12 Winters Blog

’Tis the season–to traumatize young teachers

Posted in March 2014, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on March 7, 2014

Illinois has many seasons–bow season, shotgun season … and every March is “traumatizing young teachers” season as school administrators across the state dismiss nontenured teachers, and they’re not even required to give a reason for the dismissal, hence, often times they don’t. Teachers are left devastated, humiliated, and profoundly confused about whether they’ve chosen the right professional path after all.

A few years ago the Illinois legislature, in one of the opening salvos in its campaign to destroy and demoralize educators, expanded the length of time that teachers could be let go without cause to four years, which means that young professionals (or older ones entering the profession later in life) can be dedicated, hard-working teachers who are establishing themselves in their communities and developing collegial relationships for one, two, three and even four years when they’re blindsided by the administrator’s news that they won’t be coming back the following year.

Sometimes, of course, there have been issues raised, and the teacher has not corrected them to the administrator’s satisfaction; and sometimes the school district’s desperate financial situation has led to the dismissal. Too often, though, the young and developing educators are sacked without any warning whatsoever–they’ve fallen prey to the caprices of an administration that has no one to answer to, excerpt perhaps school board members, who tend to know only what administrators tell them since they rarely have direct contact with the teaching staff.

The situation has been exacerbated in the past year by the state’s mandate of a new model for evaluating teachers. It is more complicated and more labor intensive than the tools most district’s had been using. The increased complications and time commitments have not led to a better approach to evaluation, however. They’ve only opened the door for even more nebulous assessments of a teacher’s performance. Teacher evaluation is a rich subject in itself, too rich of a subject to discuss here–but the bottom line is that teaching is far too complex an endeavor to be reasonably evaluated by a single rubric that is used across grade levels, disciplines, and teaching assignments. In fact, it’s insulting to the profession that so many people believe such a model can be devised and successfully implemented. Physicians, attorneys, engineers, business professionals–and politicians!–would never allow themselves to be evaluated the way that a teacher’s worth is determined.

But no matter how simple or how complex the evaluation process is, its usefulness and fairness depend on the sagacity and integrity of the evaluating body. Unfortunately, sagacity and integrity are not prerequisites for becoming an administrator or a school board member. There are good administrators out there, of course, and well-meaning board members; but administrators and board members come in all stripes, just like the human population as a whole. Yet there is no check-and-balance built into the process. Young teachers who are dismissed unfairly, and the professional associations who represent their interests, have no recourse. No recourse at all.

In other words, there is no evaluation of the evaluator, whose sagacity and integrity, apparently, are assumed by the Illinois General Assembly … in all of its sagacity and integrity.

When there is an unfair and unwarranted dismissal, a shockwave goes through the faculty and the student body almost as palpable as an accidental death. Other nontenured teachers become like deer in hunting season and worry that they’ll be next–if not this spring maybe the next, or the next, or the next, or the next. Tenured teachers are angered, saddened and frustrated by the loss of a valuable colleague and trusted friend. It greatly diminishes their respect for their superiors and their good will in working with them. It disrupts students’ focus, and it teaches them a hard lesson about the perils of choosing a career in education. And once a district becomes known as one that mistreats young professionals, word spreads virulently and the best and brightest don’t bother to apply.

Who, in their right mind, would want to work for an administration and board that will dismiss them without reason after a year, or two, or three, or four of hard work and dedication? Who, in their right mind, would chance subjecting their spouse and possibly children to the trauma of a lost job beyond their control?

Young teachers have mainly debt (nowadays from colossal student loans) and very little savings. It’s frightening to be jobless, especially when it’s due to no fault of their own–at least, no fault they’ve been made aware of. Yet teachers must continue to teach for the remainder of the school year, while also looking for new employment. They are often–magnanimously–given the option of resigning instead of being dismissed, but it’s likely a thin disguise that fools no one in their search for another teaching job. They find themselves in very difficult situations when interviewing elsewhere because the question must come up “Why did you leave such-and-such school?” What, then, do they say that won’t compromise either their honesty or their chances of landing another job?

The fact that we as a society allow this devastating unfairness to be visited on our young teachers every spring is just another indication of how little we value education, educators and–for that matter–the children they’ve dedicated themselves to educating.

tedmorrissey.com

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8 Responses

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  1. Janie Saner said, on March 13, 2014 at 9:33 pm

    If they get tenure though, they will have a job forever.

  2. Barbara Pesch said, on March 13, 2014 at 10:46 pm

    Evidently not so anymore. Well done, Dr. Morrissey.

  3. Mrs. P said, on March 13, 2014 at 10:56 pm

    THIS is why I left education and will not return. Young, new, or just non-tenured, you are fair game to the whims and biases of administrators who, regardless of the absence of merit or integrity are supported by the board that hired them in a combined effort to save face. Perfectly stated Ted.

    • Ted Morrissey said, on March 14, 2014 at 6:57 am

      It’s a myth that being a tenured teacher equals a lifetime appointment, like Pope. Reductions in Force for enrollment or financial issues supersede tenure — and thanks to the wonderful Illinois legislature they can also supersede seniority. Beyond that, though, there are mechanisms and procedures in place to improve underperforming teachers and to let them go if they don’t improve — but it requires administrators to provide documentation and to trouble to go through the procedure. Very few bother. What is more, administrators hardly need four years to decide if a teacher should be retained. One knows that by October of their first year — it’s just cruel to have them on board for up to three years before casting them aside without cause, and for up to four years with some sort of cause, no matter how capricious. The way we treat teachers drives far more good teachers from the profession than mythological tenure status keeps bad teachers in it. I’m in the beginning stages of a book that speaks to the two most fundamental causes of the so-called “crisis in education”: administrators and school boards, remnants of an antiquated, sexist and profoundly wrongheaded system. Blaming education’s problems on teachers and their “unions” is a red herring of the first order.

      Thanks for the support, Barb (I’ve been getting a lot of it privately — but the public version is definitely welcome).

      And thanks, Mrs. P. — also well put!

      • Janie Saner said, on March 14, 2014 at 3:13 pm

        I think there are more than 2 fundamental causes of the “crisis in education”. I don’t think administrators and school boards would make my top two. I think your school district has good administrators, several who were former teachers in the district. I agree that Illinois is not properly funding schools, leaving administrators with difficult decisions on budget cuts. I didn’t blame education’s problems on teachers. There are good teachers and poor teachers, but once a teacher attains tenure it is nearly impossible to fire him or her. Here is a link to a study on tenure in Illinois. http://www.thehiddencostoftenure.com

  4. Ted Morrissey said, on March 14, 2014 at 3:43 pm

    First of all, I should be clear that my criticism concerns the system that’s in place and how it’s evolved to where it has — not individual people within that system. Various personality types react in various ways within the system, but it’s the system that needs changing. Too much power rests in too few hands, and all the critique flows in one direction. There are no mechanisms in place to let administrators and board members know where they’re doing well, nor where they’re falling short. Teachers, who are in the trenches, as it were, experience most directly how administrative and board policies and behaviors affect instruction and students — yet teachers have no voice and no authority to effect change. Teacher associations can talk about the contract when it’s coming open, but many important issues are not contractual and therefore are left untouched by the process. Individual teachers who try to effect change place their careers–and their very happiness–in jeopardy (like I’m doing now). Most teachers–perhaps wisely–elect to stay silent rather than risk becoming the targets of administrative or board ire. Even if it’s difficult to fire tenured teachers, it’s not difficult at all to make their lives miserable, which is the oldest trick in the book. And regarding the high price of firing teachers, it should be high, just like it is in most professions, with severance packages and contract buyouts, and the risk of wrongful termination lawsuits. Teaching is so complicated–and the “success” or “failure” of a teacher depends so much on factors beyond his or her control–it would be grossly unfair if termination was easy. Thanks for weighing in, Jane. Educational issues need dialogue, but too often–in fact almost always–teachers are muzzled.

  5. Ted Morrissey said, on March 17, 2014 at 3:35 pm

    I’m happy to acknowledge that even though the educational system may not be perfect, it can still work when individuals are willing to think through a given situation and offer more moderate resolutions. Education isn’t easy. Education administration isn’t easy. And the self-reflection required to alter one’s course requires both courage and character — terrific traits to model for students and faculty alike.

  6. […] been writing about educational issues for the past several months — the unfair termination of young teachers, the inherent flaws of the Danielson Framework, the way the Framework affects teachers, and my […]


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