Sunday, November 30, 2008

Firing Teachers

Responding to Clay Burrell.

One of the myths prevalent in discussions about the education system is that union rule prohibit the firing of bad teachers.

This goes completely against my experiences of interactions with actual teachers, who, collectively, respond like a herd of frightened gazelles. Why are they so frightened, if they can't be fired?

They're frightened because the myth is pure fiction. Teachers can be - and are - fired all the time. And they are fired for what amounts to the most frivolous of reasons. The unions, far from being the protector of incompetent teachers, appear to be helpless to protect any teachers.

And that - not the protection of bad teachers by unions - is what is blocking excellence in teaching.

That - the fact that teachers answer to administrators who often have no idea what constitutes excellence in teaching - is what blocks improvement in the classroom.

Don't believe me? Well, let's explore. The phrase "teacher fired" - in quotes - yields 112,000 results in Google. Let's look at some of them.

  • Florida High School Teacher Fired Over Internet Pictures and Part-Time Work - in this ridiculous instance, a teacher, Tiffany Shepherd, was fired for working as a 'bikini girl' on charter fishing boats. Leaving aside the fact that teaching does not pay enough to pay back student loans, this teacher was obtaining work experience and doing nothing illegal or even (beyond the most prudish description) immoral. Oh, and no evidence that she was a bad teacher.


  • Connecticut Teacher Fired Over Myspace Page - his teacher was fire for having a MySpace page that had "among other things, pictures of naked men with 'inappropriate comments' underneath them." We are not told what the comments were, nor told what the pictures were (perhaps they were of the governor of California in his first shot in Terminator 2). Again, this is a firing for perfectly legal behaviour under the heading of 'nappropriate'.


  • College Teacher Fired Over Loyalty Oath - here we have the ridiculous case of a teacher refusing to sign on to some politically motivated doctrine. "The loyalty oath was added to the state Constitution by voters in 1952 to root out communists in public jobs. Now, 16 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, its main effect is to weed out religious believers, particularly Quakers and Jehovah's Witnesses."


  • Texas Teacher Fired for Maintaining Grading Standards - a 6th grade teacher gave math grades that parents thought were too harsh. The teacher was fired. "Parents, unhappy with their child’s performance in a class - usually because the student just isn’t making the grade - go outside the system to prove that their child is, in fact, the genius they thought he was."


  • Parents of Connecticut Teen Mistakenly Believe Daniel Clowes's Comics Are Sexy - "Nate Fisher, a Connecticut high-school English teacher, resigned last week after the parents of a freshman girl complained that he'd given her a copy of Eightball No. 22, a comic book by Daniel Clowes." The comic is no more "borderline pornography" than is, say, Gossip Girl.


  • Teacher fired over explicit emails to students - this case, from Canada, is a bit more borderline. A teacher emailed a student suggesting she touch a male in a suggestive manner, then report back. In retrospect, really bad advice. But worthy of a firing?


  • Elementary school teacher suspended after autistic child voted out of class - no word yet on whether the teacher was fired or just suspended for a year without pay after she had the class vote on whether a disruptive student (later diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome) should stay in class.


  • Teacher fired for questioning charter school - a charter school teacher, Gerald Norde, started asking questions about students listed in the register, students he had never seen or who had not attended to weeks. He was fired. Keep in mind that charter schools are paid per pupil.


  • Magic trick costs teacher job - a Florida teacher, Jim Piculas, does a trick where he makes a toothpick disappear. He won't be teaching any more. "I said, 'Well Pat, can you explain this to me?' 'You've been accused of wizardry,' [he said]. Wizardry?" he asked."


  • Quaker Teacher Fired For Changing Loyalty Oath - what heinous crime did math teacher Marianne Kearney-Brown commit to merit being fired? She - a Quaker - inserted the word "nonviolent" into her loyalty oath.


  • Latina teacher fired for not regurgitating the same old crap - yet another case of firing a teacher because the do not toe the party line. She is a high school teacher who was fired from her position at a school in LA because her curriculum was too 'Afrocentric'."


  • Teacher fired for branding students with cross - in this one, I'm going to side with the administration. Even if the mark had no religious connotations, searing student flesh is beyond the bounds. John Freshwater, an Ohio teacher, deserved to be fired. Oh - and he was.


  • Doh! Teacher Fired for showing Simpsons Movie - Aquil Abdul-Salaam was fired, not because the copy was allegedly a bootleg, not because it's non-standard curiculum, but because the movie has been deemed inappropriate for children. I've seen the movie. The rating is ridicoulous, and the movie is tamer than Bambi.


  • Teacher of the year fired over '4-letter-word' quiz - Kim Littrell, a former teacher of the year, was fired for giving a quiz that hinted at, but did not contain (and actually prohibited), the use of obscene words. For example, "What word means 'intercourse' and ends with a 'k'?" The answer is "talk." Questionable? Maybe. A firing offense? Don't be ridiculous.


  • Teacher fired after asking students for back rubs - third grade teacher Donna Coulter crossed the line and was fired. Inappropriate, sure, but folks, these are grade three children. I think the instruction "don't do it again" would have sufficed.


  • High School Teacher Fired for Teaching Harper's Article About Magical Penis Theft - yeah, I can imagine how the critics went ballistic over that one, despite the fact that the article itself is innocuous and that t could be purchased by any person from any magazine shop in the country. Philip Watt, a secondary school teacher is Brooklyn, was fired for giving a copy of the article to students.


  • Teacher Fired For Protecting Student - a teacher intervened vocally (not physically) when a police officer was roughing up a grade seven student, and was fired. Polica James Houston was workingat a Denver area charter school at the time.


  • Teacher Fired for Talking About Peace? - Indiana teacher Deb Mayer was fired for talking about peace protests after the start of the Iraq war.


  • Oregon Biology Teacher Fired Over Bible References - It's probably the sort of talk that would have had me howling with outrage - a teacher using Biblical references and alluding to Nazi Germany while talking about Planned Parenthood. or maybe it was, as biology teacher Kris Helphinstine defended, an exercise in critical thinking. No matter: Kris won't be working again.


  • Teacher sues city after being fired for affair with runway model student - the boy, age 17, was not a student. That did not protect Queens teacher Gina Salamino from being fired.


  • Teacher Fired for Calling Students Filthy Animals Speaks - Steven Clark, who endured "months of harassment, which included having objects thrown at him, getting stabbed with a pen and having his pockets picked," was fired for calling his students "filthy animals who belonged in a f---ing zoo."


  • US teacher fired for non-literal bible reading - Steve Bitterman, a teacher at a community college in red Oak, Iowa, told his students not to take the story of Adam and Eve literally. You guessed it: fired.


  • Teacher Fired Over MySpace Photo -yes, yet another. And it doesn't even contain nudity. "In it, the woman wears a pirate hat and holds a large plastic cup. She labeled the pic 'drunken pirate' and school officials said that her posting the photo online constituted a breach of professional standards and promoted underage drinking."


  • Teacher fired after testifying - Chuck Laramie, a teacher for juvenile sex offenders at the Howard Center in Vermont, was fired after testifying to a state legislative committee.


  • Unweb ma axed as teacher: suit Jewel Redhead was fired from her teaching position in Queens for being unwed and pregnant. Yes, you read that correctly.


  • Sub teacher fired over bin Laden note - a teacher in Pittsburgh was fired for writing the following in the margins of a news article: "Osama bin Laden did us a favor. He vulcanized us, awakened us and strengthened our resolve." He said it was for a book he was writing. Doesn't matter. Writing such a message is not a firing matter.
Well, that's enough. This should show pretty clearly that teachers can be and are fired, often over the most ridiculous and trivial of offenses.

Yet, we don't see in this list teachers being fired for incompetence. This raises an interesting question. Given the ease with which teachers are fired, one would expect incompetent teachers to be easily fired. So, either, the news does not report on the firing of incompetent teachers. Or the people who could fire incompetent teachers simply don't do so.

I suspect that it's the former. I suspect that incompetent teachers are fired, but that this is simply not reported as news. Presumably there are statistics on this somewhere. But I would certainly, at this point, be very hesitant to draw my conclusions about the rate of teacher firings from the daily news.

9 comments:

  1. Heck of a response. Interesting last question. Comments to that post are teaching me a lot. Nice.

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  2. Geez, there are some horror stories here!

    No wonder teachers are paralysed with fear. The common theme seems to be - make one mistake and you're gone. No second chance. No opportunity to correct your behaviour. No acknowledgment that teachers are fallible, imperfect human beings.

    Oh... and we can't forget that poor woman who almost went to jail for 20 years when pop-ups appeared on the computers of a casual class she was teaching. That would certainly make me think twice about working with computers in a K-12 context.

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  3. Most of those teachers were fired because of a key thing that happened that gave the district cover for firing the teacher. My guess is that in several cases the union just got out of the way. I have seen a number of cases where the unions did not get out of the way and teachers who were bad were not able to be fired.
    Teachers are more afraid of being fired for things outside the classroom then inside. Outside items are somehow easier to use as excuses. Things inside the classroom have to be a lot more serious (the autistic child case or porn) for the district to have an easy time firing people.

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  4. Regarding your last question, some professions -- plumbing, sales -- can define competence. And in those professions the incompetent get fired.

    Other professions where definitions of competence are softer tend to rely on layoffs to remove people that are felt unproductive or troublesome (I think it's a lousy way to do it frankly, but there you go).

    If the unions do anything to protect incompetence, it's that they insist on too great an emphasis on seniority as a deciding factor during periods of layoffs.

    They have good reasons for doing this, and I don't mean to discount them. We don't want a world where the oldest and most experienced teachers are removed just because they are also the most expensive. If you want to see what the lack of such insistence brings, look at what happens in service sector layoffs where SEIU is not present.

    At the same time I think it might be worthwhile to look at the system. Where I live, there is a huge differential between a 10 year teacher and a two year teacher -- and I can't help but feel that the union does tend to impoverish entry level pay to preserve what is fairly high pay for longstanding teachers. The ratio from top teacher to entry-level teacher is very severe, and the insistence that only traditional classroom experience can count toward the pay scale makes it prohibitive for people in other pedagogical realms to enter public education mid-life or after raising children.

    That said, I don't know what the answer is if you want seniority to not be the primary element -- and I'm scared of the answers the test-makers will think up...

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  5. Seriously? Many of these are relatively easy picks for failure to me. Are they examples of massive negligence? Perhaps not.

    However, most of these folks should have studied public sentiment before doing such dumb things. Really, these are mostly examples of unions stepping aside of some "slam dunk" objections of the local public. I see little to back most of these up. Be careful. pay attention.

    The real question is: is it difficult to fire teachers for basically... terrible instructional practice. I would suggest that this is far more difficult. Find an exhaustive list of teachers who didn't disturb the sensibilities of the local school board... but who were just plain LAZY... or who ignored best practices in the face of the most prolific professional development.

    If you haven't worked with grossly lazy and disaffected colleagues... then you haven't worked. This is likely a problem in ALL fields.

    However, I find far fewer careers where firing for such gross negligence is more difficult.

    I love my hardworking, fellow professionals. I hate cushy tenure policies.

    Sean

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  6. @Sean Nash:

    Once again I'd say that you're not understanding how other professions work. In a decade and a half of working in tech I've never seen a single colleague fired for laziness or incompetence -- and this is in an arena where the productivity of your top ten percent of programmers has been demonstrated to be six times that of your bottom ten percent of programmers.

    What I have seen is that when the layoffs come, the difficult and the unproductive are removed. Why is this? Because the difficult and the unproductive make their manager's life difficult, and he or she often has to ship the same amount of product with less people in a layoff situation, and so there's a tendency to think about that when choosing which people to keep.

    (There's also a tendency to keep people who you enjoy working with over those you don't, but lets leave that be for now)

    Now we come to teaching. How would you set up something similar? You can't, because any decision is ad hoc and personal.

    So there have to be some restraints in place. I agree that tenure is not the best way to deal with it, but it is better than having no restraints at all.

    The real issue is that no one can agree on what effectiveness looks like, at least in any way that could be made understandable as a guideline. The real failure here is that the towns around these schools have not thought through, in any workable way, what the ultimate goal of this stuff is. When I go to board meetings the basic level of thought I hear is well, if it looks like what we got as kids 40 years ago it's education.

    Do we want to fire people based on that metric? How close their classrooms resemble the 1960's?

    It's not just about the teachers. My wife came back from a board meeting last night where the older people in town were upset that the ability to do team teaching was put into the design spec for a new building. This isn't anything extravagant -- they just want to make sure that 6th grade teachers are positioned in the building in a way that makes it possible for them to work together.

    Craziness, thought the taxpayer revolt. How extravagant. "In my day, we didn't need yer 'team teaching' -- and we had desks that hurt to sit in!"

    The minute someone can show me a legitimate way to gauge the effectiveness of teachers, something not based on anecdote and personal gripes -- I'll give it careful consideration.

    But given the surrounding culture doesn't even agree on what it is that schools do or how to measure it, I just don't think that's coming any time soon. Or if it does come, it's likely to come in the form of a test, which would be really counter-productive.

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  7. As a fired teacher, I KNOW it is laughably easy to get rid of them; after all, there are hundreds of applicants just waiting in line to take their jobs. They don't know, however, that administrators have ABSOLUTE job security; it is virtually impossible to get rid of them. That's why teachers are treated like dirt.

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  8. 100 % agreed with Susan. Recently fired on the basis of evaluation of one class full of unruly 10the graders.

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  9. Fired! Sounds awful unless you are a teacher, this can be the opportunity you need to get on a track that is best for you. I taught at an inner city urban school. Students were unruly and they were not on grade level except for a handful (literally). The manta was scaffold the work. I thought to myself, scaffolding goes up, once you finish with it you take it down. The word that should have been used was remediate. These students were middle schoolers,some could not subtract nor divide. Did not want to use the word remediate that demonstrates education was not getting done in K-6.

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