LOS ANGELES TIMES CARTOON: The War on Teacher Tenure

Become a California Teacher

This week:

My mother retired recently from teaching under pretty much the best possible working conditions one could expect in an American high school: she taught high school French in an Ohio suburb whose demographics are at least 90% white, ranging from middle to upper-middle class. By the end of her career, she was relatively decently paid. Her students weren’t hobbled by poverty or challenged due to not having mastered English. Since French was an elective, her kids pretty much wanted to be there (though getting cut due to low enrollment was a worry).

Still, it was a tough job. Sure, class is 8 to 3 and she got those long summer vacations. But I remember watching her get up at 5:45 so she could prepare for class during the calm before the morning bell. She rarely got home before 5 — there’s always some meeting to attend — and then she had to grade papers and prepare the next day’s classes. Teaching is a performance. You’ve got roughly six hours to fill, keeping the kids entertained and engaged enough to get them to pay attention to what they need to learn. It’s exhausting, especially when you were up until 11 the night before correcting tests and averaging grades.

The summers were nice, but my mom spent the last half of June and the better part of July crashed out, recuperating. As for the last half, it wasn’t like we could afford to go on any trips. Not on a crummy teacher’s salary. For the first few decades of a teacher’s career, the pay is crap.

Raises don’t keep up with inflation. Parents constantly complain, often without cause. Administrators constantly lard on more responsibility, more paperwork, more rules, always more stuff to do on the same crummy salary. Moreover, budgets are always being cut. Even in lily-white districts like my mom’s, teachers find themselves hitting the office supply store to buy stuff for their students — out of that crummy paycheck.

During the last few decades, particularly since Reagan, the Right has waged war on teachers and their unions. From No Child Left Behind to the sneakily anti-unon, anti-professionalization outfit Teach for America to the Common Core, conservatives are holding teachers accountable for their kids’ academic performance. Sometimes it’s fair. Sometimes it’s not. Even the smartest and hardest-working teacher is going to have trouble getting good state test scores out of a classroom full of kids brutalized by abuse at home, poverty, crime and neglect.

The latest skirmish in the edu-culture war is over tenure, and it’s unfolding this week in Los Angeles County Superior Court. Superintendent John Deasy of the Los Angeles Unified School District is supporting a lawsuit, backed by a right-wing front group called Students Matter, that would eliminate teacher tenure as we know it in California. Tenure, say nine students recruited as plaintiffs, makes it too hard to fire bad teachers.

Not so fast, counter the unions. “Tenure is an amenity, just like salary and vacation, that allows districts to recruit and retain teachers despite harder working conditions, pay that hasn’t kept pace and larger class sizes,” James Finberg, a union lawyer, told the court. It also protects workers/teachers from being fired over their political beliefs, gender and religion — or just being too “mouthy,” i.e., speaking out against budget cuts.

As a parent, it’s easy to see why it would be good to make it easier to fire bad teachers. As the son of a hard-working teacher, it’s easier to see why teachers would need tenure. As in any other workplace, which teachers are judged “good” or “bad” falls to the boss — in this case, usually the school principal — who may or may not render a fair judgment free of personal bias based on personality or philosophy. Accusations of wrongdoing or incompetence levied by parents may or may not be fair.

Until my mom got tenure, she was afraid of disciplining students. She didn’t dare be active in her union. She didn’t want to reveal, in a Republican town, that she was a Democrat. Tenure didn’t make her lazy after she got it, but it did make her more relaxed, less terrified of her boss. Which made her a better, wiser, smarter teacher.

Tenure doesn’t prevent districts from firing teachers. It makes it hard. (Not impossible: two percent of teachers get fired for poor performance annually.) Which, frankly, is something that every worker who has ever experienced an unfair review should be able to empathize with. If anything, the only thing wrong with tenure is that only teachers can get it.

16 thoughts on “LOS ANGELES TIMES CARTOON: The War on Teacher Tenure

  1. Sorry, it keeps coming back to the standard refrain, which no less a genius than Ann Landers (or was it Dear Abby? Well, it was one of those meddling biddies) stated concisely decades ago: No one can take advantage of you without your permission.

    If you’re an adjunct, working for shit. Or a teacher, buying school supplies while you eat two meals a day (and one of those is an open-faced bread sandwich), then you’re being taken advantage of. “Do what you love and the money will follow?” Fuck that.

    If there’s no money, I’m not doing it as a profession; it’s a hobby.

  2. @ Ted:
    Glad to see that suicide wasn’t in the last panel. 😀
    As a former teacher and active NEA delegate, I couldn’t agree more with your comments. I caught flack from parents and from administrators because they didn’t agree with my methodology. For the most part, my students loved the way I taught German (eclectic, drawing from the K-6 curriculum of the classroom teachers). One mother in particular thought I was not fair to her daughter, so I advised her to transfer the girl from German to French, where she might be better suited. It wasn’t long before she was asking me to take the girl back into my German classroom. I told her that I would agree only under the condition that she (the mother) no longer interfere with my instructional methods nor with my interaction with her daughter. Things worked out.

  3. @CrazyH ( Can’t directly reply to your on-target reply on SS)

    So then, why do we let these ignorant greedy murderous assholes run things?

    (I mean, except for the fact that they have all the firepower, can twist your balls until you consent, and enough people delusionally think these assholes are doing God’s work, and no one could possibly do better than this and so become appeasers.)

    Huh? Why do you think? I’m puzzled.

    • Inertia, antipathy, and the 50% of the electorate which are brainwashed dittoheads who vote for whatever the Koch brothers tell them to. Add in the 40% well-meaning fools who allowed themselves to be scared out of their civil rights by The War on TerraTM and you have an insurmountable obstacle.

      Jefferson was right, in order for a democracy to work, you need a well-informed populace. We’ve got a carefully-misinformed populace.

      What now? Pop a beer, sit back & watch the fireworks.

      • “Pop a beer, sit back & watch the fireworks.”
        Correction: “… watch the latest reality show (or sitcom).” 😀

  4. Lucky for your mother that she didn’t work in Illinois. The state government spent the teacher’s pension contributions as current revenue instead of funding the pensions, as the teachers had every right to believe they would.

    Somebody has to pay for this criminal mismanagement, right? So on to Pension Reform.

    The state is about $100 billion short, so instead of letting the state default, the wise guys in gumint decided it would be preferable to default on the teachers pensions. On to the courts.

  5. “Students Matter” WTF??

    “Clear Skies”
    “Healthy forests”
    “Operation Iraqi Freedom”
    “Right to work”
    “Friends of … ”

    GOPranos shouldn’t be allowed to name their own front groups / causes / initiatives. You’d think it’d just confuse the party faithful. “Healthy Forests? I don’t give no fuck about no healthy forests….”

    Today’s grade school students will be your doctors tomorrow, they’ll design the bridge you’re driving across and the plane you’re flying in. Maybe it’d be a good thing if they done learnt to think gooder.

  6. My own father was probably one of the laziest teachers to ever enter a classroom. I never saw him bring home work from school, and he used to brag about how he would never voluntarily spend one minute longer than necessary on school work., and about how much he was making on a per-hour basis. That said, he probably wasn’t necessarily a bad teacher so much as a lazy opportunist who was out to get the most in exchange for the least amount of effort. He was a teacher in California for about 27 years.
    My brother’s ex-wife was a teacher in California for 40 years, and a union rep in her district. She once spoke about how the district would try to hire new teachers and it would take something away from the existing union member teachers (slightly reduced benefits) so the union insisted, and the district was forced to fire the new teachers. She also receives a pension equivalent to what a retired mid-level executive would make. These pensions are not available to private sector workers, unless they were executives making over 250-300K a year prior to retirement.
    Anybody who really wants to know about education in the US should read, “The Underground History of American Education” by John Taylor Gatto. Gatto once said that schools were “a jobs project for teachers in a frightening labor market”.
    I’m not saying teachers are all bad, and the administration in many districts is really the problem anyway, not so much the teachers. School is largely obedience training and expectations management anyway. K-12 is in some ways a 13 year prison sentence.

  7. Comrade Rall, never having been a teacher, doesn’t understand tenure, even though it was his own mother.

    Tenure means a tenured teacher can only be fired for cause. The school must prove malfeasance, or they cannot fire the teacher.

    Cartoonists, like nontenured teachers, can be fired for any reason or for no reason.

    Tenure is an anomaly in American employment: an employee who can only be dismissed if the employer can prove just cause. This is European. It’s unAmerican. The American way is that all employees can be fired for any reason or for no reason if their employers wish to dismiss them.

    And now there is a strong surge to change the employment of teachers back to the usual American Way.

    • Explain this to the adjuncts who never make more than a poverty wage because they are not on a tenure track.

      All this while tuition goes through the roof.

      • Glenn – having been an adjunct and played like a yo-yo by administration, I grok your comment. You might enjoy a neologism I created to express my understanding of what that type of work represents:

        adjunctivitis: (n.) a spreading phenomenon among modern institutions of higher learning that sees well paid, tenured assistant and full professors replaced by independently contracted lecturers who receive low pay, zero benefits, and no job security.

      • gofomo & Glenn

        I agree with both your comments, as well as with Ted’s article.

        That said, I had one not-a-real-professor in college who actually had a job as an engineer in the real world. This guy gave me more real-world applicable knowledge than every tenured professor I had combined.

        We have multi-faceted problems in our educational system. Part of the problem darn well is how we treat our teachers / professors / adjuncts, etc. Another big piece is the decreasing budget / increasing class size problem.

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