Teacher ‘Tenure’ Under Fire: ‘I Couldn’t Believe It Happened to Me’

Most teachers are likely to go through their entire career without being unfairly targeted for dismissal by administrators. But that shouldn’t be left to chance.

For example, what if this happened to you?

You’re a high school teacher. You work out with your students a rubric for grading a small-group project. One group, unfortunately, really blows this project off. According to the rubric, they deserve a D, which you deliver. Parents complain to the principal. He tells you to raise the grade. You say, no, and you point out that the students took part in designing the rubric that guided you in giving them the D.

Do you lose your job?

That can depend on whether you have a strong and enforceable due-process system for dismissal, generally called “tenure” but often misinterpreted as a guaranteed job.

What’s guaranteed is not the job, but the due process, and sometimes someone has to make sure the guarantee is carried out, which is one reason educators need their Association.

The case of the rubric project was reported to NEA Today after a recent article about teacher tenure and due process, which invited readers to send in their own stories.

That teacher still has her job.

Among the others who reported their jobs were saved by due process rights:

  • A teacher who asked her administrators to stop giving AP students an extra hour for their testing.
  • A teacher who got up at a meeting and spoke about the need for the employer to pick up some of the cost of family health insurance.
  • An Association building representative who was apparently targeted for defending another educator.

“No teacher should ever, ever underestimate the vital necessity of the union, its protections, and due process,” said one educator.

“I couldn’t believe it happened to me,” said another.

Opponents of due process rules of tenure say it keeps bad teachers in the classroom. But no contract bars dismissal. Contracts require that experienced teachers be given the reasons for dismissal and an opportunity to respond. Where the process takes too long, NEA affiliates are working to shorten it, while continuing to guarantee fairness. No teacher wants an incompetent in the next room, creating problems for students and for those students’ next teachers.

Tenure doesn’t apply during a teacher’s first years—in most states, it’s three. Nationwide, about one in six teachers has worked less than three years. And that fraction is much higher in the schools with the most low-income and minority students and the weakest student achievement.

NEA affiliates are working to raise achievement at these schools through smaller classes; better professional development; programs to improve parent involvement, nutrition, and healthcare; and in many other ways.

Eliminating due process for experienced teachers would make it harder for educators to speak up for their students.

Because nontenured teachers can be fired or non-renewed without due process, abuses do happen, and sometimes educators are targeted for trying to help students:

  • A nontenured Alabama teacher was terminated for expressing concerns about the fairness of cheerleader tryouts.
  • A nontenured teacher in a New York charter school was fired because she complained about discriminatory and illegal conduct toward the school’s special needs students.
  • A nontenured special education teacher in Michigan was fired for complaining about the size of her teaching load—that’s a problem for the students, not just the teacher.

Those teachers risked their jobs for their students, and lost. How would putting more teachers at risk help?

  • Benjamin

    The teacher in the hypothetical case should have been fired for not doing her job. What kind of teacher lets her students help create the grading rubric ?

  • Dan Fulton

    Give a politician’s son an “F” in Geometry or
    a place on the bench in football, look out.
    Without tenure you may need to find another job.

    In the 1990’s I was told by a
    school administrator to “confirm” that
    my school had books that we DID NOT
    have and had NEVER received.
    I pounded a desk at the Central
    Office, refused to lie, and demanded the books!!!
    I was “written up” but we did indeed receive
    the books, some personally delivered the next day
    by the publisher’s representative.
    Without tenure, I would have been
    fired and the students and teachers would have
    been cheated out of the books–books
    purchased by the State of Alabama.
    In 1997 I wrote Alabama Superintendent Ed Richardson about the failure of a school and system to enforce attendance policy.
    When the State pays for public education it expects students to be present to receive the instruction.
    Dr. Richardson acted and called for a process of remediation.
    Without tenure, I would have been fired
    In the 1980’s, my paycheck was incorrect.
    I complained and AEA/BEA helped me collect
    back pay and the correct paycheck, even though the superintendent illegally accessed my academic records at UAB. Without tenure, I would
    have been fired.
    In the 1970’s there was “discomfort” with
    my classroom innovations and student/teacher
    produced TV. This was before You Tube, the internet, and the world wide web.
    Despite considerable personal expenses including recording equipment,
    a new station wagon to transport both TV equipment and students, and
    a visit and positive review by WGBH and CTW,
    without tenure, I would have been fired.
    Here is a sample of videos produced by my students with
    my instruction and supervision:


    Without tenure, the videos would NEVER have happened!
    We must fight to protect tenure and due process!!!

  • Ryan Y

    Yes. Tenure protects due process. However, the due process system needs to be reformed.

    I hear stories like this and realize that the system worked. What we seem to conveniently overlook are the greater amount of examples of how the system fails.

    At every school site there are a handful of teachers who float confidently on the tenure cloud, fearless of unemployment, who have questionable practices and results, but fear not due to the “due process.” If the system works, how come these handfuls of teachers at every site still exist? They feel no pressure to reform or change. Unless they beat a child or molest one, they are safe. Every teacher knows one or two of these people.

    I know that administrators can do a better job keeping written records and build up an extensive case against poor employees, but they don’t, because everytime a negative evaluation is handed down, that teacher’s union negociates a change in the language and waters it down. To terminate an employee, one must first go to the board, then to a trial, and then a possible appeal, and in a time with limited money, a district will either ignore the situation (as long a parents don’t freak), move the teacher to a different school (if the parents do freak), or they will simply find that teacher a desk job at the DO with the same teacher pay and benefits.

    I have been a teacher for only 7 years and already have 5 firsthand anecdotes to back my claims. Over and over again, I get to see crappy co-workers survive budget cuts, while awesome temps are let go. Get rid of tenure and I guarantee those crappy teachers will wise up quickly.

    The best job security is job performance. If an administrator is out to get you, then that would be a good time for the union to step in and protect you against false claims or unjust dismissal.

    Administrators do not have tenure, nor should we teachers.

    While I’m ranting (sorry), let me remind everyone that public education wasn’t created to provide us jobs, it was created to provide children a good education. Though nobody wants to be a slave or abused, our job comfort should be a second priority to the education of kids.

  • Susan Nunes

    Actually, the above post by Ryan is pretty pathetic and ignorant. It doesn’t matter how well you do your job as to whether you get terminated; all you have to be is over 50 or outspoken, or have a health issue or simply not be on the principal’s favored list to be sacked. A principal can make up allegations knowing the hearings are almost always rigged in the school district’s and thus their favor. It happened to me, and my union was WORTHLESS and was in cahoots with my former school district as was their law firm. You see, tenure really doesn’t protect teachers but protects school districts from more lawsuits emanating from principals’ illegal actions by putting a brake on principals’ worst impulses to fire anybody willy-nilly. But once the termination process starts, it is virtually impossible for a teacher to win. Teachers also find it impossible to appeal terminations; after all, NEA and its state and local affiliates will NOT pay for appeals of hearing officers’ illegal rulings, so the teacher MUST come up with a couple of hundred grand up front for an administrative law attorney to try and get reinstated for a job that may pay 50-60k a year. Hardly worth the trouble. And teachers find it is almost impossible to find an outside attorney to help them file civil suits in federal or state courts. Lawyers won’t do it because it takes years for the cases to be litigated. So teachers are by and large out of luck there.

    Principals are the problem in public education, not teachers, because they cannot be fired except in extremely rare cases (these are typically publicized because they are unusual) and are NEVER held accountable for their actions.
    Right now the system is full of inept, malicious, and vindictive principals because these days principals are usually the LEAST qualified people to be running schools. But if they get into trouble, they don’t get fired but instead either stay put creating more problems in their schools, get moved to other schools, or are actually promoted. Public education is often the Peter Principle in action.

    Administrative law, by the way, isn’t worth the paper it is written on, and school districts openly flout the law. They also flout state law, federal law, and even criminal law because there is nobody really watching administrators.

    This article is rather silly from my point of view because all it takes is one lousy principal, and your career is shot down the tubes. There is nothing a teacher can really do to prevent it.

  • Susan Nunes

    By the way, Ryan is wrong about administrators not having tenure–they DO, and they are heavily unionized to boot. That’s why it is virtually impossible to get rid of them.

  • Responding to Ryan’s comment, “Actually, a principal terminating an employee for malicious or faulty reasons would get sued and this great teacher would have the backing of the PTA, the students, and the other teachers.”

    I think Ryan must work in a very different place than I do. What he describes would not happen where I live. I grew up outside of Philadelphia, and had the opportunity to experience something like what Ryan describes. In our small New Jersey community, there was an active PTA. Parents and teachers talked to each other and got involved in improving the school. Members of the school community could get the support of others to make positive changes. Free and open discussion was what held the principal accountable for doing a good job and kept abuses of power at bay. There also was some level of professionalism in which correspondence and queries for information received a response within a reasonable time frame. Maybe Ryan lives and works in that kind of environment.

    Go six thousand miles to the west and you wind up in a place that became a state only 51 years ago and continued to live under plantation rule for several decades thereafter. The process of being assimilated into the U.S. began at the end of a bayonet when King Kalakaua, under threat of assassination, signed the “Bayonet Constitution” in 1887 and the Hawai‘ian people had their country completely taken from them in 1893. The concept of democracy is a very new thing here, and it’s not widely practiced.

    Where I work, over 90% of the students receive free lunches. People become parents at such a young age that many grandparents do the job of raising the children. Many people have to ride a bus for an hour and a half each way to have a minimum wage job. They’re the lucky ones; they have a job. There is no PTA, though people have tried. The closest thing we have is something called a School Community Council which is comprised of the Principal, and voting members who supposedly represents these school community groups: Parents, Students, Teachers, Non-Credentialed Staff, and the Community. SCCs were mandated by law in 2004 as part of statewide reform for Hawai‘i’s schools. While the SCC may now exist as a place for the public to be involved, our community is largely uneducated about the SCC, the administration does little to change this, and others’ efforts to involve the community are discouraged or ignored. The status quo continues in which people don’t even bother to get involved because it doesn’t matter what they say. The administration is going to do what it wants to anyway. If you ask for clarification or more information, it’s quite common to be ignored. High ranking officials in the Department of Education simply don’t answer you if they don’t want to.

    I was struck by this cultural difference between East Coast and Hawai‘i once again recently. I had a question about forms I needed to fill out regarding my mother’s life insurance and called her former employer in New Jersey. It was about 3:00:pm in the afternoon East Coast time, and I left a voice mail message. The call was returned within two hours. That would never happen in Hawai‘i. I’m always amazed at how long it takes to get a response, *if* I even get one. You have to be a really squeaky wheel to get answers. For example, I made about a dozen requests over several months last year for school code regulations regarding leave. No response. I finally had to resort to a formal freedom of information request and pay $40 to $70 dollars (I can’t remember the exact amount) to get copies delivered to me electronically. This year I asked the Superintendent to clarify a memo she issued last year that I thought was being misinterpreted by the administration to the detriment of our student body, and the ability to maintain and develop discipline. I’ve asked her to respond three times over the last month and nothing. Not a peep. In some parts of the country, public school officials respond to queries. In other parts of the country, they ignore you.

    In a climate of repression and fear, it’s not surprising that the teachers where I work are too afraid to voice any opposition about anything. They know that to do so would make them a target because they’ve seen it happen too many times. I am the only teacher not on the School Community Council who has been involved this method of school wide reform, and regularly attended the SCC meetings for the past four years. I’ve been able to help make some changes happen, but it has cost me dearly, and it’s been very difficult with little or no support. Teachers and other school workers often come to me when they have something valuable to say about an SCC agenda item, but I’ve been unable to get them to come to the SCC meetings and speak up. They won’t do it because they fear for their livelihood, and rightly so. Opposing the principal’s opinion will certainly put you in the dog house. Then, the unwarranted reprimands for bogus charges will begin, and the union seems to have little power to prevent this. Survival requires silence. Nobody can afford to stand up and be sacrificed in a place where job options are nonexistent.

    I believe tenure and teachers’ unions help protect education workers so that they can continue to teach and practice the principals of democracy. Susan Nunes’s comment, “It doesn’t matter how well you do your job as to whether you get terminated; all you have to be is over 50 or outspoken, or have a health issue or simply not be on the principal’s favored list,” is better description of my environment than Ryan’s. Without some method of protecting workers from the administration’s abuse of power, nobody will ever speak out about anything. This fear has a very deleterious effect on our ability to teach future generations about critical thinking and free speech. The U.S. is no longer considered one of the more innovative countries technologically as it was in the past. To change that trend, we need to encourage creative thought and open communication. In our education system, due process is the only thing that stands between repressive totalitarianism, and schools that can teach and model collaborative ways to solve problems.

  • Amy

    If you guys are teachers, how the heck do you have time to write these long responses when I am a teacher and it took everything in my being just to read all of this nonsense.