Occam's Razor and My Tenure
It always seemed strange to me that one could be granted tenure after only three years of teaching. As we all know, most teachers are still in the process of learning and establishing themselves as professionals in the midst of their third year. So, to give someone tenure before this third year has even finished always seemed odd.
Nonetheless, in a system that does little to recognize performance otherwise, tenure represented a rare milestone of merit, and I wanted it when I was eligible. I was disappointed then when my principal informed me last year that my probation would be extended. She felt I had room to grow with regard to modeling in my reader's workshop. I accepted this, and when I later heard that, per our superintendent's directions, tenure was especially difficult to earn for teachers who were new to a school, as I was, I took some solace in the possibility that it wasn't entirely personal.
Additionally, at a panel on value-added data run by Educators 4 Excellence in November, Sandra Tacina, Director of Talent Analytics for the DOE, informed the audience that in the previous year, teachers who scored lower than 50 percent on their Teacher Data Reports were red-flagged in tenure decisions. I wonder if she realized that this applied to at least one member of the audience. Once again, I took this as a sign that my principal's decision was partly beyond my control, and perhaps beyond hers as well. I took this as a sign that with the right amount of improvement, I would secure tenure this year.
It was a bumpy road though. I could sense from the tone of observations and informal conversations with my administrators that my confidence was misplaced. Before we even reached winter break, I had a strong suspicion I would not be getting tenure this year either.
As spring rolled around, all teachers up for tenure in my building were asked to submit portfolios for tenure.I included data comparing my 2009-2010 students' fall ELA and math simulation scores with their actual state scores. The numbers showed real growth in a class that showed 15 students were performing at a level 1 in the fall. The majority of these students were English Language Learners and four of my students required special education services. These students' growth was supposed to be accorded extra consideration according to the rubric (created by Charlotte Danielson) that I was given to assist with my portfolio.
In addition to student growth data, I submitted evidence of collaboration with my co-workers, parent communication, artifacts from my work on the school's data inquiry team, and print-outs of the six DonorsChoose projects I'd had funded in the past year. Having assembled this portfolio, I felt a renewed sense of accomplishment and hope that I might achieve tenure.
I was frustrated then when my principal and assistant principal informed me about a month later that once again I would have my probation extended. However, I wasn't surprised.
For a while I looked for something to blame it on, other than myself. I hadn't taken criticism well in a meeting late the previous year. Had I poisoned my relationship with my principal? Was something written on my blog misconstrued as critical or unprofessional? Was I still red-flagged by the DOE? I thought and I thought, until I came to an important realization: I wasn't ready for tenure.
While I know I made significant improvement in certain areas of my practice, and took some exciting risks this year as a teacher, I knew that I still had room to grow. My principal told me she saw a "disconnect" between what I understood and how I put it into practice in the classroom. Swallowing my pride for a second, I could see it was true. A critical step between the planning of my lessons and their instruction was missing, and as a result, lessons sometimes lost their way.
I'm proud of what I've accomplished in the past four years. I know I've improved a lot as a teacher and that I've learned to create a classroom community where my students feel safe and excited about learning. I also know that in one key area — the progress of my students — I must improve.
This is also part of what it means to be a professional. One of my close friends thought he was going to get a promotion and a bonus, but his supervisor disagreed. In practically every profession, people are subject to the judgments of their supervisors before they are considered for advancement. Sometimes they disagree with these assessments. Why should tenure be different?
I've spoken and written a lot about holding myself to a higher standard. My principal was doing the same, and it's one of the reasons I respect her. Had I stayed at my previous school, I have little doubt I would have received tenure, because many principals are willing to rubber stamp their teachers for time served.
I know that in some schools principals didn't give tenure to anyone, sometimes without even conducting observations. This is just as wrong as those principals who provide tenure without any consideration to performance. But, my principal gave tenure to some teachers this year, and extended probation for others.
I could search for some ulterior motive, or I could accept the most simple explanation as true. My principal doesn't believe I'm ready for tenure, and if I'm honest with myself, I have to agree.
You should be happy that your administrators did not put letters to your file and constantly harass you to the point where it made it difficult for you to teach. Unfortunately there are many pedagogues all over the city who have been emotionally abused, harassed and discontinued like toilet paper.
Then the teacher wonders, "What have I done? How did I get here? What did I do that was so wrong?" (most of the time the letters to file on on ridiculous claims).
These reasons are why 'tenure' and 'due process' are important for teachers in school systems.
The intention of this blog post was not to complain. I don't feel mistreated or maligned by my administration. The purpose of this post was twofold:
1. To clear up questions about my tenure status posed by GS commenters. Since I have shared my opinions on tenure policy, and since tenure decisions have entered into the news recently, it seemed necessary to clarify my own status as a probationary teacher.
2. I also shared this experience with the hopes of "putting my money where my mouth is". That is, if I believe that standards for tenure should be higher, I needed to look at how to improve my own practice rather than find excuses.
As for the scenario you've described, which is unfortunately not just a hypothetical, but a reality for many teachers, it doesn't really relate to my personal experience but it does raise two important points.
One, what are we doing to ensure that principals are held to a high standard and that they are practicing fairness in personnel decisions. In my opinion, the DOE should be launching investigations into schools where principals denied all their teachers tenure without providing any evidence. By turning the blind eye to these principals, the DOE does a disservice to the students in these schools as hurtful as, or more so, than leaving ineffective teachers in the classroom.
The other point raised by your question, is whether a tenure system which theoretically is only meant to provide "due process" is working that way in practice. I would argue that the way the system works in reality might actually be incentivizing some principals to use harassment as tools to push teachers out, because they see it as easier and more effective than going through the steps required by the contract. In practice, tenure isn't just providing "due process" for teachers, it's also protecting the lowest common denominator within our profession.
There is a teacher at my school who is known for how terrible she is. The principal extended her probation and even had another teacher assist her. They gave her tenure. The same happened to a bilingual teacher who has a wonderful rep with her colleagues. But then one day the AP went to model and teah her students and she realized the problem wasn't the teacher. The AP had underestimated the students' particular needs. So, if you ask me, the greater problem that needs to be addressed is the inconsistency and often inexperience as teachers of the administrators. That bilingual teacher finally got the S she deserved after that.
I mean, if you ask me, it's a real problem that your administrators left you so clueless about not getting tenure and never provided avenues to address and help you correct your weaknesses, which also happens in other professions. (I'm a teaching fellow, too, with 8 years experience in print and tv journalism)