It started friendly enough –just two strangers there to get haircuts.
“Think you’re paying too much?” I smiled holding up an open magazine. The photo had a large caption that asked that very question. It was meant only as a friendly exchange, a nod to a stranger who had just sat down. He smiled, agreed, then added his own take on it. I don’t recall what he said or how I responded, but it was clear immediately that our agreement had ended. Not in the mood to have my good day spoiled by the slightest conflict, I quickly tried to find words that would get us back to the beginning.
“Too late,” I kicked myself inside. “Why does it always end up being one of these guys?”
I looked down at the magazine and started thumbing through it. Sometimes the only thing you can do is just be quiet. Undaunted by my attempt to disengage, he continued to rail about unions and the damage they’ve made.
“I’ve heard this speech before,” I said inside my head. “It’s like a parrot repeating something he’s just heard.” I thought for a second about asserting my own concerns, but realized he had already moved on.
“Nobody guarantees my job. Tenure just protects bad teachers. You hear it all the time.”
I quickly looked up and this time looked straight at him. He paused for a second as if surprised by my sudden show of interest. Perhaps seeing something on my face, he shrugged and added, “that’s what they tell me.”
I opened my mouth to speak, then thought better of it. He had yet to make a statement I didn’t want to dispute.
“Parrot,” I silently asked. “Do you ever even wonder who they is?”
I didn’t hear much of anything else he said — an image of Mattie had suddenly flashed into my head. It’s been a long time now but I remember that experience like it just happened. I had taken a lot of phone calls the week I first met Mattie. Parents were calling to tell me “I don’t want that slut teaching my child”. They were talking about the daughter of a school board member who had applied for the fifth grade opening. He’d guaranteed that (as president of the board) he’d get her the job, and he had been bragging about it all over town. Other board members had gotten calls too, so he was the only one surprised when I did not recommend his daughter. The board has the final say on hiring and that night they gave the job to Mattie. The president was visibly demeaned. He leaned back in his chair and snorted in disgust while he glared at all of us.
Every person who runs for school board has an agenda. It’s often some policy they want changed or some staffer they want gone. Two years later there had been two board elections. Some of the earlier members still served but some members had just joined. They had not been a part of the discussion two years earlier. The president was still there, still held his title, and had gotten more secretive about his intentions. He worked out a deal ahead of time with another member to “vote against yours if you vote against mine”. A third member who often straddled the fence suddenly had “other plans” the night teacher contracts were voted on. One other slight of hand and my recommendation to rehire Mattie was voted down. Two years of excellent evaluations hadn’t mattered. The president leaned back in his chair, and gloatingly smiled at me. He had claimed the power, enacted his revenge, and Mattie was out.
Mattie hadn’t been there long enough to gain tenure. Some states require three years. In our state it’s five. Tenure offers no protection for teachers who commit criminal acts, immoral acts, or insubordination. Basically the law states that any teacher who has been awarded a contract each year for five consecutive years and has successfully fulfilled that contract, will at the end of the fifth year be awarded a protection of tenure if they are renewed for the sixth year. It acknowledges that a yearly procedure exists whereby for five years any teacher not acceptable to the district for any reason can be legally terminated without question. Tenure adds a procedure for termination as well, a procedure that did not exist the first five years. It says that just as a teacher must have a proven record of qualification and accountability to gain tenure, there must now be a record that proves the opposite. Proving that a previously “fit” teacher is now unfit, demands certain energies. A paper trail must be established that lays out the teacher’s failings and clearly states what needs to change. The teacher must be told that her performance is unsatisfactory and be given an opportunity to fix it. If the teacher resists the change or fails to meet the requirements, she can be terminated legally.
To superiors who just want a teacher gone, tenure is too tedious, too easy to dispute, and too time consuming. It not only holds the teacher accountable, tenure laws require a lot of accountability from administrators and board members as well. It should come as no surprise to anyone alive that paperwork is a drag, that having to prove your intentions are fair and justified is always irritating (especially when they are not fair or justified), and that having one’s own way without cost always feels better.
Tenure acts as a speed bump for anyone wanting a teacher gone due to personality conflicts, budget cuts, vendettas, or a chance for a loved one to have that job themselves. So long as the administrator is unwilling to go after a teacher on the push of a parent or board member, tenure is a useful tool to have in their pocket. “Can’t do it. He has tenure.”
To be real, teachers are pushed out of their jobs every year whether they have tenure or not. Superiors who are personally committed to seeing a teacher go often rely on more subjective and deniable strategies. These strategies include belittlement, withholding of resources, nit-picking, assigning extra duties, withdrawal of all support, isolation from colleagues, set-ups predesigned to fail, over-loading their classes with the most difficult populations, and (when no one is looking) downright harassment. These methods are impossible for a teacher to prove so they are easy to deny and very effective. No one can survive the system for very long once a committed superior decides they must go. Many older, more expensive teachers are pushed out this way.
“You ready to go?”
I was suddenly snapped back into the present by my husband’s voice. Our hairdresser had finished his cut and it was time to pay our bill.
“Your hair looks nice,” he said as we walked outside.
“Thanks, so does yours.”
” Who was that man you were talking to in there?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Just some guy they convinced that tenure is bad.”
“Who is they?” he asked.
“Good boy,” I said.
- Missouri Senate OKs Teacher Tenure Legislation Requiring More Work To Earn Tenure (stlouis.cbslocal.com)
- State Senate Filibuster Over Teacher Tenure Bill (stlouis.cbslocal.com)