Messages From the Tenure War – “Teachers Aren’t Special”

When Campbell Brown goes on air to discuss the lawsuits against teacher tenure protections, she knows how to comport herself.  First, it is very important to profess her respect for teachers and the teaching profession and to make it clear she just wants teaching to be a well-compensated and treated profession.  Then she has to express a completely sincere desire that the profession improve for the sake itself and the children. At this point, she has to point out that the laws she is suing to overturn stand in the way of that improvement and that it is simply ridiculous to oppose that effort.  When on The Colbert Report, she conveyed this message by leaning forward and pitching her voice for maximum earnestness as she stated that everybody agrees that the due process and “last in first out” provisions are “just anachronistic.”  A media representative has to make the pitch appealing to the broadest possible demographic.

Her general audience supporters are under no such restraints.

I’ve been reading #WithoutTenure on Twitter and made the very poor choice to read comments on some news articles about the lawsuit.  Obviously, some people support Ms. Brown’s efforts, and that  is expected in a democratic society.  What I did not expect was the periodic denigration of teachers as a whole and fairly serious hostility to the concept that teachers have job protections  granted through tenure that the respondents do not believe other professions have.  A refrain that sums up the attitude is “Teachers aren’t special.”

Teachers aren’t special.

Hostility towards teachers’ due process protections is necessarily a complex phenomenon.  President Ronald Reagan made contempt for unionized workers fashionable in his first administration, and since the late 1970s, public approval for organized labor has ticked down from 59% to 52% with some fluctuations along the way.  Public disapproval, however, has steadily gained from 31% to 42%, meaning that there is decreasing middle ground in public opinion on unions at a time when less than 11% of the total workforce is unionized.  Some of the contemptuous remarks certainly stem from the growth in hostility to unions.

Some who expressed that opinion based it on their belief that teachers are given undue job protections via tenure that other professional workers in the economy do not have.  Part of this is stems from the popular misconception, encouraged by Ms. Brown, that a teacher with tenure has “permanent lifetime employment” and is shielded from removal even in the face of serious incompetence or misconduct.  Another part stems from a belief that the critics do not possess any particular protections in their employment, even in highly skilled fields, and a demand to know what about teachers makes them deserve what the others do not have.  This is a particularly odd and perhaps uniquely American aspect of class relationships.  Instead of asking why their employer or profession does not do more to protect and compensate them fairly, many Americans demand to know why others are better protected and/or compensated.  We tend to fight our class wars against each other in the United States.

I cannot solve that tangled mess in this essay, but I do want to examine one of its consequences: Teachers aren’t special.  It sits me back on my chair a bit, to be honest.  Wrapping my head around it is nearly impossible as I have spent every working day of my life since 1993 around teachers, either as a high school English teacher or as a graduate researcher or as a college professor.  I have met, worked with and taught some incredibly special teachers over the years, and I am continuously impressed by the caliber of young person who shows up at our teacher education program each Fall looking to start her or his professional career.  These are people who could have sought more lucrative careers , and having worked with them I do not doubt that most could have been successful in those careers.  However, something draws them to teaching: a passion for learning, for a subject matter and for the transformational power that it holds, for children and their growth.

Gary Fenstermacher, Richard Osguthorpe and Matthew Sanger, writing in the Summer, 2009 issue of Teacher Education Quarterly, discussed how teaching not only involves  content related to morality but also demands moral characteristics of teachers:

Just how teachers attended to moral matters became more apparent as we examined the connections between moral manner and moral content more closely.  We sought to “see” the ways they imparted moral ideas and ideals to their students.  We encountered six methods used by most or all of the teachers as they went about the work of teaching their students.  They are: 1) the construction of the classroom community, 2) showcasing specific students, 3) design and execution of academic task structures, 4) calling out for conduct of a particular kind, 5) private conversations, and 6) didactic instruction (Fenstermacher, 2001).  These six methods suggest how moral traits and dispositions of teachers might be reflected in their practice.  They also suggest an important interplay between moral content and moral manner. (p. 12)

The authors go on to ask their central question, “how do we seek ensure that those who teach possess a moral manner that is proper and appropriate for the tasks of teaching, and that they learn to employ this manner properly and appropriately in the course of instruction?” (p. 16)  This is something much deeper than professional ethics, although those matter for teachers as well, because we entrust that teachers will be involved in the implicit of explicit instruction of moral conduct for their students through both the curriculum and the environment in which it is taught.

It is very clear to me what it is that makes teachers “special,” and it is the sense that they are as much in a vocation that is of service to others as they are in a profession in service of themselves.  When people dismiss the due process rights in tenure by saying “teachers are not special” they are simply dead wrong.  It is true, however, that teachers are not unique in this central premise of vocationalism.  Many, in a wide range of professions, are driven by the call to serve purposes greater than themselves.  There are doctors who seek to aid those in lands afflicted by disease and warfare, and there are medical practitioners who eschew more lucrative practices in the effort to provide needed general and family practice.  There are lawyers who dedicate themselves to low cost or pro bono services for the indigent , and there are attorneys who seek to use their talents to right great wrongs.  Fields like nursing and social work are full of people who are on the front line of patient and client care and who are primarily motivated by their desire to help those in great need and with little voice.

Teachers are special.  They are not unique in how special they are.

Which still leaves an open question:  If teachers are special in a way that is shared across other professions what is it about tenure and its due process protections that matter for teachers?  There is no single answer to this.  However,  not only do teachers need strong due process, but also good teachers need it even more.  Reflecting back upon what Fenstermacher, Osguthorpe and Sanger wrote, it is clear that good teachers must be motivated to rock the boat on behalf of their students.  Having a “moral manner” is not simply about appropriate behavior, it is about appropriate advocacy that will sometimes run afoul of administration and community expectations.

A good teacher will question curriculum priorities and instructional materials on behalf of students and their needs.  A good teacher will question spending priorities within a school a district if classroom needs are neglected.  A good teacher will advocate that students receive special education, ESL and enrichment materials that will enhance their experience and provide them with opportunities to learn.  A good teacher will help unpopular viewpoints gain a voice within the class regardless of the teacher’s or the community’s views.  A good teacher insists on the integrity of instruction and assessment even if it means a popular student athlete is made ineligible to compete or if it means the child of a local politician does not pass a class.  A good teacher collaborates with peers and experiments with new teaching strategies and constantly questions whether or not what is happening in the classroom, the school and the community is what is best for students.  A good teacher will make people uncomfortable at least some of the time.

A good teacher must do all of these things even as he or she is an employee of a system controlled and administered via local politics.  Teachers, of all of the moral vocations, are the most public and the most in need of the ability to openly question and confront on behalf of students and learning.  Taking away the due process rights of tenure diminishes the ability of teachers to buck the system and to make necessary waves for the good of their students.

Reference:

Fenstermacher, G.D., Osguthorpe, R.D., Sanger, M. (2009). “Teaching Morally and Teaching Morality.” Teacher Education Quarterly, 36 (3), 7-19.

1 Comment

Filed under Activism, politics, Social Justice, teaching, Unions

One response to “Messages From the Tenure War – “Teachers Aren’t Special”

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