What Teacher Tenure Is — And What It’s Not

By Kevin Hart

A recent Time magazine poll asked members of the public how they felt about teacher tenure. And, in the course of a 26-word question, Time managed to perpetuate three myths that educators say are contributing to the public’s misunderstanding over what tenure is — and what it’s not.

Specifically, Time asked, “Do you support or oppose tenure for teachers, the practice of guaranteeing teachers lifetime job security after they have worked for a certain amount of time?”

Educators say the September 20 issue of Time magazine perpetuated myths about tenure and other education issues.

The problem is, tenure does not guarantee teachers a job, does not offer any lifetime employment security, and, regardless of the implication of Time’s question, does not just happen after a “certain amount of time.”

Educators participating in a recent discussion on NEA Today’s Facebook page said that these three tenure myths are prevalent among the media and the general public, and are distractions in the debate on how to improve America’s public schools.

The notion that tenure is a guaranteed job for life must have come as a shock for Lancaster, Calif., teacher Carolyn Heia Brown, who said that she received tenure and was laid off in the same month.

If you thought tenured teachers couldn’t lose their jobs, you’re not alone — it’s a common misunderstanding, but that doesn’t make it accurate. Tenure does not guarantee teachers a job, but instead mandates that due process be followed before tenured teachers are dismissed.

The reason is simple enough, said Alabama educator Shannon Keith Ginn, who calls tenure a “measure of protection against personal vendettas and personality conflicts.”

After all, qualified, effective educators who are benefiting students and raising student achievement should not be removed from the classroom because of political disagreements with an administrator — or because the sibling of a local, influential figure wants a job.

And teachers who receive tenure often endure a marathon process before it is granted. At most jobs outside the field of education, a newly hired employee may be considered probationary for six months, or even a year.

When teachers are hired, it is common for them to serve as untenured, probationary employees for three or four years. At this point they can be — and often are — dismissed for any reason whatsoever. That time period also gives school administrators an extended opportunity to evaluate a teacher before determining whether or not the school district, at its discretion, should grant the teacher tenure.

“When explaining tenure, I first make sure to emphasize that tenure is earned, not just handed out to every teacher who walks through the door,” said Illinois teacher Chris Janotta. “Where I work, for instance, a teacher becomes tenured after four probationary years. I explain that the administration has the power to let a teacher go for any reason during these four years. Period.”

Much of the public debate over tenure has focused on whether it is possible to fire tenured teachers who are no longer making the grade. The fact is, contracts between unions and school districts in no way forbid the firing of tenured teachers.

Janotta said he has personally seen two tenured teachers with 20 years of experience let go because of performance issues.

“Did proper steps need to be taken before these teachers were terminated? Of course,” he said. “Were these steps so overwhelming that administration decided it wasn’t worth proceeding with them? Obviously not, or those teachers would still have their jobs.”

Tenure is about due process — not about guaranteeing jobs for life. And it’s not about protecting “bad” teachers — it’s about protecting good teachers.

The typical tenure agreement lays out steps and documentation necessary for dismissing a tenured teacher. Many private corporations also have termination processes and documentation requirements that managers must follow before firing an employee.

Determining which teachers are making the grade depends on a thorough and rigorous evaluation process, and many teachers complain that the evaluation systems at their schools are not functioning. Teachers say they are not evaluated enough, the criteria are murky, and sometimes they receive conflicting evaluations from different administrators.

So why is there so much attention being paid to issues like tenure? Meg Gruber, a teacher from Virginia, believes the issue is largely being driven and pitched to the media by anti-union individuals and organizations. Kelle Stewart, an elementary school teacher from Tennessee, said the heavy focus on tenure keeps the education debate from focusing on real issues that significantly affect public schools.

“Tenure is a red herring that really has nothing at all to do with the problems our schools are facing,“ she said. “I think all the attention paid to tenure should be refocused on NCLB which is hurting us far more.”

  • John Mark Ellsworth

    Seriously, you missed the BIG picture by focusing on a detail. I am a teacher and a union leader. When teachers align themselves with student learning and the interests of children, teachers are powerful. When teachers align themselves for self-interest, teachers are weak. There is plenty of overlap on the interests of teachers and the interests of students that it should be fine. But when teachers put themselves before students, we have a public relations problem which translates into all sorts of other problems too. The TIME article is excellent. No, it is not flattering to teachers’ unions. It shouldn’t be. I learned as a young teacher and coach to look in the mirror first… and start there on improving things. This attack on one detail of the article seems like the traditional knee-jerk union reaction… like is mentioned in the TIME article when a newspaper was planning to publish test results by teacher. To survive and thrive, teachers’ unions must change… otherwise we will face a slow, agonizing demise.

  • Faith

    John, you are right that unions need to be flexible and they need to be part of the solution in order to thrive. You mentioned that you are a union leader, and I hope that your union‘s relationship with your district is good. I’m pretty sure that in some districts, union leaders would be the first to get fired if tenure was ever abolished. I’m also sure that some of the people who are screaming loudest about getting rid of tenure know this.

  • James Johnson

    This is a sore subject for me. I am teaching in a state where the legislature just abolished tenure for teachers. There is great speculation as to why they did this. It is my believe that we have a seemingly large population that fear people that are highly educated and articulate teaching young people how to see through all the B.S. that those who want to control and dominate used to keep themselves in the have category and the rest of the world in the have not category. Tenure is the shinny object that so many focus on while the real crime goes on behind us. It seems to be working too, just look at all the attention given to this article. Don’t be fooled by the make up. If you put lipstick on a pig is is still a pig. Keep in mind there seems to be more people in our society that believe having an ignorant work force is more profitable then education our youth. Until that changes, nothing will change.

  • Carla Benard

    As one of the union reps. in our building and a part of the team that just finished negotiating a new contract w/our district, I have a lot of strong feelings about anti-union sentiment. I know that our teachers bear the brunt of the criticism when our students do not make AYP–never have we taken the low road and made public comments about the misguided initiatives we have been forced to implement in our classrooms, so the Board looks better by comparison. They can indulge in whatever rhetoric they choose about the reason for our so-called “failures,” while we try to hold our heads up and go on. Without some of the protections that the union provides, some of our very good teachers would have been let go just to prove a point. Not the ‘bad” teachers, the good ones. They are more visible, more vocal and often more of a target. Some of the conversation that went on during negotiations literally made me sick to my stomach, but again, in the interests of all our members, you try to forge an agreement and hope to have your voice heard.
    Tenure is a red-herring that people like to point to as the holy-grail of bad policy. Without tenure we would have nothing but excellent teachers. Bunk! Without tenure you would have some good, some mediocre and some there for no other reason than their support of a bad principal. Most businesses have the same sort of seniority system–just without the name. Most businesses/professions have some really bad people as a part of them. Why the hateful attacks on teachers?y577

  • A long time ago I was a teacher (private school) and had an individual contract (without tenure – which didn’t exist). There was still mutual trust.

    For the last 23 years I’ve worked as a software engineer or executive in a number of industries (including finance, higher ed publishing, K-12 ed-tech). I’ve never had tenure – but there have been clear scorecards. Did my business unit hit its target revenue and costs? Did my technical staff keep the customer web applications up with 99.95% or greater uptime. Did development deliver its releases on time with few defects? Did I contribute to the company’s growth and development in a measurable way.

    Note that I’ve been living for many years in an at-will state, where in the absence of a specific contract, a company may fire you for any reason. I’m only protected by being valuable in ways that are clear.

    The problem with tenure is that it’s due process in the absence of transparent accountability measures. Non-profits like schools lack scorecards. The egg-crate mentality which puts each teacher into a classroom with students without the continuous interaction with peers or supervisors leaves the few scorecards blank. The real measure of a teacher – did s/he make a positive difference in the kids’ lives and prepare them to be happy effective (self-actualized, if you prefer) adults – isn’t immediately apparent.

    In the absence of clear and clearly observed measures, it’s no wonder we’ve regressed to deracinated and desiccated metrics like state test scores. Teachers are correct to resist those – but their unions are wrong in not developing metrics that are meaningful and can’t be gamed. The medical profession attempts to police itself with a code of professional ethics and training requirements. It sometimes fails – but at least patients can choose to leave a poor practioner and find another. Parents and children can’t – they’re trapped with the one they have.

    In the end, tenure simply doesn’t work well for any profession whose clients are compelled and controlled by the force of the State. Expect more battles as voters fight back. It’s isn’t you as much as the fact that they’re stuck with you for good or ill.

  • sally

    Have any of you ever been a parent and tried to get a teacher fired or even reprimanded for absolutely unprofessional behavior?
    I know parents in the Denver-metro area (in different districts)who have attempted to do something about bad teachers, and their efforts went nowhere. Why? Because, as each principal of each school said, “We can’t do anything. He/she is tenured.”

    If American schools were great, or even all above average, there wouldn’t be a problem here. But to not be able to get rid of bad teachers because they are tenured is ridiculous. Would never happen in a private company. And that’s part of the reason that the schools are getting worse.

  • Sally,

    Those administrators were not telling the truth. I have have witnessed tenured teachers being reprimanded for “unprofessional behavior,” and there was nothing the union could do about it. I have also witnessed teachers who are union leaders being reprimanded for acts that were completely within their rights (i.e. taking off too many days in a year although all of the days were earned as paid leave days). The union steps in when this happens and has to go through a long, costly process in order to get this removed from a teacher’s record. However, because it is in the best interest of the teacher, they follow this process through to the end. When a teacher does something that is detrimental to his or her students, administration has the same duty to follow whatever steps are entailed in order to ensure the teacher is reprimanded or dismissed. Nobody–including the teachers’ unions–wants any teacher in the class room affecting children’s lives in a negative way.

  • Chris

    You are correct that it is not impossible for a teacher with tenure to be fired. On the other hand Ted Williams batted .406 one season so its not impossible to bat .400 for a season in Major League Baseball. Yet for some reason a teacher with tenure is fired only slightly more often than a major league player hits .400. The tenure rules make the process so difficult that it is close to the equivalent to full protection.

    As for the argument that it protects the good teachers, this may be true, but the fact that it also prevents the bad ones is a much bigger issue. The ones who truly are good teachers should have no issues finding a new position if they are deserving of it, while the bad ones would naturally be weeded out.

  • Paul

    John, your comment is quite vague. What exactly are you trying to say. Please be specific.

  • Paul

    People seem to think that a business model will work in a public sector system, hence, since the private sector doesn’t have tenure, why should the public? The idea sounds great but the truth is that public education doesn’t fit this model at all. Consider this, do public schools work on a model based on profits? Should it be run like a Fortune 500 company? Some models just don’t work that way and I would say that the public education model is the same. It has different rules for a reason.

    So hear are some things to think about if there was no tenure:

    If a school district is in a budget deficit, one option would be to lay off veteran teachers (mostly good teachers I would assume) since they have a higher salary. If you were to purely run your system on profit, wouldn’t you just hire a bunch of young newbies?

    If a parent or child makes a complaint about a teacher, that teacher could be let go without any due process.

    If an administrator doesn’t like a teacher for whatever reason, he can let him go.

    Yes, I agree there are some bad teachers out there, but who’s to say that without tenure there won’t be bad teachers later. There are a lot politics involved in every field of work and sometimes the right people aren’t always the first to go.

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  • John Troise

    Teacher unions do not want innefective or incompetent practitioners in the classroom any more than administrators, school boards and parents do. Teacher unions want to be active stakeholders in the evaluation process as well. I say this as a teacher, local vice president and state delegate. These titles do not make me immune to school tax, so I say it as a taxpayer, too. However the dialogue, and ultimately, any reform if it is to come, will NEVER be realized if the UTTER FALLACIES THAT TENURE IS “GIVEN” AFTER A CERTAIN AMOUNT OF YEARS AND GAURANTEES A TEACHER CANNOT BE FIRED FOR LIFE are disspelled. The school board awards tenure to competent, effective practitioners based on administrative recommendation. Those who do not meet the requirements in their probationary period are fired. Period. Those who earn tenure and demonstrate incompetence, violate the code of ethics, don’t uphold the commissioner’s regulations and practices, or otherwise are proven to be unworthy of the license and position of employed, certified teacher WILL ALSO BE FIRED. All tenure provides a tenured member is due process – a hearing – before termination. In today’s economy, if three years of service gauranteed me a job for life, the person complaining about teacher tenure would be earning a Masters degree, qualifying for a license, student teaching (for no pay), engaging in professional development, working under mentorships and supervised observations, and only after all that, receiving a certificate (I’m still waiting for mine) that says, “You Now Have A Job For Life No Matter How Incompetent or Innefective You Are.” Please. If you believe ANYONE through any process is gauranteed a job for life I have a bridge for sale. Second, those obsessed with aligning school practices more with the “private sector” seem to forget that private sector companies CHOOSE THEIR OWN EMPLOYEES. I don’t get to dismiss my kids in class; my job is to teach the students on my roster. I don’t get to pick and choose. My kids are my kids, whether they are bright, motivated, undisciplined, suspended, behavior problems, native speakers of English, literate, poor, rich, cooperative or not. I not only ACCEPT this, I EMBRACE it. These are the kids in the community where I teach; my job is to teach them. But tell me, how many companies in the private sector would be hiring a work staff that on many days could be irresponsible, inattentive, resistant, vulgar, or violent? Kids in a classroom don’t benefit from the “corporate model” and neither do the teachers working with them. So, if you are anti-tenure, know what you’re talking about first. If you’re anti-teacher (we work half days, half years, etc.) fulfill the aforementioned requirements and jump on board; we can always use better teachers, especially if they come from the private sector and purport to have all the answers. Or how about involving yourself with your school and its teachers instead, and begin to recognize how much passion, love, expertise, time and effort 95% of people who work in this profession genuinely expend on your kids every day.

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  • Mr. Jones

    The teachers’ unions are full of crap.

    Due process usually takes YEARS and hundreds of thousands of dollars, making it impossible in practice to fire a tenure teacher. It should take only two WEEKS, not years!

    The due process should require a teacher to be suspended WITHOUT PAY until the matter is resolved. If the teacher is found not guilty, they can be reinstated and given back pay.

    Tenure doesn’t stop political appointments or nepotism.

    Students are not granted the same “academic freedom” teachers have.

  • Suzy

    My daughter was let got for no reason. She worked in the lunch room at a high school in AL. She has 3 children attending the school. Her supervisor is very unstable and is on antidepressants and has had breakdowns in front of the employees and has even threatened to kill herself. My daughter has complained to the principal about her. There was also some conflict with an upset student. My daughter got in trouble for calming him down and was not allowed to speak to him afterwards. She and my son in law have even taken in a homeless student and is making sure he graduates this year. Last year a lunch room worker complained about off color jokes made in the lunchroom and was let go for no reason. Without a reason for being let go makes it difficult to get unemployment. My daughter and son in law are supporting 4 children. There is nothing fair about it.

  • Suzy

    My daughter was let go for no reason. She had worked in the lunchroom for 3 years and was let go for no reason.

  • Susan Nunes

    “Tenure” does NOT exist in public education. Never has. What teachers have or did have are the same civil service rights as other employees such as police and fire. They also have a right to a hearing if they are recommended to be terminated.

    “Tenure” is unique only to colleges and universities and is based on the concept of “academic freedom,” which can exist only if there are protections for professions from retaliation by administrators for speaking out on a variety of issues. It exists in both public and private post-secondary education and is a lengthy process and granted by a panel. This doesn’t exist in public education.

    You simply get a continuing contract in public ed, not a job for life, and only one person, a principal, recommends it to the superintendent and/or board.

  • Susan Nunes

    “Mr. Jones,” you don’t know what you are even talking about.

    Teachers are easily removed, and most take resignations rather than go through the sham hearings. The districts can then get up in public and lie they only “fired” two or three teachers in a year when in fact dozens upon dozens of teachers are forced out or are “non-renewed,” which in most cases is the same thing as being fired, only those teachers don’t have continuing contracts.

  • Susan Nunes

    I meant “professors.”

  • Regina Norman

    I am currently being harassed by a new principal who disagrees with my teaching style. She has now gone so far as to threaten renewal of my contract for the coming school year… this after 23 years of proficient and superior evaluations from past administrators. WHAT ARE MY OPTIONS? WHO SHOULD I CONTACT TO PROTECT MYSELF? For the first time in my professional career I am truly frightened about losing my job.

    • TopicAl

      Lol…you should. 23 years doing the same thing… move on!

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  • Tenure makes it harder to fire bad teachers. It is easy to understand that an organization dedicated to making sure that unqualified, incompetent teachers are as badly overpaid as properly qualified ones doesn’t want bad teachers fired.