My friend is being fired from her teaching job.
As sad and sympathetic as I am for my friend, I can’t say that I am surprised. I’ve known this teacher for several years, and I’ve seen the burnout coming for the entire time of our friendship.
This teacher has been using language like “those kids” and “the kids” for a long time. Listening to her refer to students like this, as opposed to talking about “my kids,” is a red flag for me. I know that when I stop referring to my students as “mine,” then I’m flirting with burnout and phoning in my job performance.
I was out to dinner with my friend this weekend, talking about her unsatisfactory performance reviews and her upcoming hearing. While sitting there, I was torn. I felt empathy and compassion for her. She once was a fantastic teacher. For the last two years, she has been facing constant scrutiny. It would be incredibly hard for me to hear that I was not doing a good job – I would feel defensive, too. I would want to shift the blame to the kids, my principal, or the parents rather than face the shame of acknowledging that it was me who was the problem.
At the same time, we both knew that it was time for her to leave the classroom.
My friend has the services of a lawyer from our union. However, even with that support, she was thinking about quitting and transitioning completely out of the education profession.
After a moment, I said, “This might be really hard to hear, but I wish you would fight. I think that if you fight and lose, you could do a great service for your fellow teachers.” In this new, post-Vergara v. California world, I think it would be good to remind folks that the current system works.
Let me take a moment to talk about the current system. Despite what I often hear in the media, teachers do not have “tenure.” Rather, once we have moved past our two-year probationary period, teachers in California gain due-process rights. After we start our third year, we cannot be fired unless the school district follows a process. We certainly do not have “jobs for life.”
My friend is a great example of this. If she doesn’t just quit – if she fights for her job and loses, the whole process will take two years. During the 2012-13 school year, she received two unsatisfactory reviews from her principal. At the end of that school year, she was given an improvement plan. This past year, she didn’t follow through on the plan and earned more unsatisfactory reviews.
If she fights and loses, she will show that the process actually works.
I’m tired of hearing administrators say, “It’s impossible to fire bad teachers!” When they do, I ask, “Well, did you try to fire _____?” “No,” they always reply. “It’s too hard, so I didn’t even start the process.” Who are they kidding?
Let’s think about this another way: Imagine hearing a district attorney say, “I didn’t even try to argue the case; it’s too hard to get a conviction.” If that happened, we wouldn’t be complaining aimlessly about the increase in crime or lack of justice. Instead, we would be hollering at those DAs to get to work.
Likewise, instead of wringing our hands over how “impossible” it is to fire bad teachers, we should demand that principals do their jobs and get the process started. If principals are too overwhelmed with the myriad other responsibilities they have, then we should focus our ire on district administration to alleviate some of the principals’ burdens so that they can do a proper job of evaluating and leading their teachers.
Too often I hear that the teachers union is only interested in “protecting the worst” of my colleagues. Keep in mind: The union is supposed to defend all teachers in dismissal cases. The administration is supposed to prosecute all teachers in dismissal cases. The system is, by its very nature, adversarial. It is in that clash where the truth can come out.
Next for my friend is a hearing. I hope she goes through with it. While it may be embarrassing for her, shameful even, to hear the case against her, if she has the courage, she could do a lot of teachers a great service. She could stand up with CTA and NEA and say, “See? The system works. I burned out. I needed to leave the classroom, but I didn’t know it at the time. My school and principal knew, and they had a way of transitioning me out.”
I doubt that she will go through with it, and I can’t blame her. If I were in her shoes, I don’t know if I would have the courage to stand up and open up about no longer being good at my job.
There but for the grace of God go I.
I hope I never burn out. I hope that if I do someday, I will find ways to reconnect to why I love my job and reclaim my inner fire. If I can’t, I hope I have the courage to do what’s best for the kids.
Dave Orphal teaches in the Education Academy at Skyline High School in Oakland. A past president of the Eureka Teachers Association, he writes about policy and his own classroom practice at “After the Bell” on the Center for Teaching Quality’s Collaboratory.
This piece was originally published on the Center for Teaching Quality’s Collaboratory.
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