Yesterday, Twitter blew up with responses to Whoopi Goldberg and The View having one more uninformed discussion of tenure (and, really, we need to talk about why, from Louis CK to Colbert to Goldberg, education discussions keep being driven by the work of comedians).
"#WithoutTenure I can be fired for...." was the Tweet template of the day, and even though I rode that bus for a bit, it occurs to me this morning that it misses the point.
It's true that in the absence of tenure, teachers can (and are) fired for all manner of ridiculous things. That's unjust and unfair. As some folks never tire of pointing out, that kind of injustice is endemic in many jobs (Why people would think that the response to injustice is to demand more injustice for more people is a whole conversation of its own). That doesn't change a thing. Firing a teacher for standing up for a student or attending the wrong church or being too far up the pay scale -- those would all be injustices. But as bad as that would be, it's not the feature of a tenureless world that would most damage education.
It's not the firing. It's the threat of firing.
Firing ends a teacher's career. The threat of firing allows other people to control every day of that teacher's career.
The threat of firing is the great "Do this or else..." It takes all the powerful people a teacher must deal with and arms each one with a nuclear device.
Give my child the lead in the school play, or else. Stop assigning homework to those kids, or else. Implement these bad practices, or else. Keep quiet about how we are going to spend the taxpayers' money, or else. Forget about the bullying you saw, or else. Don't speak up about administration conduct, or else. Teach these materials even though you know they're wrong, or else. Stop advocating for your students, or else.
Firing simply stops a teacher from doing her job.
The threat of firing coerces her into doing the job poorly.
The lack of tenure, of due process, of any requirement that a school district only fire teachers for some actual legitimate reason -- it interferes with teachers' ability to do the job they were hired to do. It forces teachers to work under a chilling cloud where their best professional judgment, their desire to advocate for and help students, their ability to speak out and stand up are all smothered by people with the power to say, "Do as I tell you, or else."
Civilians need to understand -- the biggest problem with the destruction of tenure is not that a handful of teachers will lose their jobs, but that entire buildings full of teachers will lose the freedom to do their jobs well.
We spent a lot of time in this country straightening out malpractice law issues, because we recognized that a doctor can't do his job well if his one concern is not getting sued into oblivion for a mistake. We created Good Samaritan laws because we don't want someone who could help in an emergency stand back and let The Worst happen because he doesn't want to get in trouble.
As a country, we understand that certain kinds of jobs can't be done well unless we give the people who do those jobs the protections they need in order to do their jobs without fear of being ruined for using their best professional judgment. Not all jobs have those protections, because not all workers face those issues.
Teachers, who answer to a hundred different bosses, need their own special set of protections. Not to help them keep the job, but to help them do it. The public needs the assurance that teachers will not be protected from the consequences of incompetence (and administrators really need to step up -- behind every teacher who shouldn't have a job are administrators who aren't doing theirs). But the public also needs the assurance that some administrator or school board member or powerful citizen will not interfere with the work the public hired the teacher to do.
Tenure is that assurance. Without tenure, every teacher is the pawn and puppet of whoever happens to be the most powerful person in the building today. Without tenure, anybody can push his way into a classroom and declare, "You're going to do things my way, or else."
Tenure is not a crown and scepter for every teacher, to make them powerful and untouchable. Tenure is a bodyguard who stands at the classroom door and says, "You go ahead and teach, buddy. I'll make sure nobody interrupts just to mess with you." Taxpayers are paying us for our best professional judgment; the least they deserve is a system that allows us to give them what they're paying us for.
Cross-posted from Curmudgucation.