It's spring 2011, and I am no longer called Heather among my peers. Instead, I am known by my number: 164. That's my place on our district's seniority list. With the pink slip plague rippling out from our district's first-year teachers toward those of us in our 11th, all of us in the danger zone are sweating.
Some call the seniority list equitable; others call it antiquated.
Bottom line: it's a flawed system. Seniority permits security, but doesn't provide incentive, and we cannot allow that which is broken to remain sacrosanct when it serves one purpose well but fails in serving others.
The Case for Seniority
1. It would be too tempting to segregate teachers based on price, not quality. In the past, the most expensive teachers, the most experienced, were the most tempting to cut, especially during eras of tight budgets.
2. It's a marathon, not a sprint. Youngest does not equate to best. Knowledge of both content and the ability to communicate that content comes with longevity.
3. Schools need a generational balance for the greatest efficiency. Veterans are needed to train our new troops. Cutting our most experienced also means cutting our most wise. Reinventing the wheel wastes instructional time and professional energy.
4. Teachers are vulnerable to the ebb and flow of administrative tides. Administrators are very nomadic; teachers are more constant. A staff should not be dissected by those not committed to longevity on a site.
5. Many times people blame tenure for the existence of poor teachers rather than place the blame where it really belongs. Teacher prep programs are not doing their job of being the initial gatekeepers of quality. Furthermore, many administrators do not go through the trouble of identifying teachers who are not performing well. We can't eliminate due process because some aren't doing their job.
6. Seniority is unbiased. Even some younger teachers agree with this. Defining effective teaching is very vague and subjective, and seniority is equitable.
The Case Against Seniority
1. Retention based merely on a seniority list casts aside some of our most promising teachers. Why would people who invest in themselves and earn a credential enter a profession where their effort doesn't ensure their employment?
2. The security of tenure can encourage mediocrity. When a person's job security isn't tied to quality, why put in the most effort? While there are many excellent teachers out there, there are clearly those whose practice has become too relaxed.
3. A system set up to reward people based on hire date does not encourage professional growth. Tenure should be about reward. It shouldn't be doled out to those who just remain under the radar long enough to be given the golden chalice. Great teaching is about remaining current in our content and forward thinking in our strategies to prepare our students for their future. Why continue to invest in our own development when all teachers have to do to ensure their employment is to remain constant?
Security and Incentive
Picking off our most experienced teachers to balance the budget is not in the best interest of the kids or schools, nor is giving our rising new generation of teachers the boot without any consideration of quality. So what do we do? Well, just as science fiction often gives us glimmers of the science to come, I think "education fiction" might reveal the possibility of a greater educational system in the years ahead. So let's mull and dream. What if...?
*...Tenure was granted in 5-year increments that could then be re-upped and re-evaluated based on firm guidelines?
* ...Teachers were scored on multiple measures? The National Council of Teaching Quality released a report on using alternative measures to determine a teacher's position, based on a combination of 3Rs (roles, rules, and rights) that take into account teaching ability as well as seniority.
* ...Teachers were scored by parents, students, and administrators, and observed by colleagues? In turn, what if teachers also evaluated administrators, so that each stakeholder had input in the make up of a school's staff?
* ...More K-12 teachers were allowed alternative ways to work in hybrid roles? Imagine teachers with one foot in the classroom and one foot in another branch of the profession, (as online teachers, virtual and face-to-face mentors, teacher educators, authors, etc.). Hybrid roles would keep many teachers from burning out professionally, would also allow districts to save money by spreading teacher salaries across two or more income sources.
*...Evaluations were more authentic and honest? Much of the current criticism of seniority grows out of an all-or-nothing approach to evaluation--a choice between "satisfactory" and "unsatisfactory." Perhaps some differentiation is in order?
Tenure needs to be a precious thing. It should exist, but it should be something teachers strive for, not something granted just because we didn't offend administrators during our first two years on the job.
But it's important for civilians to remember that teachers aren't the villains in this story. They may be the easiest to vilify, but they are the ones teaching in schools our society has given up on. They are the ones trying to meet conflicting mandates from every side. Society shouldn't confuse a broken system with broken people. Learning in a classroom occurs when kids are energized and encouraged by a great teacher of any age.
However, if people are to know just how many of us out there are effective, we need to speak out from the trenches. Society will listen to those with the loudest voices, and ours are only just beginning to whisper.
An earlier version of this article appeared in Teacher Magazine. You can view that version here.