Friday, October 24, 2014

Tenure Talk

Yesterday, after a cold afternoon, standing in the rain at my daughter’s final modified soccer game, I got talking with a friend about schools and she mentioned that the real devil in all of this is tenure. If we could just get rid of that, we could clear the deadwood out of the city school district to which we send our kids and get some real positive change going. I had been with her more or less up to this point, but it all stopped there and I said so. 

The problem that people have is with the notion of what tenure and the union are for. This idea has been pushed hard in newspapers, magazines, and television that tenures and unions are there only to keep bad teachers in place. There are cases in which tenure and a union protect the lousy teacher or administrator, no doubt, but what is lost in the discussion is how these things allow the rest of us to do our jobs. 

I happened to have had an experience this week which was as good an illustration as any. I shared it with the woman wanting to dump tenure. 

This week, as I wrote a few days ago, I had to break up a fight between two high school girls. It’s the sort of thing that comes with the territory of being a teacher and, while many people shake their heads wondering how anyone could get themselves into a job where such things are the norm, there is no question that it is the teacher’s role to protect children and break up fights that might happen. There isn’t a parent in the world, I imagine, who doesn’t want me, as a teacher, to be looking out for their kid. 

The thing that people don’t understand is that I was able to break up that fight because I had tenure and knew that I had a union to support me in case of emergency. 

Consider what it takes to break up a fight. First, I have to come between the two fighters. There’s a good chance that I’ll get hit and hurt if things go badly. It’s a good thing that I have some training and a lot of experience at this. I know how to break up a fight with minimum risk to myself and the students. However, one thing that often happens is I have to put my hands on a student. 

My choice of phrasing here is intentional. There is many a parent who will say, don’t you go laying hands on my kid. They can raise one hell of a fuss about it. And rightly so. 

In the fight this week, I had to put my hands on a girls shoulders and steer her out of the room. I did this gently, kept my hands open, and kept as much distance as I could with my hands on her shoulders, but no matter what precautions I take, I’m still putting hands on a student, a female student. It’s a dangerous situation and one that can come back to bite me hard on the ass. 

Tenure and my union protect me in this instance. I can’t be dismissed to placate an angry parent. I can’t be dismissed because an administrator now has good enough reason to get rid of someone he or she doesn’t like. 

I didn’t say all of this yesterday to my friend who is against tenure. I said this instead: without tenure and my union, I have to let those two kids beat the shit out of each other. 

My job is to protect those students, but I have a bigger responsibility to keep my job so that I can care for my family. Without tenure and a union, it’s too risky to get between two fighting girls. Without tenure and a union, it’s too risky to meet individually with a student to discuss his writing. Without tenure and a union, it’s too risky to remain in teaching and I have to find something else to do with my life. 

I get that tenure and unions protect the small percentage of bad teachers, but they also protect and allow the majority of us who are hoping to best serve your children. My tenure allows me to keep two girls from beating the hell out of one another. It allows me to show the rest of the students that there is someone there to protect them. Simply put, I can’t protect and serve your children without tenure and my union protecting and serving me. 

So, no, I’m not in favor of scrapping tenure. Nor do I see it as the problem. There are big problems with schools, but they have much more to do with funding, business models, and a lack of respect shown to anyone working with children. Let’s address all those and when we’ve got them under control, then let’s have a talk again about tenure. Meanwhile, I’m going back to work today knowing that I have a dangerous job made tenable by my tenure and the backing of a union.