07/03/2014 02:13 pm ET | Updated Sep 02, 2014

Job Insecurity: The False Dilemma of Teacher Tenure

The principal who hired me for my first and only teaching position introduced me to my new colleagues at a Friday afternoon faculty meeting. She told everyone that she'd interviewed 13 other English teachers before deciding on me -- which I think is a massive exaggeration (I may actually have been her only interview) -- and that I was going to inject some life into the school and motivate all the students the rest of them could not.

Naturally none of my new colleagues would talk to me after the meeting and for weeks thereafter.

I'm sure I did not entirely live up to the principal's claims -- I was new to teaching and just figuring it all out -- but eventually I earned the respect of most of my students and some of my colleagues. Meanwhile, some of my more senior colleagues earned my respect and even admiration but some of them did not and a few of them even earned my contempt. They were lazy and incompetent, narcissistic and vain, petty and indulgent. It annoyed me that they earned more money than I did and had job security I did not.

Now -- after 22 years -- I have more seniority than anyone on the staff. I'm at the top of the salary scale, such as it is, and enjoy the security of knowing that if another round of lay-offs go down I'm essentially untouchable. I like and respect my current principal and am confident that she values my contribution enough that my job protections are superfluous. I get along with my students and their parents -- in 22 years I've had only a few complaints and we worked things out quite easily. But I know that there are administrators out there who are incompetent and tyrannical and there are children who are psychopathic and parents who are delusional and deranged and so I'm glad that I have tenure and I'm especially glad that my colleagues who must work in more difficult circumstances have those protections.

But I understand that our job protections can keep children subjected to teachers who are incompetent and even harmful. Anyone who wants to protect incompetent or abusive teachers does not care about the children we are supposed to educate.

So which side am I on?

Am I in favor defending the worst teachers?

Or am I in favor of undermining the best teachers?

Be suspicious of black/white choices, I teach my students whenever I can. Yes, sometimes issues are that simple but mostly such dichotomies represent false dilemmas.

Do we really have to destabilize all teachers -- including our most effective ones -- just to maintain some semblance of professionalism or even excellence?

And should we -- teachers, that is -- be fighting to maintain job protections for our colleagues whose incompetence is at best negligent and at worst abusive? How about we concede a baseline of quality in each classroom? No job protection for those who make no effort to instruct or for those who cannot maintain any semblance of order or deliver any meaningful instruction.

How about this: school districts give administrators (the people who currently fail to maintain a highly effective corps of teachers in their schools) the ability -- the time! -- to supervise and evaluate, reward, correct, and discipline those teachers. Or, better yet, restructure this whole business and eliminate the distinction between teachers and administrators. Distinguish, instead, between expert and novice teachers and give the experts instructional control of the school. But in the meantime, at least give the administrators the tools to keep track of what we're doing. Weakening job protections for teachers won't matter if administrators cannot utilize their new power.

And, of course, purging all of the ineffective and abusive teachers is not a comprehensive strategy for improving the quality of instruction in our schools. It won't end mediocrity. Nor solve the much greater problem of teacher retention so that we can get teachers to invest enough years to become really good at it. It won't end burn-out and it won't make trying to teach 45 students at a time the same as teaching 30 students at a time.

But refusing to recognize the destructive power of an incompetent or abusive teacher is intolerable. Just ask parents whose children have ever been mis-educated for a year or longer and try explaining to them why their children matter less than the job security of someone who probably never should have been hired in the first place. I don't know about you but I've got zero tolerance for incompetent airplane pilots. Why wouldn't I hold myself and my colleagues to the same standard? We -- teachers -- ought never find ourselves defending professional incompetence. Never. Under any circumstances.

But we also ought never to accept the insult of failure by association. Those of us who succeed despite all the formidable obstacles -- including the twisted priorities of many in control and the cynicism of at least a few of our colleagues -- have earned more, not less. More respect. More job security. Not to mention more pay...

And we ought not have to explain our value to anyone

Perhaps the Vergara ruling -- if it is not overturned on appeal -- will live up to its promise: to improve the quality of teaching in California by killing complacency and by empowering school communities and their leaders to better regulate the quality of their teachers. Perhaps. Forgive me my skepticism. Supporters of the ruling claim that it will make it easier to reward and retain the most effective teachers--but the ruling has no such provision, nothing about FUNDING any teacher rewards either, so forgive my skepticism about that.

Ironically this ruling comes at a time when school budgets are being restored after the triage of the economic crisis and its aftermath. That is good news but it may, among other factors, create a shortage of teachers in the next few years.

There are schools in my city at which very few want to teach. I suspect that there are similar institutions in other cities throughout the country. Who is going to terminate an ineffective teacher from one of those places? How are we going to staff those schools if there is a shortage of qualified teachers?

Where's the legislation for that? Where's the urgency?