Why Tenure?


In the aftermath of the initial Vergara decision, there are lots of questions about effects. Having taught in a public school under a turn-around model, where hiring and being retained, was based solely on the discretion of the site administrator, I think I already have a pretty good idea of what that will look like, and it’s not good for kids or the communities they live in.

This was at a low-performing, high-poverty school, with a large non-white, and English learner population. Just the sort of school that the Vegara suit claimed to want to “help”. With the turnaround model, we had many resources, and many programs. When implementing new programs, there are lots of bumps and honest feed-back is needed to make sure that things are on the right track.

There were many new teachers at the site, some who had come on in the prior year before the change, and others who had been at the site anywhere from three to over 10 years. Those that stayed on were pretty clear in supporting the idea that change was needed, and that would require a better focus on academics and teaching. These were not folks who wanted things to stay the same. One of the first people asked to leave was the union site representative, which was ironic, since he was a big proponent of a more rigorous academic focus while maintaining but improving the coherence of our social emotional services. He also was (and is) and fantastic teacher. That was a warning sign I probably should have heeded.

Within the first trimester, it became evident that there were problems. Favorites were picked, and where there are the favored, there are those who are not. By the second semester, there was a clear lack of coherence in programs. After trainings over the summer in a number of programs (both social emotional and academic), we were starting to discard some of those and take on new, better programs. This and a number of concerns around student discipline led the site to form a Liaison Committee. This is a way to deal with workplace issues that are not directly covered in the contract at the site level. I will simply say, these problems were not resolved, and it wasn’t for lack of effort on the part of the committee to resolve them. At this point, most of the teachers with seniority left the school (or were asked to leave). I was one who asked to leave. At the same time, the district approved rules, that allowed teachers at these schools to be “skipped” during layoffs. This is a not unheard of practice. It had been done earlier at an adjacent district to try to stem the turnovers at their high poverty schools. Normally, it is done with the agreement of teachers’ union. That did not happen.

At this point we had a confluence of events. A school where the site administrator had total control over who was chosen to work there, and who could stay on, combined with the great recession and massive layoffs of teachers throughout the state, and at the district the school was situated in. This meant that anyone who did not stay at this school (or was asked to leave) with less than 7 years seniority was going to be laid off. As senior teachers left, they were replaced by less senior teachers, most of whom had the choice of either working at the school (where they would “skipped” during layoffs), or being laid off.

Things were continue to chug along at the school in year two, with little change (read a lack of coherence, which resulted in a ridiculous work-load on top of what was already a pretty stressful job, and much frustration for the teachers). At this point, not only were senior teacher leaving, but some teachers who were so low in seniority that they were going to be laid-off if they left the “skipping” protection offered by working at the school. They left anyway, which tells you how bad things were. These were not bad teachers (although some were certainly made to feel that way). Many were fantastic. They were not teachers who “refused to change” or “get with the program”, they just realized that what they were being asked to do was not tenable.

The school had a significant Hmong and SE Asian population of students, and when I started there had a number of Hmong and Mien teachers. All of them were gone within two years. Their replacements did not always reflect the racial/ethnic backgrounds of the students. The seniority dropped precipitously. The senior teachers who left often had significant experience working in low-performing high-poverty schools successfully (some were new to the site the year we were put into turn-around, and had been successful elsewhere). The school lost something significant. What did it gain? Well, on the measure that got them into this place, test scores, they gained a couple of API points, which fits the definition of “insignificant”.

But it taught all of us a lesson. It taught the district that they could get away with ignoring seniority rights even when the eventually had a court ruling that found fault with them doing it. It taught administrators in those schools and programs that they didn’t need to hear criticism, or get meaningful staff input into programs, because if someone wasn’t “with the program” they could be asked to leave. It taught low-seniority teachers the value of their rights if they were not getting skipping, and for those who got it, it separated them from their fellow union members in a way that wasn’t healthy for either of us. It taught all of us the dangers of working in a “low performing” school.

All schools are often only as good as the administrators in charge of them. This is even moreso for a school where the teachers have no due-process or seniority rights. Without that protection, you don’t have anyone to say, “This probably isn’t going to work, and can I suggest something that my experience tells me probably will?” When that isn’t even said, you have a lot of groupthink, and that leads to a lot of stupidity. We’re the professionals, our working conditions, are your child’s learning conditions. Due-process is what let’s us make sure that’s happening.


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