Teacher Seniority – Excerpt from Below C Level

This is an excerpt from Chapter 22 of my forthcoming book, Below C Level. For this post I have removed the footnotes.

Chapter 22 Excerpt

Where seniority rules, new teachers are likely to suffer. They are often assigned to the least desirable schools, given the “worst” classes, the most preparations and the additional assignments nobody else wants. But here’s a radical thought: Seniority, at least in its most rigid forms, hurts veteran teachers, too.

SeniorityIt’s not difficult to find administrators who dislike the rigidities of seniority. When I asked an assistant principal how his elementary school went about hiring teachers, he answered wryly: “You want to know how we fill vacancies? We don’t. A day or two before school opens, someone shows up with some paperwork and says, ‘I’m your new fourth-grade teacher. Where’s my classroom?’ And we take the paperwork and point to the empty room.”

His distaste was palpable. “What other profession doesn’t allow the professionals to select their colleagues?” he wanted to know. “How can we create a genuine learning environment when we can’t control who teaches here?”

When teachers have seniority, “Who benefits?”  That’s a question I’ve been pondering ever since I happened to meet Marlene, a middle-aged veteran of more than 20 years in the classroom.

“This is the worst school I’ve ever taught in,” the teacher muttered to herself, just loud enough for me to hear. We were watching several hundred high school students streaming into school on a fall morning a few years ago. I asked how long she’d been teaching there. “It’s my first year,” she said bitterly.

Because her union was fiercely protective of teachers’ seniority rights, I assumed she’d made the decision to teach there, and I asked her why. Her answer stunned me: “It’s the closest school to my home, and I wanted a short commute.”

We introduced ourselves and talked for a while. I don’t know what sort of teacher Marlene is, but it’s easy to hypothesize that she’s a burned-out, bored worker counting the hours until she can go home for the day. I can imagine her contempt for the school playing itself out with her students.

Is Marlene Exhibit A, proving the evils of the seniority system, or could there be more to the story? I’m assuming that 20 or 25 years ago she was a typical new teacher: idealistic, energetic and determined to contribute to the growth and learning of her students. What happened to make her view her profession through such a narrow prism? Have the rewards of teaching been so slight that commuting time, not her colleagues, the curriculum or the work environment, has become her highest priority?

Unions fought for seniority to protect their members from what they perceived as arbitrary decisions of administrators, and any veteran teacher can tell horror stories of being treated contemptuously or indifferently. Does that still happen? Do administrators still treat trained teachers as if they were “interchangeable parts?” Sadly, in many places they do.

A few years ago I watched a first-year teacher showing high school sophomores how to determine the area of a rectangle. She gave her students the formula and did three sample problems on the board. Each time she gave the answer in meters. No one in the class, including the teacher, knew that the answers had to be in square meters.

What she was experiencing in her first year on the job helps explain why unions fight so hard for rights for teachers. As a new teacher, she had no rights at all, and she was treated disrespectfully. The school district had hired her to teach physical education, the subject she’d trained to teach, but on the first day of school her principal assigned her to teach two sections of algebra, a subject she herself had not studied since high school. Could she have refused? “Yes,” she said, smiling ruefully, “but I wouldn’t have had a job.”

“Teachers as Interchangeable Parts” seemed to be the operating principle of that school principal. Elsewhere in the school, an art teacher was teaching basic math and a middle school basketball coach was teaching high school English.

That fundamental attitude of anti-professionalism goes beyond individual administrators. It’s built into laws and regulations. For example, Georgia (where that young woman was teaching) said at the time that it was fine for teachers to spend 40 percent of their time teaching subjects out of their field without being categorized as “out-of-field.”

A persuasive analogy, perhaps, has to do with automobiles. Consider this: A BMW mechanic could not spend 40 percent of his time repairing Volvos or Fords, but a phys ed teacher can be told to teach two physics classes! So cars are more important than children (or other people’s children, anyway).

The world of teachers is one of small victories, and dozens of routine indignities: constant interruptions from the main office (“Please send Joey Brown to the office”), hall patrol, lunch room duty and the impossibility of taking a bathroom break when nature calls.

Over the years this treatment takes its toll. Many teachers simply leave. In fact, the data show that over 40 percent of new teachers quit the profession in the first five years, according to Richard Ingersoll, professor of education and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. It may be as high as 46 percent within five years, according to the National Commission on Teaching burned outand America’s Future in 2007; that’s an exit rate far higher than in law, medicine, nursing or the ministry – professions that teaching is often compared to. In many districts, the numbers are even worse. The University of Chicago’s Urban Education Institute reported in June 2009 that in Chicago, “Teacher mobility rates at schools with low teacher commitment are abysmal – 67 percent in elementary schools leave within five years, and 76 percent turn over in the high schools. These are schools where teachers do not feel loyal to their schools, would not recommend their school to, and do not look forward to teaching every day.”

What happens to those who stay? While thousands continue to do wonderful work despite it all, many become, in the current lingo, “burned out.”  That is, they’re on the job, but they’ve lost sight of why they became teachers in the first place. Perhaps that’s what happened to Marlene.

Seniority gives veterans – finally – the opportunity to thumb their noses at these indignities, and that’s how I explain Marlene’s way of choosing her school.

There are much better alternatives of course, ways to allow teachers to be professionals. In Seattle, for instance, progressive union leadership and a visionary superintendent, the late John Stanford, pushed through an agreement allowing teachers to be part of the hiring process at individual schools while, at the same time, allowing schools to hire without regard to seniority. That meant teachers were able, for the first time in their professional lives, to participate in choosing their colleagues, in building a professional team at their workplace.

Improving the system, however, cannot start with doing away with seniority. Most teachers I’ve known want to be good at their job, but they’re working in systems that don’t let that happen. Seniority is a desperate protection, but if I were a teacher I’d fight to hold onto it, unless and until management demonstrated its commitment to teaching as a profession.

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