Does tenure help or hurt teaching?

Many students know that teachers have tenure, but far fewer actually know what tenure is or even that it is “tenure,” not “ten year.”

Tenure guarantees teachers job security and protection from being arbitrarily fired. In most states, teachers are in probationary periods for their first three to five years of teaching before getting tenure. For all full-time teachers working in California, however, tenure is given on the first day of a teacher’s third year.

One of the most scrutinized aspects of tenure is the difficult, time-consuming and costly process of firing a tenured teacher. CHS social studies teacher Marc Stafford refutes the argument that teachers with tenure tend to become bad or lazy teachers because they know they can’t be fired.

“Nothing at all clicked in my head after two years of teaching that made me feel like now I can change the way I teach. My personal experience was [that] after two years I was still figuring out how I could become a better teacher,” Stafford explains. “After 11 years I’m still figuring out how I can become a better teacher, and I think this is true for many of my colleagues as well.”

The only way that tenured teachers can be fired without going through a long process is if the problem is with a teacher doing something illegal or if the firing is due to budget cuts.

Association of Carmel Teachers representative Brent Silva and ACT president Tom Clifford explain that the process for firing a tenured teacher involves administrators observing, taking notes, meeting with the teacher to explain their faults, giving them 60-90 days to improve and repeating this process.

“[The process] is work, it is effort, it is time consuming,” Clifford remarks. “And because it is time consuming, it is costly. The administrators are in taking notes and observing the teachers instead of doing other things.”

Another reason tenured teachers rarely switch districts is because teacher pay is based on how many years the teacher has been working. If a teacher switches school districts, he not only loses all those years, tenure and job security, but takes a significant pay cut.

“The flipside of teacher tenure I call teacher indentured servitude,” CHS math teacher Mike Deckelmann says. “Carmel is pretty unique because now when they open up a job, they give teachers all of their years, which attracts great candidates. Otherwise it’s a hard decision for teachers to make.”

With specific regard to tenure, Deckelmann says he just doesn’t care and that he’s been to four school districts and given up tenure every time. English teacher Barbara Steinberg holds a differing perspective.

“What teachers sacrifice in potential salary they gain in valuable benefits and the job security provided by tenure,” she notes.

Steinberg acknowledges that the system is imperfect and could be more clear on the firing process, perhaps including a longer probationary period, but she expresses that tenure is essential for attracting and retaining high-quality teachers.

Math teacher Steve Nacht adds that tenure is necessary to protect teachers from potentially bad administration.

Social studies teacher Bill Schrier thinks that tenure actually ties the hands of administration because they do not have very much control over who comes and goes after the first two years. In addition, he points out that tenure is a unique situation.

“In the private sector, if you want to keep your job, you do the best you can,” Schrier says. “In the public sector with teachers, there’s no correlation between whether you stick around and whether you work your hardest. You just have to stay out of harm’s way, basically. I’d much rather that my staying around be more linked to my merit than just because I kept my nose clean for two years.”

Although most CHS teachers have tenure, ROP teachers, whose courses adapt to needs of the workforce and to student enrollment, do not have the same teaching credential and therefore the opportunity to get tenure. Photography and Graphic Design teacher Holly Lederle notes that this never fazed her.

“I think it’s weird that some of us have [tenure] and some of us don’t, but it never affected my decision to work here,” Lederle says.

English teacher Whitney Grummon says she thinks tenure helps neither students nor teachers, and adds that the only change she made the day she got tenure was that she started wearing her nose ring.

“If you are a good teacher and you’re working hard,” Grummon says, “I don’t see that you need any extra protections that nobody else gets. I don’t need anyone to tell me that after two years I am practically untouchable, and that is what I’ve seen happen to other teachers who maybe were overly protected.”

Grummon argues that if teachers are led by professionals and they are professional, then they can address controversial issues, make appropriate decisions and do the right thing in the classroom without tenure. She also notes that across the country, without tenure, teachers might start to be respected more, be paid more, and do a better job for students.
-Carly Rudiger