Why do unions defend “bad teachers”? Why do lawyers defend “bad” defendants?
Peter Goodman asks these two great questions in his post, “In Defense of Teachers and Teachers’ Unions.”
Goodman argues that it’s about due process in both cases. It’s about the right of the accused to meet his accuser in court and to defend his actions. The role of unions, Goodman says, is to ensure that the rights of the accused are not trampled upon.
I agree wholeheartedly. The union’s job is to represent its members, whether the leadership agrees or disagrees with a teacher’s actions. And good union leadership understands its role in protecting due process. Union leadership may even admit privately that what the teacher did (or didn’t do) was indefensible; nonetheless the leadership is required to do their job. And the school district’s leadership is required to do theirs.
During the probationary period a teacher can be let go not quite “at will” as Goodman suggests, but with a minimum of union intervention. However, once a teacher is granted tenure, the teacher has earned a due process hearing. “Tenure hardly guarantees a teacher a cushy job for life,” he writes. That notion, he says, is “nonsense.” This is where Goodman and I part ways.
The process to remove a tenured teacher is long and involved and expensive. The teacher is removed from the classroom, so the district needs to hire a substitute. Now the district is paying two people for the same job (because the removed teacher still receives his salary). There are lawyer’s fees. There is the distraction from teaching and learning. Parents are wondering what’s going on. There’s no guarantee that in the end the issue will be resolved to either party’s satisfaction.
Proving incompetence is extremely difficult, if not impossible. In many cases supervision by administration may be spotty or nonexistent. Even regular classroom observations may be politely vague about a teacher’s shortcomings. Unless the teacher has committed a flagrant foul that cannot be ignored, it’s possible that there will be little on file proving incompetence.
In addition, the idea of “progressive discipline” is foreign to school districts. Districts may not simply reduce a teacher’s salary, give him days off without pay, or demote him (it’s all the same job). So it’s all or nothing (save a letter in his file, perhaps).
Because due process is such an arduous issue, administrators need to take seriously their recommendations for tenure. I understand that new teachers need to get their feet on the ground and need time to develop. They need to be mentored. But if you’re not seeing real progress and realized potential in 3 years, you’re probably not going to see it.
Second, administrators need to make supervision and evaluation a top priority. Principals have lots of reasons that they don’t get into the classroom regularly. But nothing is more important than the quality of teaching that goes on daily. Principals need to schedule classroom observations and stick with the schedule. They need to drop in to see what’s going on. And they need to give honest feedback and opportunities to improve. How does it happen, for example, that 91% of Chicago’s teachers were rated “excellent” or “superior” when 66% of Chicago’s schools failed to meet state standards?
Goodman says that “jobs for life” is nonsense. Unless supervision is a top priority, I’m not so sure.