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?