Teacher Tenure (in Independent Schools?)

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All of the recent talk about the need to eliminate teacher tenure has gotten me thinking. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t fully understand the ins and outs of teacher tenure in public education. Working in independent schools, it isn’t something I’ve ever dealt with on a personal level. Perhaps I shouldn’t wade too far into this debate, seeing as how I don’t really know what I’m talking about, but that has never stopped me before, so here goes.

First, my instincts tell me that no teacher should be totally insulated from dismissal, so perhaps eliminating teacher tenure makes sense. If we’re being honest, there are a lot of unengaged teachers in the public schools. I had a few of them myself–but I also found a way to be successful without their help (and I don’t think this point can be emphasized enough: at the end of the day, responsibility for success must rest first and foremost with the students themselves).

Firing every single one of those bad teachers tomorrow–as some seem to demand–is not a practical solution, and more importantly, it would not solve the problems that our educational system faces, even if it were possible. On top of this, the little bit that I’ve read suggests that teachers can be terminated for such reasons as “incompetence” or “inadequate performance,” so would we really need to eliminate teacher tenure to get rid of the bad apples? Perhaps so. It’s certainly easier for politicians to sell (and voters to buy) “firing bad teachers” than defining incompetence or inadequate performance in the classroom. If NCLB has shown us anything, it’s that the very attempt of defining competence or adequacy in the classroom is fraught with challenges.

That said, a shake-up of the system couldn’t hurt. This is by no means a simple fix–I don’t think people can be scared into doing their jobs well–but it may be a starting point. Combine a more challenging path to tenure with better support for early career teachers, substantial professional development, and the promise of an eventual increase in pay, and maybe we start to get somewhere. Make tenure more difficult to achieve, and I suspect that people would begin to strive for it. Make it the next brass ring in the never ending quest for brass rings. (There are many reasons, after all, why so many Ivy League seniors apply to Teach for America; it’s not simply idealism or altruism.)

I guess what I’m getting at is that maybe teacher tenure should be granted only to those teachers who can demonstrate competence. Notice that I did not say that we should fire all teachers who are not granted tenure. Simple math dictates that we need at least some of those mediocre teachers to stick around for at least a little while longer. Nor do I advocate determining competence based on standardized test scores. This doesn’t work. What we need is a more sophisticated model.

Although tenure in higher education faces significant challenges as well, perhaps we can take a page from the university’s book. Not only must a junior professor demonstrate patience, serving in his or her junior role for five or so years, he or she must also demonstrate competence. In history, at least, this means a proven track record of peer-reviewed publications, respectable colleague and student evaluations, and service to the department and the institution, among other things. Scholars spend a significant amount of their preparing this file for the committee.

Obviously, the actual rubric would look quite different for K-12 teachers–most notable would be the absence of publications–but I see value in requiring teachers to compile a portfolio to “sell themselves” to a tenure review committee made up of multiple constituencies–fellow teachers, administrators, board members, and perhaps even parents.

This is naive, I know. But what I see is a lot of entrenched interests arguing past each other, and I think we need some “outside the box” solutions.

Shifting gears a bit, I can say that as an independent school teacher, I long for some sort of tenure system not unlike the one I describe above. (On this note, is anyone out there aware of an independent school that does grant tenure? I’d love to hear about it.) I suppose I’m looking at a series of one-year contracts from now until I retire, and this isn’t exactly reassuring. Given all that teachers are asked to do, and given the price at which they’re asked to do it, the promise of job security goes along way toward a teacher’s peace of mind. (Summers “off” are nice, sure–but they’re not enough in and of themselves, especially if you’re worried about having the next year “off” entirely.)

The fluctuating independent school enrollments of the current economy make any such promise difficult at the moment, but if lifetime tenure is too much to ask (and realistically speaking, it probably is), I would also be very much in favor of a system of contracts that gradually increase in length. It might look something like this:

  • One-year contract
  • One-year contract (Year 2)
  • One-year contract (Year 3)
  • Two-year contract (Years 4-5)
  • Two-year contract (Years 6-7)
  • Three-year contract (Years 8-10)

From there, teachers could either be granted longer contracts (five years? ten years?) at the discretion of the administration, or they could continue on the “three-year plan.” This would still allow schools some leeway in their staffing, but also provide faculty with a measure of job security. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I think this would inspire loyalty among faculty as well as ensure the institutional memory and program stability that independent schools seem to covet.

New Approaches to Grading Writing

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As I noted in my previous post, grading has become the bane of my existence. At times, it’s bad enough that I worry about becoming an educational statistic—the new teacher who leaves the field within the first five years. Again, as I stated previously, there are many things I love about my job, but if there’s one thing that could push me over the edge, it would be grading.

So, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to re-vamp my approach to grading—specifically, to grading writing assignments. These, I find, take the majority of my time, and the subjective nature of such a task creates undue stress, both on my students and myself. I find that many students are excessively grade-driven (in other words, they’re less concerned with how to become a better writer than with “why they didn’t receive an A”—even though those two things are often one and the same). With that in mind, my goals for any such change were as follows:

  1. The new approach would teach students that good writing is a process—a process of writing, revision, and lastly, engagement (and, quite possibly, criticism) in the “marketplace of ideas.”
  2. The new approach would reduce the stress—if not the workload—associated with grading written work, particularly the trouble of subjectively distinguishing between various letter grades as well as +/- grades.
  3. The new approach would place responsibility for any grade earned squarely on the shoulders of the student, minimizing or eliminating complaints about grades.

In pondering these goals extensively, I’ve come to realize that a “perfect” system probably doesn’t exist. I’m not sure there’s a way to achieve all four of those things, unless, of course, you are Superman. (And if that is the case, please show yourself, because everyone’s waiting for you.) I’m no Superman, but I’ve come up with four different ideas that might potentially solve my own problem, and I apologize if the different scenarios are confusing. I’m not sure which I might end up using, but either way, I probably won’t make a change until next school year in any case.In the meantime, I welcome any comments.

Idea 1
With Idea 1, I would grade essays in the traditional manner, but allow students to revise and re-submit a certain number of essays per grading period.

Pros: Simplicity—easy to explain, easy to follow; Would give students an opportunity to learn from their mistakes and might reduce grade complaints; Would spread out the workload for grading of revisions (not all students would revise the same essays)

Cons: Might teach the “process” but students would likely remain focused on the grade, seeing the revision process only as the means to an end—not an end in itself; Would not solve the problem of subjectivity in grading

Idea 2
With Idea 2, I would grade all essays pass/fail, but with a fairly high standard for “pass” (likely in the neighborhood of what would traditionally be a B). Essays earning a “pass” on the first attempt would receive an A. Essays earning a pass on the second attempt receive a B. Essays earning a pass on the third attempt receive a C. Essays not passing after three attempts would receive an F.

Pros: Would certainly teach students that writing is a process and place the responsibility on their shoulders

Cons: Would likely create more work for me as many students would be forced to resubmit essays (as a result, I would likely need to reduce the number of writing assignments per grading period and not offer comments on grammar, etc.)

Idea 3
With Idea 3, I would assign essays a “grade” of check, check-plus, or check-minus. A check-plus would be roughly equivalent to a B (or better), a check would be roughly equivalent to a C, while a check-minus would be a D/F (needs significant improvement/failing). Students would be allowed to revise each essay once. Essays earning a check-plus on the first attempt receive an A, while essays earning a check-plus on the second attempt receive a B.

Pros: Accomplishes the three primary goals by emphasizing the process, placing the responsibility on student shoulders, and eliminating the distinctions between +/- grades

Cons: Still requires a clear delineation between B, C, and F (the third goal is not as thoroughly accomplished); Like the second idea, all the revisions might create a significant increase in grading workload

Idea 4
Inspired by Alfie Kohn’s article “From Degrading to De-Grading,” Idea 4 would eliminate assignment grades entirely. Instead of offering grades, I would provide only comments, but allow students to revise any essay as they see fit. At the end of each grading period, I would conduct individual meetings with students to discuss/decide a course grade based on quality of work.

Pros: Removes most—if not all—stress associated with grading, freeing up my time and energy to focus on constructive feedback; Reduces or eliminates ongoing tension within the teacher-student relationship and makes the grading process more democratic and conversational; Along those lines, would force students to reflect self-critically on their own performance

Cons: Might encounter significant resistance from multiple constituencies (students, parents, colleagues, administrators) because it would be a radical shift for my school culture; Students, in particular, might feel “lost” without the security of steady grade updates and the inability to ask “what is my average?”; Students may abuse the grade determination process to “negotiate” for grades higher than what they deserve

Career Envy

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Like many teachers, I think, I occasionally suffer from “career envy.” Around this time last year, I visited the state farmer’s market and the state fair in the same day, and I came away from that experience wanting to become–get this–a dairy/poultry/goat farmer. There is something about becoming intimately reacquainted with the land that really appeals to the romantic in me. And there is something about becoming more self-sufficient that really appeals to the cheapskate in me. (As a side note, I think both of these qualities do serve me well in my actual career.)

I’ve also thought at various times about going to law school or getting involved in politics. Unfortunately, I’m not sure if any of the careers I find myself envying would actually make me happier. It seems that all of the “careers” I find myself drawn to are ones in which you must work long hours and take your work home with you, and this is exactly what I would be trying to escape in leaving the teaching profession. So perhaps what I really want is not a career at all, but rather, a job. And specifically a job that you can leave at the office and not think about between the hours of 5:00 pm and 9:00 am.

Honestly, there are times–usually when my grading “inbox” has gotten backed up–when I would kill for a 9-to-5. I know that this would leave me unfulfilled professionally, but I do wonder if it wouldn’t allow me to feel more fulfilled personally. Would I be happier day-to-day if I could come home and spend time with my wife rather than quarantining myself in another room, grading essay after essay after essay? Would I be happier week-to-week if I could go 48 hours without thinking about work, rather than spending most of Sunday a) grading, b) preparing for class, or c) both?

I’ve been told that, in this economy, I should just be thankful to have a job–and I am. Don’t get me wrong: there are many things I love about my job. I love that I start over with a clean slate every year (at least in theory). And I love the life of the mind–always thinking, questioning, reflecting. I also–most of the time, at least–love the kids, and I especially love the kids when they show an interest in the life of the mind. And, of course, I can’t lie: I love having the summers off. I know I would start to go crazy in a job that involved menial labor or simple repetition. But sometimes I start to go crazy now, usually around 9:00 or 10:00 on Sunday night, after putting in 6-8 hours of work before the week has even begun.

Most of my job-related stress centers on grading. In case you haven’t caught my drift yet, please allow me to be clear: I HATE GRADING. And I’m not talking about multiple choice tests here. If I could, in good conscience, give nothing but multiple choice tests, my life would be much more pleasant. But, as it turns out, I am that teacher who requires his students to write–a lot–and as much as they hate writing essays, I hate grading them.

I especially hate trying to figure out if an essay is a B or B- and worrying that a student may compare his grade with a classmate’s and have a legitimate complaint about fairness. I hate seeing the looks on students’ faces when they get another C, and then I hate myself for feeling guilty, because they’re the ones not putting in the effort to learn from their mistakes. And I especially hate when parents ask me if there’s “anything Susie can do to raise her grade” right before report cards come out (read: “anything you can do to artificially reward her for failing to meet expectations”), even though they know her essay was totally off-topic.

It seems to me that grading (especially meaningful grading of writing assignments that prompt critical thinking) requires a vast investment of time and energy, only to put unnecessary strain on teacher-student and teacher-parent relationships in the end. And, as I mentioned, it’s also caused me to want to become a farmer. For all of these reasons, Alfie Kohn’s 1999 article “From Degrading to De-Grading” really speaks to me. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that “de-grading” (i.e., not giving grades) is an option for me given my school’s culture.

My wife tells me that I simply need to relax my standards. Don’t assign so many essays, she says, and don’t grade them so strictly. After all, there are a few teachers in my school who basically “hand out” A’s and B’s for mediocre work, and they seem to be well-liked by students and parents. To my knowledge, at least, they don’t receive any pushback from the administration either. But I find that this is easier said than done. For better or worse, I think that part of my identity as a teacher (and thus, as a person) is tied up in trying to show students that success requires hard work. It’s not something that’s handed out freely. I suppose I’m trying to teach them life lessons as well as history lessons. Maybe I’m trying too hard.

But given that I have no farming skills to speak of, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to re-vamp my grading process. Now that I’ve laid out the “problem,” if you will, my next post will start to address how I hope to solve it. Honestly, I expect the solution to come to me in fits and starts, but if there’s anyone out there reading this, I certainly welcome your input.

How do you manage the stress associated with honest, meaningful grading that accomplishes your pedagogical goals without sacrificing your personal sanity? I’d love to hear from you.

Bogged Down

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Like most teachers, I suppose, I seem to be drowning in work lately. I’ve mostly been grading essays and meeting with students in preparation of research, but I hope to post some thoughts here soon.