How teacher tenure works…

I hear a lot of nasty things in the media about bad teachers getting “tenure” and then it’s impossible to get rid of them. I’m not sure anyone has any idea how tenure works in public schools (it’s not professorial tenure in a university). I’m going to endeavor to define what it means in my district.

Teacher tenure is earned after a set period of time, usually four to five years. If a principal fires a tenured teacher, that teacher has the right to have a meeting with the principal and union representation to ask why. Until tenure is earned, the principal can fire an untenured teacher without a reason. Tenure helps preserve the rights of a teacher when a firing occurs.

I have seen both tenured and untenured teachers get fired. Principals can fire whoever they want at any time. Tenure only guarantees the right to discuss one’s firing with the principal. I have seen good untenured teachers be dropped for political reasons. I have seen bad tenured teachers get pink slips too.

There are procedural rules governing what a principal must do if he/she doesn’t approve of a teacher’s job performance. The teacher must be observed (at least twice in my district I believe) and warnings must be given. Those are similar to rules set forth at a corporation where a warning is given in the presence of a representative from human resources and a time limit (usually 30 days) in which improvement must be seen.

At least in my district, “bad” teachers can be fired. It requires a principal to do more than usual: observe a few extra times, give a warning, etc. I’m not a principal but from what I can tell it’s not that hard to fire any teacher but there are steps that I have to be taken in a proper order. If not, then a tenured teacher will be able to fight the firing. Honestly I have not seen a teacher tenured or untenured fight a firing. I mean, why would you want to stay if you were asked to leave?

I believe it improves teacher morale when under-performing teachers are not given “a pass,” but instead are called on to improve by a demanding principal. It makes the school better and improves the learning environment. I also believe tenure as it is defined in my district is a good thing. If a teacher works somewhere for four to five years or more, he/she should not be let go without having an opportunity to discuss it with the principal.

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16 Responses to How teacher tenure works…

  1. Michelle August 1, 2010 at 1:04 pm #

    Sounds pretty fair to me. Thanks, I had no idea how it worked.

  2. Julia August 1, 2010 at 2:04 pm #

    If it only takes 4-5 years, shouldn't it technically be called quinture? 😉 Just sayin'.

    So it seems that realistically you could command a decent amount of respect at your work and have a little sense of security right around the time you would be allowed to rent a minivan for the first time. Not bad! Pretty straightforward and reasonable sounding to me (and yes, not at all like professional tenure in academia, sadly).

  3. Melissa E. August 1, 2010 at 2:23 pm #

    Thank you for informing everyone about how teacher tenure works. I often hear people complain about tenure without really knowing what it is. I'm a teacher, too, and I've seen the issue from the untenured side and the tenured side. I now have one more year to become tenured, and I can't wait.

    What the general public doesn't know is that untenured teachers are often let go for ridiculous reasons, and if tenured teachers could be let go as easily, they would never speak up about issues. I feel that one important job for a teacher is to advocate for the students. But it is often difficult to do that without tenure. For example, I knew in my last district that as an untenured teacher, I really couldn't make constructive criticism, get involved with the union, or point out when something is unfair, discriminatory, or dangerous. Untenured teachers hesitate to point out things like, "This idea has already been tried and didn't work." I have to say that my current job is great at letting staff speak their minds and advocate, but that isn't true of many schools.

    Perhaps the reason so many principals hesitate to get rid of bad teachers is that it's easier to send them to another school. Good principals go through the process and either help bad teachers remediate or get rid of them.

    Thank you for explaining tenure so clearly. 🙂

  4. Anonymous August 1, 2010 at 2:23 pm #

    I wish my district was like yours.

    In mine, it takes 3 years to get tenure. During that time, teachers are observed multiple (3-5) times per year, with feedback from the principal. That is if there are no "issues". If the teacher needs to improve, they are observed and meet with the principal much more frequently. They are often given extended time with mentors (all teachers have a mentor their first year in the district), and given observed and coached by them as well.

    If a principal thinks a teacher might not be offered a contract in the spring (e.g. be fired), they must send a letter to the teacher via personnel by mid-December. If the teacher will, in fact, be terminated, it is done by early April. This allows time for the teacher to improve, although in the cases I have seen, the teacher has usually had more than a year in to show improvement.

    Once a teacher has tenure, the administration needs a very large body of evidence in order to terminate him or her. There is currently a teacher in my school who the administration has tried to fire. She got the union involved (We have a very weak union, as we are in a right to work state.) to save her job the first time. The second principal de-staffed her when our enrollment dropped, so she transferred to another school in the district (over 50k students) to be their problem. She transferred back when our enrollment went up a couple years later. The 3rd principal is trying to make her want to leave. He calls her in for every minor infraction, things that the rest of us do without a problem, but combined with her dismal teaching, contribute to a problem.

    I don't know if the principals in our district are told not to fire tenured teachers, or if ours is just gathering a pile of evidence first. In the end, it makes our school weaker to not be able to get rid of such teachers.

  5. Catherine August 1, 2010 at 5:00 pm #

    I agree with what you said about it lowering morale. I'm working as a teachers' aide in a middle school, I've been looking for a full time teaching job for two years (the economy…awful).
    I work with a couple of teachers who are downright…wicked. They are mean, racist, they take advantage of the system, and are so lazy. It hurts me to see them given a free pass when I know there are so many other teachers out there that would put their whole heart into the job.

  6. Anonymous August 2, 2010 at 12:19 am #

    What kills me is that I opted to take a few years off after my daughter came home (she was adopted and it's advised that the longer you stay home initially, the stronger the bond will be). I took a few years off (in addition to substituting the year prior to that). And now, I can't get a teaching job. No new references, old ones aren't new enough and the folks they're from no longer work at my last placement, so they can't be contacted.

    I graduated the top of my class, as in first. I'm an excellent teacher, and I can't get hired to save my life. I currently work as a temp in an admin position. I feel like I'm being punished for trying to be a good mom.

    And then I think about all the teachers I've worked with over the years and how much they hated teaching, and yet they have jobs, and are doing the kids an injustice by being in those jobs. Some are tenured, some aren't.

    I'm looking at moving to WA (because my family is moving there) and I wonder if it's even worth jumping through the hoops to switch my credential from one state to another. I'm guessing the job market there isn't any better than it is here. Districts here are letting go of teachers by the dozen because of the deplorable budget.

    I read that post about chicken being rejected by KFC and being then sent to schools and I can't help but equate that to the teachers who don't want to teach. Ha. lol

    I thoroughly enjoy your blog and applaud you for bringing to light what so many of us have witnessed and felt powerless to do anything about. I once sent my entire 18 hot lunchers' lunches back because they were served up burnt pizza. Pizza's bad enough (and this stuff was REALLY bad…yours looks decent), but to have it burnt black? Ick. The scariest stuff was the teriyaki beef nugget things. No idea if they actually had any beef in them, but they reminded me of dog treats. What made me laugh…they served the kids garbage, but inside the kitchen, there was a buffet-style salad bar for the teachers/adult staff that was not made available to the kids. Real vegetables, shocking!

  7. jmiele3 August 2, 2010 at 10:07 am #

    I think a lot of the noise over tenure comes from people thinking that tenure in a public school is the same thing as tenure in a University. The whole issue is now so political that the general public does not want to hear about, nor understand, the difference.

  8. Anonymous August 2, 2010 at 11:56 am #

    interesting post, but I don't really see what it has to do with kids school lunches?!

  9. Julia August 2, 2010 at 12:39 pm #

    A couple people have mentioned that a school teacher's tenure is not like a university professor's tenure. I can say this is true based on Mrs. Q's explanation and from my own experience, but I am curious to hear what people think university tenure means? It's always nice to hear what people from the outside think!

  10. becboo84 August 2, 2010 at 4:52 pm #

    In my district it only takes 2 years to get tenure, and it is extremely difficult to get rid of bad tenured teachers. I'm not sure if this is because of the strength of the union or just general uneasiness from the administration, but it's truly a shame.

  11. Renee August 2, 2010 at 6:44 pm #

    The intent of tenure at a research university is for faculty to feel secure even if their initial research ideas don't work out. No one would be doing any "pure" science (as opposed to applied science) research if they had to worry that negative results could mean the loss of their job. Researchers need the freedom to try and fail if they are to come up with truly innovative results.

    I teach at a 2-year college, and we have a tenure system but it is not handled the same, or for the same reason. Tenure is based on your teaching skills, but there is no doubt that bad teachers get through the process. Tenured teachers can be let go through the RIFing process (Reduction in Force) if enrollments go down, but non-tenured faculty would be let go first.

  12. JGold August 2, 2010 at 9:46 pm #

    Teacher tenure in Illinois sounds reasonable, but those laws vary considerably from state to state. Take New York for example. New York is a very litigious and highly regulated state. The teacher's union here is the strongest and most powerful union in the state, and they contribute the most money to state legislators. This has resulted in an array of laws protecting teachers, which might lead to a slanted media view on tenure generally. Setting aside the issues of collective bargaining, pay, and seniority, let me explain the tenure and discipline rules.

    A teacher is hired first as a probationary employee. The term of probation is usually three years, but can be reduced down to two in certain circumstances (i.e., if you had tenure in another district and left voluntarily, or if you were a regular substitute just prior). Probationary teachers are evaluated during that time (as worked out in a collective bargaining agreement), and then the Superintendent either recommends them for tenure to the Board, or not. If recommended, the Board votes to grant tenure, or not.

    Probationary teachers can be disciplined or fired for any reason during the probationary term. In order to fire them, the Superintendent recommends dismissal to the Board, which then approves the dismissal, or not, at a Board meeting. There is no hearing, but notice must be given 30 days prior to the Board meeting. The teacher can request the reasons for dismissal, and can file a written response. If the Board votes to dismiss, there must be a 30-day notice of termination. If the employee feels the reasons for termination are likely to be stigmatizing, the employee may ask for a "name-clearing hearing." If the district is going to deny tenure at the end of the probationary term (not just dismiss during the term), there must be 60 days notice to the teacher. The teacher can request the reasons for denial, and can submit a written response.

    If the district fails to either grant tenure or dismiss at the end of the probationary term, and the teacher keeps working (say due to a mistake in counting the probationary period), then the teacher GETS TENURE AUTOMATICALLY.

    In order to terminate, or discipline in any way, a Tenured teacher, the district must follow the rules outlined in section 3020-a of the state Education Law. This is called a "3020-a hearing" for short. This is for ANYTHING disciplinary in nature, even a reprimand, with the exception of a counseling letter critical of the teacher's performance.

    The 3020-a process is even more intricate than that for probationary employees. It includes notices, time limitations, hearing officers, pre-hearing conference, witnesses, cross-examination, evidence, and appeals. It is practically a court case. And sometimes the teacher is acquitted.

    3020-a hearings, on average, take 14 months to conduct, and cost the district $200,000. This is largely from the teacher's salary during the 14 months of the hearing, and the cost of the substitute hired to teach in his/her place. The upshot is that some districts keep the bad teachers because it's too expensive and cumbersome to go through the 3020-a process.

    Separately, a district can initiate a "Part 83" investigation for the state Education Department to revoke certification based on lack of good moral character.

    I, an "at-will" professional employee at a private non-profit, can be fired for any reason, or no reason, and have absolutely no job protection. Most professional jobs are like that. Why should teaching be any different? The union rules in this state seem more suited to the manufacturing field, promote an adversarial relationship, and lead to the media’s negative impression.

  13. Renee August 3, 2010 at 2:36 am #

    I think one reason that teachers deserve more than an "at will" firing, as mentioned by JGold, is that it is much harder to truly evaluate a teacher's performance.

    Sure, there are some truly terrible teachers where it is easy to point out the problems. But how do you separate the teacher's performance from the student's performance? If you teach in a wealthy district, where all the kids get enrichment during the summer from parents/camps/vacations then it's easy to get good test scores and graduation rates. However, even a really good teacher can't perform miracles –in a district where the kids have problems at home and/or attendance is spotty, even a really good teacher might not have much of an impact. The corporate model can not possibly take all the complexities of teaching and learning into account, and that is why the corporate model is simply not a good fit when it comes to the teaching profession.

  14. A. B. England August 3, 2010 at 1:50 pm #

    Wow, I think I like the definition better in your state. Here it's mostly knowing you won't be automatically pink slipped at the end of the year because the legislature is holding the education budget hostage to get overtime pay. When the schools don't know how many teaching units they will have the next year, they pink-slip every nontenured teacher in their employ. They'll rehire once they know how many units they have, usually two or three weeks before the start of school if they're lucky, but a lot of teachers usually have a position in another system by then. So, teachers can spend a decade or more bouncing from one system to another, never gaining tenure because the year count starts over every time you change systems.

  15. Claire White August 8, 2010 at 2:35 pm #

    I don't think it's fair to talk about tenure in Illinois and equate it to schools across the country. I have worked in schools in two different states and in neither of them was it that "easy" to fire someone who is tenured. In one of those states it took two appointed committees and at least one charge of child endangerment, molestation, or improper attendance keeping to fire someone with tenure. Otherwise, they just got shifted around the district. Now, this is an extreme state, but it exists in varying degrees around the country. Also, right-to-work states in general have very different tenure granting systems than non right-to-work states.

  16. Simon S. November 8, 2012 at 1:42 am #

    It isn’t the right of government employees to demand special privileges that taxpayers themselves do not receive. If private sector employees can be fired without reason or cause, then what makes government employees so special?

    The funny thing is that you yourself bring the major pitfall for such a ludicrous idea of tenure. Bad teachers are simply passed along rather than fired. Even worse, you allude to how bad principals simply maintain bad teachers, possibly alluding to how underperforming schools rarely ever improve!

    My point is that our children are the top priority, not teachers. And tenure does not help our kids, and that is a FACT.

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