Since my tenure packet is due October 8, I've obviously been thinking about the term for awhile--say, five years or so. In discussions of education reform, this issue comes up a lot. The argument seems to go something like this: "If there were no tenure, there would be no bad teachers. Tenure keeps administrators from firing "bad" teachers."
I don't think that's the case. First of all, as a public school teachers, having tenure does not keep you from being fired. As I understand it, administrators can provide teachers with job targets, and if they have evidence, you could still be fired. For me, tenure meant that I was vested in the retirement system. I didn't sit sinisterly at my desk after the fifth year and think, "Ha, they can't get me now!" Anyway, like any teacher, I've seen teachers who don't care much about their job, and they have tenure. I've actually known very few teachers to be fired (I know it's different for different regions--say, Rhode Island for example). I don't think it's because administrators don't feel like they can't. I think they may think it's a lot of trouble. It could stir up controversy, so they just don't.
So, now that I'm at a university, for the last four years I have had to turn in a reappointment letter and portfolio outlining my work at the university and why I should be reappointed for the next year. This has been due each January. If for some reason, I received negative reviews as a result of the January portfolio, I would be able to teach the following year, but I would be looking for a job the next. There are supports in place if I were not doing well. Professors at a higher rank could provide mentoring if there were negative reviews. It is the job of my colleagues, as opposed to the department head, to really support me (although the department head is supportive of his department). This reappointment process begins with the personnel committee in the department. They write a recommendation, which goes to the department head, which goes to the dean of the College. Then, I get a letter saying whether I am recommended or not.
Although I will be glad to turn in my tenure dossier in less than two weeks, and it's been a challenge to keep up with, I do know there are benefits to this process:
1. Each year I have had to sit down and reflect on the work that I've done for the last year. What have I done of value that has positively impacted my teaching, research, and service?
2. I have to ask myself, "How is what I do aligned with the mission of the university?"
3. Is my work disconnected? Can I connect what I teach, my research, and my service into a focused effort that also supports the university?
These aren't easy questions to answer. They make me think. I appreciate at the the end that the writing leads me to be able to make an argument for the value of my work within this system. Yes, I have to provide "data" to support this. I include numbers--numbers of contact hours with teachers, impact of this work on students, and more. I have to ask colleagues to write letters describing the teaching that they have seen me do. I have to invite colleagues in to watch me teach.
Going through this process and listening to arguments against tenure in public schools, it makes me wonder why public school teachers wouldn't have a similar tenure process--maybe not to the extent of the university, but would it hurt to write a three-page letter at the end of five years that describes how they work that they do supports other teachers and improves student learning? Maybe they write a letter each year and submit it to a committee of "tenured" teachers at the school. As I write this line, I can hear arguments (with myself). First, teachers on the committee might not like you, and they will not grant you tenure because of that. Second, there is not time to write a letter. Okay, there are two arguments. Well, like any system, the personnel committee would not be the only arbiter of your work. Second, it would be nice if the school provided a release day or some of that professional development time to have teachers write just such a letter. A letter like this would allow Casey to showcase to her school the impact her teaching has on students and the community.
As much as I have hated it at times, writing the yearly reappointment letter was important professional development for me. Creating this tenure dossier is good for me. There are goals and standards that I need to meet, and I need the time to think and make sure that my work does align with the goals of the university. By the way, the university's mission is public affairs, specifically, we focus on community engagement, cultural competence, and ethical leadership. Thank goodness for the the National Writing Project. It holds an unofficial public affairs mission. It makes it easier to make a case for my work.
Just one thought swirling around in this education reform mess.