Archive | 7:23 pm

Teachers and Tenure

21 Sep

Dollars and Sense

One day in class a colleague took a sip from her coffee cup that she had on her desk and immediately spat it back out. Someone had put cleaning chemicals into her coffee. Two students were later apprehended and confessed to the “prank”. They said that they did it because the teacher had failed them for the marking period.

Needless to say, the teacher was extremely upset by what the students had done. One can only imagine what might have gone through her mind afterwards. Was this a “prank” by two angry students who were trying to make her sick or momentarily uncomfortable by spiking her coffee or was this attempted murder by two deranged young adults who just didn’t know the potency or taste of the poison they were using?

That teacher never returned to school but not because of what those two students had done. We later learned that it was because of what the other students in her class had not done. Before the teacher entered the classroom that day they had all sat there quietly and watched while the two students added the extra fluid to her coffee cup and they then continued to sit there quietly and watch while the teacher entered the classroom and took a sip. That’s why she never returned. The banality of evil is as commonplace as it is trivial.

One of the things that can make being a teacher difficult is that some day just might be your last day. You just never know…

            Many people believe that being a teacher is one of the easiest jobs there is. After all, don’t you get the summers off? Many of the current efforts to improve public education in this country begin with the assumption that the basic problem is teacher performance. This attitude of “blame the teacher” has supposed that teachers are no longer held accountable for what they do in the classroom and that somehow schools across the country have been invaded by uncaring, unprofessional and incompetent teachers, which of course means that as a teacher I could go nuts tomorrow and they’ll still give me a raise every year until I retire. It’s called tenure. Isn’t it great?

That of course is the view that most non-teachers have about what it means to be a tenured public school teacher. What it really means is that we have a union and with that comes a collective bargaining agreement that provides us with assurances and safe guards to protect our jobs and to protect us from being fired or terminated without a valid reason or just cause. All unions have these same protections and that’s why employers dislike unions. Employers like to be able to fire their employees whenever they feel the need or desire to, for whatever reasons they might have. Unfortunately those reasons may often be arbitrary and unfair and might include reasons like age, race, sex, gender; my uncle’s cousin needs your job, or whatever. Unions protect workers and the teacher’s union protects teachers. It’s that simple.

During a teacher’s first three years we have almost no protections at all. We can be terminated and sent home on a moments notice for whatever reasons our employers may have. And during those three years we are observed and scrutinized and tested and the principals and superintendent and the Board of Education have ample time to decide if we are good, dedicated and knowledgeable teachers, who work well with children and who will be a welcome addition to the district’s faculty.

Also during those first three years a teacher has the chance to decide and determine if teaching is something that he or she really wants to do. Believe me, it’s not for everybody and you can’t know for sure if teaching children is something that you can and want to do unless you have tried it, because if you don’t like spending the better half of every day with anywhere from 30 to 130 young children and teenagers (depending upon whether you work in a grammar, middle or high school) then there is no summer vacation long enough to make you want to get up and go to work during the winter, spring and fall.

So what is really so bad about offering tenure to teachers? You’ve found someone who wants to do the job, who is capable of doing the job, who shows up for work prepared and on time and who’s willing to work for lower wages than most college graduates can expect to be paid in the private sector. Why not lock these three year rookies into their positions and get on with the game? Do you really think that the average 22 year old college graduate dreams about having studied, practiced and worked hard at a teaching position for three long years only so that on the first day of their fourth year they can put their sinister plan into action by becoming the lazy unprepared, child molesting scoundrel that they always wanted to be? If you do then perhaps you haven’t taken your anti-depressants today?

Providing a teacher with tenure isn’t just a teacher benefit, it also helps a school district hold onto good teachers. Tenure which is practically tantamount to guaranteed job security isn’t easy to give up. It’s nice to know that one’s job is secure and that a regular paycheck can be counted on, but let’s be completely honest…a teacher with tenure can’t become a criminal or break laws on a regular basis and still expect to remain on the job, like say a United States Senator or Congressman can. Tenured teachers can and do get fired. Their positions can be eliminated. The board of education just has to have a very good reason to do so, not some arbitrary one. Isn’t that what you would like to expect from an employer of yours regardless of what job you had? Of course it is. This is why teachers have tenure provisions in the first place and why it is written into our contracts and why is it so important to teachers…

Teachers are not public workers who drain town, city, state and federal budgets. Our low starting salaries and long salary guides with slow and steady step increments place all of our earning potential at the end of our careers. Teachers don’t step into a job; make a lot of money and then move on to more lucrative positions. We have to establish a long and healthy professional career and demonstrate our competency and loyalty to our communities before we reap any great financial benefits. At the same time we are also living in communities where we buy homes, raise families and pay taxes for public services, including schools and public employees and yes, other teacher’s salaries. In 1979 during my first year as a full time teacher in the state of New Jersey I filled out an application for rent at a garden apartment complex in the town where I was teaching. My application was denied because I didn’t make enough money! I actually was told that I couldn’t afford to live in the town that just hired me to work as a teacher in their public schools! How’s that for a welcome to the neighborhood?

Why do teachers have such a graduated pay scale that allows a disparity in pay over time between colleagues who are essentially doing the same job? I don’t have the answer to that but I do know that if tenure is to be abolished in the future then teacher’s salaries need to be equalized and balanced with a raise in starting salaries and then incremental raises balanced by seniority, longevity and job performance to close the gap in the salary range between teachers, all of whom are required to do the same job anyway. If tenure were to be abolished and the disparities in salary allowed to remain then teaching will become a high risk profession without the necessary incentives needed to attract teachers and make them want to stay.

In the state of New Jersey during my lifetime the government in Trenton has established an income tax, installed a sales tax, raised the sales tax, raised it again, established a lottery, approved gambling casinos, raised tolls on its highways, raised them again…and again, stopped contributing billions of promised dollars to the public teacher’s retirement fund and still after all of that says that it is not only broke but billions of dollars in debt! And the money went where? Into the pockets of public employees like me? Really???

One, 1! Lawyer hired by my board of education for one, 1! Year can be paid almost, ALMOST as much money from the public coffers as a school teacher (who is retiring in 2012) has  earned during most of his or her entire career as a public school teacher! Do you really think that laying off and eliminating public school teachers and other public employees in the state of New Jersey will make a dent in the amount of property taxes you pay when raising Income taxes, sales taxes, tolls, lotteries and gambling casinos made none?

According to the New Jersey public schools fact sheet for 2010/11 there are 112,933 public school teachers in NJ who earn a median salary of 59,670 dollars per year. That means that the total cost for teachers in the state of NJ for one year would be 6.738 billion dollars. Sounds like a lot doesn’t it? But according to the same site, the state of NJ sends out 7.9 billion dollars worth of state aid to school districts each year. That would cover all of the teacher salaries in NJ and leave 1.2 billion dollars left over!

The United States Department of Education’s website says that in 2008 the state of New Jersey spent 26 billion dollars on its public schools which by the way, is 14 billion dollars more than the U.S. state average. The USDOE also contributed about 1 billion dollars in state aid to New Jersey so with 8.8 billion dollars worth of state and federal aid and teacher’s costing 6.9 billion dollars in salaries that leaves 1.9 billion dollars in surplus to apply to the 19 billion dollars in education costs that don’t include teachers. That means that if you take away the teachers and exclude us completely from the budget process, New Jersey still pays approximately 17 billion dollars for its public schools! That’s more than twice what it costs to pay for the teachers!

If you want to save money in the public schools then you are going to have to look to where the money really goes…Electricity, Heating and fuel costs, Telecommunications providers, Food services, Medical expenses, Health care providers, Insurances, Legal expenses, Attorney’s fees, Administrative costs, Privatized contractors, Debt services, Mortgage interest…in other words, all of the same expenses that you pay for at home and that you have no control over because the people and corporations who command those fees have no interest in lowering their fees or reducing their profit margins for you.

Having fewer schools and fewer teachers and fewer public servants will NOT solve our problems. Eliminating teacher tenure will not either. Teachers, the well educated, dedicated, experienced, professional, hard working, tax paying men and women who are just like you and who get up every morning to spend time with your children, are NOT the problem and eliminating them or paying them less will not reduce your taxes or save you money or solve any of the problems that we face when it comes to property taxes and education. Would eliminating your job or asking you to take a pay cut help you solve any of your problems? When has creating more unemployment ever been the solution to any economic problem? The peace of mind that teachers enjoy once they have achieved tenure for their job well done is what keeps them working at a profession that does not compensate them with salaries commensurate to other college educated professionals. That is why tenure is important to teachers and that is also why it is so important to our public schools

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