Wednesday, June 29, 2011

If Teachers are Impossible to Fire . . .

. . . then why are so many so petrified of losing their jobs? In conversation after conversation with teachers from a wide variety of schools around the country this continues to stand out to me. And I'm not quite sure what to make of it.

What are the contexts of these conversations? They mostly arise in the following two situations:

1.) A new administrative regime comes in (at either the school level or higher) or the current regime hands down a new directive. Teachers scramble to re-do their bulletin boards, do more test prep, fill out more paperwork, or whatever else they think they need to do to cover their behinds. This certainly doesn't apply in all situations, since I've also seen teachers ignore new directives, essentially refuse to implement new curricula, etc.

2.) More worryingly, I've seen it time and time again when teachers are aware of wrongdoing by other people in the building or district -- particularly when it involves a direct supervisor.  I often seemed to be the only one in my building willing to report the unethical behavior I witnessed -- possibly because I had the luxury of knowing I wasn't trying to teach in the same district again the next year. I was recently speaking with a colleague who has witnessed outrageously unethical behavior by the principal at his school. I encouraged him to report this, and the response I received was "I need my job too much . . . [my principal] is waaaaay too dangerous.  I'm scared to death of him".

I have far too many anecdotes to fit into one blog post, but I can't tell you how many conversations I've had with panicked teachers anxious about their job status.  Given that almost all of these teachers were tenured at the time of the conversation, the anxiety in their voices doesn't jibe with the current rhetoric about teacher labor markets.  It seems to me that there are three possible explanations for this (not including the possibility that my perceptions are skewed):

1.) Teachers are, indeed, almost impossible to fire -- but they don't realize that.  I suppose it's possible that teachers perceptions are off, but it seems unlikely that their that off-base.

2.) Teaching as a profession tends to attract a lot of people-pleasers who are afraid to stand up for themselves.  This may not be entirely without merit -- I'd feel comfortable saying that most teachers I know or have met are more interested in helping others than causing trouble, but this seems like only part of the explanation at best.

3.) There's a dangerous lack of trust in too many schools and school systems.  I don't want to be alarmist or paint with too wide of a brush, but this strikes me as the most plausible explanation of the three.  If teachers don't trust their supervisors to be fair and ethical, it stands to reason that they'll constantly worry about their jobs regardless of whatever protections they have.

Is worrying about one's job always a bad thing?  Of course not; sometimes a little panic can boost productivity.  But when it results in the proliferation of unethical or downright abusive behavior, I start to worry about all the worriers.  And when policies aim to increase the worry-level of teachers, I worry about the potentially negative consequences for our schools and students.

To paraphrase the old milk commercials: Trust. It does a school good.


Attorney DC said...

I found that the teachers who are most worried about being fired or laid off are usually the non-tenured teachers (those in the first few years of teaching for a given district). These teachers can be fired for any reason; they can be great teachers but be fired at the whim of the principal. In addition, most RIF's (reductions in force due to budgetary reasons) usually put the newest teachers in the district at the top of the chopping block.

Angela Watson said...

Yes, yes, yes! This is something that's been on my mind for awhile. The irrational, pervasive fear of losing one's job stifles the culture of innovation and creativity in our schools. Everyone wants to fly below the radar and not share ideas because they're afraid to draw attention to themselves and get "in trouble."

You hit the nail on the head with the people pleasers bit. I wrote about this in my book "Awakened: Change Your Mindset to Transform Your Teaching.": teachers often set far too high standards for themselves, and the imagined outcomes they perceive for not "doing what they're supposed to" are also typically imagined. I think it's really important to help teachers develop realistic standards for themselves and learn how to talk themselves down from the paranoia that keeps them from enjoying the job and being as effective and innovative as they could be. You've helped accomplish that purpose with this article--thank you!!

Corey Bunje Bower said...

ADC: I've actually noticed the opposite. In urban areas, half of the teachers leave before they get tenure -- so they're not all super-invested in their jobs. But the teachers who've been around for 10+ years are vested in the system and wholly dependent on the forthcoming pension.

Roger Sweeny said...

Why are people with low cancer risks--healthy lifestyle, etc.--often the ones who most worry about getting cancer?

Because they're the ones who are most concerned about that outcome.

The way teaching is set up in America, it attracts people who very much want to never be fired.

Why do people who have houses that look immaculate often say that the place "really isn't clean" while people who haven't vacuumed for weeks think their own place looks fine?

Cory Bougher said...

I quickly learned in my first teaching job that "tattling" got me in more trouble than not being ethical. My teacher prep program and new teacher initiation courses hammered home about covering your behind (always document!!!). It grind my gears to hear praise about the exceptional teachers whom we all knew were less than ethical in practice....but that's exactly what the administration choose not to see. As far as I'm concerned, many principals are not better than corrupt politicians - it's all about the PR!

Roger Sweeny said...

People with immaculate houses probably have very high standards of what is "clean enough." Perhaps a lot of people who go into public school teaching have similarly high standards of what is "secure enough."

To believe that lots of tenured teachers are at significant risk of being fired is to say that the statistics are all wrong--because they show almost no tenured teachers being terminated at the behest of administration.

Now, perhaps the statistics miss a lot. Perhaps there are lots of cases where administrators deliberately make life so miserable for a teacher that (s)he leaves, and it looks voluntary when it really isn't.

Going behind the statistics to make sure they mean what they are supposed to mean is one of the hardest, and least appreciated, parts of research.

Angela Watson said...

@Roger: "The way teaching is set up in America, it attracts people who very much want to never be fired."

I think this is an important point, but true for a less than obvious reason. I don't know any teachers who went into the field for job security. They entered the field because they wanted to make a difference for kids and thought teaching would be a rewarding profession. This is increasingly true as teachers lose their job security and the other benefits of teaching slowly disappear. If you're not in it for the kids, why bother in 2011?

The element of truth I see in what you said is this: people who want to make a difference for kids do not want to be fired. They believe their work is important and so they don't want to screw it up (or have others think they are screwing it up.) This can be problematic when they encounter unethical practices that must be followed, such as documenting things are that are not really happening. It creates a disconnect that leads to unhappiness, resentment, and eventually burnout.

The solution to preventing this burnout, as I see it, is to help teachers understand how to play the game without becoming discouraged, and protect their students from the effects of bureaucracy by bringing as much energy and enthusiasm into the classroom as possible.

Corey Bunje Bower said...


First, the stats concerning the percentage of teachers who are fired are wildly misleading. The vast majority of teachers who are targeted by principals either resign or transfer (sometimes voluntarily, sometimes not quite voluntarily).

That said, you seem to be asking the same question as am I: if firing a teacher is difficult, why are so many worried about their jobs? To answer that question, the actual likelihood of a teacher being fired is somewhat irrelevant since perception is reality in this case. If teachers think they're going to get fired if they do x, it doesn't really matter what the actual odds of them being fired are.

As best as I can figure, the worrying means either that teachers are overly worried about their jobs or that their jobs are less secure than many think.

Attorney DC said...

Angela: You make very good points. Thanks for your input.

Corey: You believe that older, more experienced teachers are more nervous about losing their jobs, but I think that it's much more likely that newer teachers will lose their jobs. While the older teachers may have more to lose at this point in their careers, statistically they have little chance of being fired or RIF'd under the typical school system. However, places like DCPS are changing that -- trying to fire ALL the teachers!

All I can say is that I'm glad I'm not a teacher in this climate: It seems like all the reformers are trying to do is yank all the teachers out of their jobs.

Corey Bunje Bower said...

I'd agree with your synopsis that more experienced teachers are both less likely to be fired or encouraged to leave but also have more to lose if they are.

I'd add that they also know the system better -- so it would probably be a bad thing if they tended to trust that system less.