the most help moving to the top of the pool (think of the NFL draft). In this way, the best teachers would be deployed and incentivized to the schools and classrooms with the greatest needs.
Finally, the definition of tenure should embrace Leadership. Give tenured teachers more time to mentor, more time to lead curriculum development, and more time to plan PD for the school. They’ll have the respect of their colleagues, get a sense of advancement and progress in a career that traditionally defines leadership as “leaving the classroom,” and most importantly, have the opportunity to scale their impact across more classrooms as true teacher-leaders in the school building.
I love teachers (especially my wife, now an 8th year teacher in the South Bronx). I wish I had been a better teacher myself and had the guts to go back into the classroom like many of my friends. I know there’s a better way to recognize the hard work teachers do and drive everyone toward goals that lead to kids having a better education. Teachers should demand that we redefine tenure from a discussion about security for the weaknesses of the system to a discussion about what we believe will bring out the best in the profession.