Editor’s Note: For an alternative viewpoint, please see CounterPoint: Teacher Tenure Does More Harm Than Good.
The Red for Ed movement has prompted educators to rise up and speak out for fair wages and fair school funding from West Virginia to Arizona, and now, across the country.
After enduring decades of resource-starved classrooms and falling wages, educators are saying enough is enough. They are marching and running for political office for the sake of their schools, colleagues, communities and — most important — for their students.
Most Americans — across political and ideological lines — are supporting this movement. They have stood with educators and thanked them for leading it.
However, some have tried to silence educators by threatening their jobs if they speak out. Some state legislators are even threatening to revoke educators’ licenses or hit them with criminal sanctions if they participate. These opponents just don’t get it: Education isn’t simply a job for most of us; it is our calling. And with that calling comes the obligation to be champions for students, public schools and our professions.
Teacher job protections — commonly called tenure — play a critical role in ensuring that when we fulfill our role as advocates and leaders, we cannot be pushed out of our jobs.
Look at the news, and you’ll see that educators are speaking out for many reasons. They are speaking out because they can’t keep working second and third jobs to make up for paychecks that don’t pay the bills. They’re speaking up because they can’t inspire students to love learning when they are forced to teach to a standardized test. They can’t cultivate tomorrow’s thinkers, leaders and artists when schools aren’t providing basic supplies necessary to excite students’ creativity. They can’t create the learning environments students deserve with 25-year-old textbooks, 30-plus students to a class, and dilapidated buildings that lack heat, air conditioning and clean air, let alone modern technology.
Illinois adopted one of the earliest tenure laws in 1917, and it won’t surprise you that the purpose was to protect teachers who were fired for protesting deep education cuts and unfair wages. It is no coincidence that today, many who underfund schools and undervalue educators — those who have caused the very circumstances educators are protesting — are also misinforming the public about tenure.
But the facts about tenure are simple. Tenure protections — the scope of which vary — simply provide protection and a process for ensuring that good teachers are not fired for bad reasons. Unfortunately, there are many examples of this.
There are cases in which teachers without tenure have faced termination for: reporting misuse of funding that was directed toward a reading program, but used for something else; complaining about a dirty classroom that lacked books and other necessary materials; writing a letter to the Department of Education about the school’s failure to provide legally required services to special education students and English-language learners; alerting authorities to sexual assaults that students reported to the teacher; and refusing to falsify test scores in order to demonstrate state-mandated “progress.”
Thankfully, teachers with tenure have fought off unjust discipline or termination. One of these was an award-winning science teacher who received multiple “Teacher of the Year” awards. Her school district tried to dismiss her when parents complained after she reprimanded their children for skipping class to smoke marijuana. Another educator who fought back and won was a math teacher who protested eliminating a math tutoring program. Other examples are a teacher who advocated to make sure her students with disabilities received all the services and accommodations they deserved, and a teacher who stood up for Muslim students in fear for their safety after 9/11.
Teachers are able to advocate for their students because they know that tenure will protect them. I think of the teacher in rural Appalachia who welcomes and embraces his LGBTQ students notwithstanding community pressure; the teacher who fights racially discriminatory discipline policies in her school district; and the award-winning teacher who uses creative curriculum, despite administrative pushback, to reach her marginalized students. Many of these students, inspired by her example, have gone on to become the first in their families to attend college.
At the end of the day, tenure protections should be preserved because they are good for our students and our communities. Now that many states are repealing or limiting tenure, it is critical that we renew our commitment to it. We need to recognize that just as we ask our teachers to have our students’ backs, we must have theirs.
If we respect educators as trusted professionals with the expertise to ensure student success, we must make it safe for them to be our students’ most outspoken advocates.