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The Myth of Tenure and the Terrible Teacher



I've always thought of tenure as protection for good teachers faced with the impossible task of trying to please all of their bosses -- students, parents, teachers, administrators, taxpayers -- all of the time. But does that protection come at the cost of keeping bad teachers in the classroom? Or is something -- or someone -- else to blame?

This week, I set out to write a column about tenure. Throughout the years, Ive heard almost as many complaints about tenure as Ive heard about teachers short hours and long vacations. Most of the griping is along the lines of, "You can't fire bad teachers because they have tenure."

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Linda Starr, a former teacher and the mother of four children, has been an education writer for nearly two decades. Starr is the curriculum and technology editor for Education World.

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I wanted to know whether the public perception was true, so I took an informal poll among the teachers I know. First I asked, Is it possible to fire a bad teacher who has tenure? The answer was a rousing and unanimous Yes! Its harder, I was told, to fire a tenured teacher than a non-tenured teacher, but it certainly is possible. Next, I asked, Is the real reason that bad teachers remain in the classroom the unwillingness of administrators to take on the admittedly arduous and publicly risky task of documenting and acting upon a teacher's failure? The response again was -- a slightly more guarded -- Yes! But it was not quite unanimous.

One of the educators I polled, a teacher with more than 30 years experience in a tough urban school district, the kind of district obliquely identified in recent press reports as hotbeds of uncertified -- and by inference, low quality -- teachers, disagreed. He greeted my question with a long moment of slightly exasperated silence.

"First of all," my friend finally said, "contrary to popular opinion, there are very few hopelessly 'bad' tenured teachers in our classrooms. Most bad teachers don't remain in the classroom long enough to become tenured; they move on to other fields -- or to other areas of education -- where they can be successful. There are unskilled teachers, of course. There are tired teachers; there are inexperienced teachers; there are veteran teachers overwhelmed by the new challenges presented by today's students. But there are very few truly 'bad' teachers."

"But isn't it true," I persisted, "that even a few bad teachers give all teachers a bad name? And isnt it true that the real problem with getting rid of those bad teachers is not the umbrella of tenure, but the unwillingness of administrators to take the steps necessary to get rid of them?"

"The real problem," my friend replied with slightly more exasperation, "is not a failure to take the steps necessary to get rid of bad teachers; it's a failure to reach out to help and support struggling teachers. If a teacher has remained in the classroom long enough to be granted tenure, the chances are that that teacher wants to teach, and wants to teach successfully. Shouldn't our first consideration be, not to document the teacher's failures, but to offer that teacher the tools and training he or she needs to succeed?"

A few bad teachers do give all teachers a bad name, he continued. And no one wants to get rid of bad teachers more than good teachers and good administrators. What too many of us fail to recognize, however, is that the way to get rid of bad teachers is not to fire them. Its to help them become good teachers.

Clearly, I had approached the issue from the wrong angle. I set out to write a column on tenure. I wanted to learn whether tenure or administrative failure was to blame for keeping bad teachers in the classroom. I ended up learning a more important lesson instead -- one that all educators can benefit from. I learned that when good teachers see bad teachers and fail to extend a helping hand, they only have themselves to blame.