Public employees, and their unions, have been getting beat up in the media lately over things like salary, pensions, and the perception that unions protect bad employees from being terminated. Teachers are no exception and over the past year many discussions have focused around teacher tenure (aka: Permanent Status) and teacher evaluations.
The myth surrounding teacher tenure is that once a teacher gets tenure, or permanent status, they no longer can get fired and they have a job for life. In California this is simply not true. California Education Code states that a teacher for the first two years is considered a probationary employee. The teacher who begins her third year of employment is considered permanent.
The main difference between probationary employees and permanent employees is that the district can non-reelect (fire) a probationary employee for no cause or reason given. A simple thanks, but no thanks, will do the job. Permanent employees, however, have the right to due process. Meaning, the district has to follow the education code requirements before they can dismiss the employee.
There are many different reasons, with different due process requirements, to fire or dismiss permanent teachers for all kinds of infractions, law violations, or unprofessional conduct behaviors. The dismissal process for a poor performing teacher, however, is more complex, subjective, expensive, adversarial, time consuming, requiring many skill sets and expertise of the administrator to be successful, and typically is not a process everyone can be proud of at the end of the day.
My opinion is that before anyone tries to dismiss a permanent status employee for poor performance, a good look at everyone involved (including self reflection) is required. This includes site administration, district administration, the teacher, the teacher’s union, the teacher’s union advocate, professional development staff, the teacher improvement process, and even the school board’s philosophy.
One of the most controversial issues to get a teacher union and school district to work collaboratively together on is the issue of teacher evaluation and teacher dismissal process. This is what we started to work on in my district and are having success.
First of all, several questions need to be answered before the union and the district can even approach the issue of improving or reforming teacher evaluation in a collaborative way.
- Does the union want to improve their members professionally?
- Can the union and district agree that an evaluation process should have teacher improvement as its main goal (as opposed to getting rid of teachers)?
- Can both sides agree that if a evaluation process is fair, then can both sides agree that if after a reasonable amount of time and support given to improve a teacher and the teacher does not respond, then maybe the teacher ought naught to be a teacher after all and the dismissal process is appropriate to help a struggling teacher exit the profession?
- Can both sides agree that the union and the district have a responsibility to participate collaboratively in the design and implementation of the evaluation process?
- Can both sides agree that when the evaluation and/or dismissal process is started, the teacher will be treated with respect, dignity, and humanely?
- Can both sides agree that they will use attorneys in the process to help each other to protect the teacher’s and district’s rights?
In my case all the answers were a resounding “Yes!” So the district and the union collaborated to improve the teacher evaluation process.
Some people in the union arena would say that I’m committing blasphemy. I disagree with them. You see, my responsibility is to protect the due process of union members. I don’t protect any individual teacher whether good or bad, innocent or guilty. Almost like a defense attorney. However, as a professional, I also have an obligation to protect the students from poor performing teachers. I can do both without having to compromise my ethical responsibility as a union president by ensuring a fair and equitable teacher evaluation process.