In the past few months, the Vergara v. California suit has been making headlines. This lawsuit argues that teacher tenure is detrimental to students’ civil rights as teacher tenure impedes student access to quality education, because bad teachers cannot be fired. Coincidentally, one of the first responses to an op-ed from the DTA executive board last month addressing teacher concerns about the district complaint process was that it was impossible to fire teachers, which, to that reader, made the complaint process unsatisfactory. The issue of how teachers are fired or not fired is a complex and timely topic.
From my vantage point, it seems the perception of the public is that it is nearly impossible to get rid of teachers, and that teachers unions wholeheartedly support bad teachers. I would like to refute these erroneous beliefs and offer some insight as a person who has seen situations that resulted in teachers leaving the district or education altogether.
In supporting the belief that teachers cannot be fired, opponents of teacher tenure will often cite the low number of teachers who were fired after gaining tenure and who were dismissed after going through the process to be terminated-the plaintiffs in the Vergara lawsuit put that number at 91 throughout the state. While the number of teachers who get fired through this process is small, it does not count the many ways which teachers can be removed from their position.
For instance, the first two years in a district are automatically probationary, meaning that at any time an administrator can tell an educator they are fired. The principal does not need to give a specific reason or cause. As a result, many teachers are anxious for those two years, never speaking out for fear of losing their position if they cause trouble for the principal or controversy with parents. Additionally, districts can prolong non-permanent status in multiple ways, including keeping teachers on temporary contracts and delaying moving through the probationary process. Moreover, because of budgetary layoffs, many teachers find jobs in other districts, which effectively starts their tenure clock all over again.
In this district I have a seen a number of teachers not invited back before they received permanent status. Permanent status, or tenure, is granted after two years of being evaluated in a district. If administrators or colleagues have concerns about the ability of a teacher to perform their duties well, then it is on the administrator to either deny permanent status or coach the person so that they can become a better educator. While tenure does not grant a job for life, it does guarantee a due process of teacher dismissal.
So what happens if after gaining tenure, a teacher is not performing up to expectations? Many issues can influence the effectiveness of teachers, but they usually come up through the evaluation process or through observed concerns by an administrator. Most of the time, these concerns can be addressed and, if the administrator does their job, the teacher can improve at their job. The contract also provided for teachers to receive coaching through a peer through a program called Peer Assistance and Review (PAR). As a former PAR advisor, I can attest that this program can work well as it provides a non-punitive route for a teacher to get help and improve their teaching. Unfortunately, these steps do not always lead to improvement and next steps are required.
As an association, DTA and all teachers unions, have an obligation to represent and advocate for their members. In situations moving towards dismissal, the DTA must represent their member. The DTA can encourage an educator to find another place of employment that may fit them better, negotiate a buyout or suggest other routes to move the teacher out of the classroom. It is for this reason that many dismissal cases are never heard, because the teacher either moves on by their own volition, or leaves the district with some sort of encouragement. Therefore, the numbers citing so few teachers being dismissed do not capture the full picture.
I would also like to clarify that the role of the association is not to protect bad teachers at all costs, but rather to ensure that due process is always followed, and that the process results in having high quality educators for all students. Due process for both poor evaluations and complaints is important. In both cases when a teacher is accused of something, there should be an impartial process gets to the truth of the matter, and determines appropriate steps to resolve the situation.
The tenure system provides some protection for teachers much in the way that it protects college professors, a concept that is familiar to many people in Davis. Tenure was instituted to protect teachers from the whims of administrators and other community dynamics that deprived teachers of employment. Teachers were fired for having unacceptable political views, becoming pregnant, getting married, teaching evolution, or wearing pants as a woman. I view tenure as an alternative form of compensation. Teachers are not compensated at levels commensurate with their education, the demands of their work or their importance to society, so other benefits are offered such as a defined retirement and tenure. We trade security for pay.
Teacher Tenure and the Classroom
Ensuring that high quality educators are in each classroom is an interest shared by the district and the Davis Teachers Association. Many factors contribute to attracting and maintaining educators to the DJUSD including working conditions, compensation and the value expressed for their work. In our state, roughly 50% of teachers leave the profession within their first five years of teaching. The question should not be how do we get rid of bad teachers, but how do we keep good ones?
Many dynamics contribute to attracting and maintaining educators to the DJUSD including working conditions, the value expressed for their work as well as compensation. Parents and students may not always agree with an educator’s decision, At the end of the day, as professionals, teachers work to try to reach the best possible outcome for all students, keeping in mind that we are beholden not only to individuals, but the community at large, the state and the nation. The vast majority of educators in the district are passionate, dedicated teachers who take great pride in their work and the service they provide for the community.
Blair Howard is the current President of the Davis Teacher’s Association. This is part of a monthly column from DTA.