I’m a Teacher, I’ve Got Tenure—but the System Doesn’t Work

A Los Angeles public school teacher shares why the system is broken and five ways it can be improved.

Is the teaching tenure process what is best for teachers and their students? (Photo: Jonathan Kirn)

For me, the problem with tenure is that it's a perfunctory act not designed to inspire or recognize my willingness to grow professionally.

I was tenured after two years of teaching. Here’s what the process was like:

1. I was hired to teach in some of the most challenging classrooms in California.

2. I received little to no feedback through a bare-bones process called the “Stull Evaluation,” which involved an administrator popping into my classroom every once in a while to check off a few boxes on a form.

3. I was given tenure after my second year, which basically guaranteed me a job for life but provided little opportunity for leadership, career development or increased earnings.

4. After being tenured, my career didn’t change at all.

I didn’t develop my teaching and leadership skills through a meaningful evaluation system and the pursuit of tenure. I developed by finding the support that I needed. As a teacher and department chair with 15 years of classroom experience, I’ll admit that I am still learning from my students and outstanding colleagues. I learn from the proven strategies and fresh ideas of veterans and newcomers. I learn from my students who constantly give me feedback.

That’s precisely what a tenure process should encourage—continued learning and growth.

If we strengthen the systems that support us, we can strengthen our profession.

Sadly, tenure isn’t designed to encourage growth, innovation and leadership. Because the tenure process has little to do with growth, impact, or leadership, I often wondered about the small number of teachers who weren’t tenured. What had they done wrong? What was the real story? 

The truth is not all of us should be tenured. I’ve seen my share of colleagues who should not be in front of children. I’m talking about teachers who have given up on their students and their craft. Our systems need to be honest with teachers about their competence and skills, give them opportunities to improve, and if improvement does not occur, then provide a graceful exit. 

I don’t profess to know everything about policy, but here are five ways that I believe tenure could be improved:

1. Meaningful evaluation should inform meaningful tenure decisions.

Teachers need to know that a new tenure process will be fair, measured and based on evidence that comes from diverse sources, not merely from an administrator. This process should help teachers to reflect and find areas of growth. Teaching is not a finished project but a process. We can all continue to improve our craft. 

2. Raise expectations for earning tenure.

No teacher reaches their professional peak in two years. Teachers should have the first few years to continue learning and receive support from tenured master teachers and administrators. After four or five years of practice, teachers should be eligible for tenure.   

3. Provide a pipeline for teacher leaders.

Let’s face it—not every principal is an instructional leader. A new system could provide a pathway for teachers to remain in the classroom but to also influence and help shape instructional growth on a campus. Teacher leaders would serve in a hybrid-role and the teacher leader’s classroom could be a model for observation and reflection.

4. Improve access to quality teaching.

Once the evaluation and tenure process is established, we can begin to think about how we attract and retain top talent at our struggling schools. This will create a more equitable distribution of effective teachers throughout the district.

5. Encourage ongoing growth and development.

As teachers, we can always learn. The evaluation and tenure process should encourage us to constantly strive to increase our knowledge about our students and our curriculum.  Like National Board Certification, there should be a tenure renewal process to encourage continued growth.   

I truly believe that teaching is a noble profession. Only a teacher knows the myriad of challenges, joys, and surprises a day in the classroom can bring. But what helps us walk through those doors each day is the knowledge that we are directing the future. As we seek to educate tomorrow’s leaders, we need to accept that evaluation and tenure can provide an opportunity for growth. If we strengthen the systems that support us, we can strengthen our profession.   

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