Nils De Vita (Los Angeles ’90) teaches math at New Utrecht High School in Brooklyn, NY.
Tenure for teachers has become a political football in state capitals across the nation. I understand the tension, because I’m in an unusual position. I’m a member of Teach For America’s charter corps and have worked at two summer training Institutes. I’m also a 23-year teaching veteran, elected union delegate for my school, and an AFT teacher leader charged with tackling issues that promote and protect public education for all American students. I’m considered conservative by TFA standards but progressive within the union.
But this much is clear to me—tenure remains critical to protecting and supporting teachers, and any effort to improve it must start with collaboration among teachers, administrators and political leaders.
Here’s why I believe in tenure:
First, experience counts. Teaching is a craft that takes time to be honed and mastered. We work with human capital, not wood, steel, parts of machines, or entries on an accounting sheet. It not only takes time to develop the required skills but also knowledge, patience, and professionalism.
Second, tenure offers valuable protection from discrimination. Tenure began about one hundred years ago to protect teachers—all women—from being fired for getting married or pregnant, or for their political affiliations. Today, the specifics have changed but the principle is the same. Without tenure, teachers could be fired just because their salaries are considered high, which would have a larger impact on older teachers. Without tenure, teachers could lose their jobs for expressing their political affiliations, taking creative freedoms or simply disagreeing with administrators.
Third, teachers make a commitment to a profession that requires a huge upfront investment, including master’s degrees and state certifications. The teachers we’ve had, the people who formed our lives, chose this profession because they love children, and they wanted to make a lifelong commitment to them. Tenure is society’s way of returning that commitment, helping teachers prosper and ensure stability for the future of their communities.
Critics like to say that tenure creates laziness and mediocrity, and that it serves teachers more than students. I disagree. Even with tenure protections, many strong teachers still face disciplinary hearings and termination for alleged causes that, for one reason or another, are not protected by tenure.
Should tenure be reformed? Absolutely. The tenure system developed one hundred years ago surely cannot exist in teh same way today. Tenure should help a teacher grow in a complex, ever-changing profession, where we are seeing incredible advances in technology, a changing student population and new ways of evaluating success in the classroom. Tenure should be part of an evaluation system that inspires a teacher to improve, by including administrator and peer evaluations, consideration of the individual students we teach and data-driven assessments that are as fair and accurate as possible.
Let‘s also be honest here: teaching is not for everyone, and for those who are not called to teach, there should also be a system to help them transition to another field of work.
Change is happening, but change is not easy, because education is not an easy business. The key to making tenure work is not damaging political soundbites against teachers and our unions, which only encourage teachers to leave the system and ultimately hurt students. The key is collaboration.
When it comes to tenure, we owe it to the nation, our families and students to continue evolving. And we have a lot to do to bring us up to date in a world that is changing faster than we can plan for. That effort must start with a collaborative conversation—not about how to get rid of tenure, but how to preserve the benefits it offers while making our system stronger for everyone.
Don't forget to check out the counterpoint to this post: "Where Does Our Loyalty Lie?"
Nils De Vita is a member of Teach For America’s 1990 charter corps and has dedicated his career to teaching. He has won multiple teaching awards, served as a teacher mentor, and is active in the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. All opinions expressed here are solely his own.