On Due Process, Or What You Call Tenure

Jose VilsonResources

For the purposes of this essay, I’m using the term “due process” in lieu of tenure because people like Whoopi Goldberg (and millions of others) confuse “tenure” for “job for life.” If that’s what we call “tenure,” then “due process” is more exact. More and more, what it means for K-12 educators and college professors is coming to a confluence.

As far as my contract is concerned, it’s not like, after my third year, I got a job for life. Due process just gives me a better chance at talking back.

Teachers earn (please know this) due process after three years of working and building up a portfolio of pieces that we’ve gathered showing that we have the right to object to our dismissal for frivolous reasons. This carries tons of implications, especially in places where school funding waxes and wanes depending on who the principal, superintendent, mayor, or governor were / are. It means teachers can’t get fired for frivolous reasons, many of which include being pregnant, speaking out of turn, dress code, or different racial make-up than the students they serve, or because the principal just doesn’t like you.

Within reason.

This part especially matters because the reason needs to be clearly stated and reviewers need to do their part, too, if there is a “bad” teacher in our midst. I do agree that we have toxic individuals working in our schools, but rather than blame it on unqualified administrators (which seems to be the crux of almost every argument pro-due process), I’d like to focus on the ones you call “good.” We still haven’t quite pinpointed what “good” and “bad” teachers are, and I know more than a handful of administrators who, even after looking at frameworks and articles collected out of Harvard and Stanford, still can’t actually tell me what a “good” teacher is. So, if good teachers deserve due process and bad ones don’t, then what’s your definition? “You know what I mean” isn’t a good answer in deciding this person’s livelihood, either.

Also, teachers have few incentives professionally to stay in the classroom. People who say “Well, if you don’t want to teach, then leave” as a response to this rarely want to talk about teaching conditions, and why teaching attrition has been horrible. This gets compounded in high-need schools where the hardest working teachers in any building might spend hundreds of dollars and upwards on providing a nurturing environment for their students, something other professions barely do. Many school districts aren’t in the position (and in the business) to re-do their education budgets and get smart about the way they operate.

Due process for educators at least gives teachers who want to stay a stake in the school system they serve. They’ve proven in their work that they can work well as teachers, as curriculum developers, as part of an education community and now deserve to think critically about their work with reasonable impunity. There are hundreds of instances where this is applicable. We all know of principals who form school committees around a specific idea, for example, and tell teachers to be as honest as possible in their findings in said committee. What happens when the teachers in that committee make a conclusion in that committee that the principal doesn’t like?

This situation happens far too often, yet, due process at least assures that, should a principal feel like firing the teacher for having an opposing view (again, happens very frequently), an independent arbitrator can come in and make a conclusion about what actually happened after all the facts have been presented.

We can argue up and down about different cases, and argue over different measures for teacher evaluation (a step in the right direction overall), but the last 12 years of Bloombergian rule have only shown me the bright side of due process. With so many managerial shifts happening above teachers, and students (and their parents) moving up and out of school systems, teachers tend to be the only stability that schools have. That’s important to any community, but especially in communities where instability reigns.

Schools close and open under different names with little to show for it. School chiefs come and go in what seems like rapid succession when sustainability gets thrown around like a bunch of other words that end in “-tion” (thinking: differentiation, etc.). Fads churn out almost as quickly as new teachers do, and so many drop about as quickly, without any sense of whether they worked or not. Due process seems to be the only way for educators to say, “If you can stick with us doing well for three years under this mess, you’ll get a little more voice.”

Obviously, this system, even with a revamped teacher evaluation, well-trained evaluators, and local unions playing ombudsmen, won’t be perfect. Teachers, like students, are variables, and American education is far from standardizing best practices and belief systems on education. Yet, I fear we’ll strip the imperfect in favor of … nothing. We consistently compare teaching to other professions, yet our governments have done next to nothing to make our profession anything comparable or commensurate to anything else, save a few commercials on ESPN.

Without due process, an administrator might look at this and say, “I don’t like what he wrote. He needs to look for another line of work.” Then we wonder why the most thoughtful folks in our field won’t speak to their own profession.


p.s. – See? I didn’t even have to bash anyone to make my point. Boo-yah.

photo c/o