Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Scapegoats and Saviors II

About a year ago, my friend Jason amused himself by starting or ending sentences with the phrase “in THIS economy.”

He'd say things like “man, it is hot today... in THIS economy.” Or, “in THIS economy, we should go to the movies.” Or, “this burger is really good... in THIS economy.”

Jason got a kick out of the fact that everywhere in the media, seemingly, everyone was talking about the ECONOMY. And Jason was spot on: people WERE freaking out. Everything seemed to be about THIS economy. The housing bubble was bursting. The Dow was tanking; unemployment was rising. Pensions were disappearing and factories were continuing to close. Healthcare costs skyrocketing. And, as some theorize, Obama, our first black president, was elected because of the desperation of THIS economy.

Nothing could be-- or can be, because we're still there-- seen outside the lens of money. Financial security is the panacea to all that ails us.

Enter teachers: summers off, long holidays, work only until 3pm. With fat pensions and solid healthcare benefits. All a teacher has to do is get through the first couple of years and then they have guaranteed jobs forever. With constant raises. Those jerks.

People hate a lot of things about teachers. But they loathe 'tenure' in education.

Some have forgotten why tenure has always been so important. It's quite simple: tenure allows professionals the right to be unpopular. In an industry where most of the 'product' and 'returns' come years (sometimes decades) after the work is completed, tenure has protected fantastic instructors from the caprice of administrators and parents.

Teachers are like umpires or cops: an essential part of the job is telling people things they don't want to hear. Tenure has allowed transformative teachers the ability to lead the unwilling and unmotivated to consider new ideas. To break generational chains of ignorance. To encourage courage.

My friend Nancy puts it most succinctly. Tenure gives teachers permission to be honest.

But I have a brief announcement:
tenure... is... dead.

Or, at least, is on it's last legs. About to bite the bullet. Buy the farm. Check out. Croak.

And, no, not because of 'No Child Left Behind' or 'Race To The Top' or any governmental edict (although I continue to research the RTTP national standards and I'll finish the article sometime soon! I hope). Obama's initiative might expedite tenure's demise, but the government won't be brandishing the executioner's axe.

Tenure will die because, in THIS economy, people are scared. And people are mad.

Some teachers are to blame for the bad rep of tenure. Who didn't have at least one obscenely horrible teacher? I had a half dozen freak shows in front of me as a student. Drunks, molesters, abusers, dimwits, anti-intellectuals... and that's just grade school. Ok, AND high school. I wish I were joking. You've probably got horrible stories, too. And I can practically guarantee that the worst teachers any of us ever had were tenured. They were protected while they made a sham of the profession.

And we return to our jokes about teachers.
What do you call a welfare recipient with a book?
A teacher.
What do you call a welfare recipient with a ball?
What do you call a man in a dress who feels up kids?
A drama teacher.

Our favorite worst stories about school are about bad teachers.

Our memories of our teachers, coupled with our cultural tendency to portray teachers as either criminals or saints, give anyone the right to believe that tenure is the stink at the bottom of the education barrel.

And that's why teachers are so sexy these days. Because fear and anger and stinky things get us all hot and bothered.

So what will happen to honesty in talented but vulnerable teachers? What will happen to the greatness of those teachers who inspire hope and change?

In part III, I'll talk about why we keep having the wrong conversation about tenure and what will happen when it's over.

And I won't use any more death euphemisms for tenure. Let this blog be the last breath, the final twitch, the death rattle of these morbid expressions.


  1. Sounds a little like the union... and I'll say what I always say: MY world is not black & white (thank goodness). I live in grey; where there are so many variables, there is not a 'one size fits all' answer. There must be a middle ground. There must be a way to revoke status from those who have abused it, without stripping the freedom & security from those who deserve it.

    I don't suggest it's easy or simple, but, like good parenting- it takes hard work to do things right sometimes. Our future depends on shifting our focus back to quality (which takes a little more effort), from quantity ('yes's' that come a little too easily.)

    Our children deserve parents and teachers that provide both boundaries and freedom. They deserve examples of kindness, compassion and creative thinking rather than unquestioning conformity; and more interaction with people, less with machines. It's more work to stay engaged, but the rewards are abundant. Are we not worth it? We can all choose to start viewing problems as opportunities, in THIS economy.