Sunday, March 24, 2013

Seniority Does Not Always Equal Merit

The title is from a line in an essay published in Friday's Globe and Mail:  "I'm a First-Year Teacher Who Will Automatically be Fired at the End of the School Year."  The author of this unwieldly title laments the reality that, as a new teacher, s/he'll be first out the door over teachers who have been there longer, yet are clearly far less brilliant.  In the comments, people have been led to trash unions.  I don't think that's the real issue.

There are several problem with the author's arguments.  For instance, s/he claims that current teachers generally have only a B.A. whereas new teachers need two degrees.  With the exception of tech teachers, I think s/he must be thinking of a very long time ago - and most of that lot have long retired.  I've been teaching 22 years, and I had to have 5 years  of education with two degrees, and since starting, added several additional qualifications and a Masters.

S/he blames the unions for this mess, but the reality s/he speaks of is by no means limited to teaching or other unionized professions.  When I worked at a large insurance company, people were generally promoted based on seniority, and, when times were tough, the last ones in were the first ones out regardless of ability.  It's just the simplest, most efficient, means of firing.  There were exceptions made for remarkable talent (usually a talent for schmoozing), but that also happens in education from time to time.  S/he might not have to leave so soon if s/he could coach football.  And with a teacher's union, many teachers can retire in their 50s with a solid pension, leaving new positions open.  In the private sector, many people have to save for their own retirement and leave at 67.

Parts of the story don't quite ring true.  I can't imagine admin allowing a drove of students to change sections because they don't like the teacher.  That just doesn't happen.  And s/he proposes a system based entirely on student performance and feedback, but I've already criticized that idea.  Like seniority, popularity with students does not always equal merit.

Nevertheless, s/he makes a good point about the problem of ineffective teachers who are biding their time until retirement - untouchable so long as they don't handle any kid violently or sexually.  In that  insurance company, less-competent people were promoted into positions where they could do the least damage.  Wouldn't it be better to find a way to let people go when they're in a career that just doesn't fit them?  In my last post I suggested the only thing that could work is if teachers evaluate one another objectively.  But first we'd have to figure out what a good teacher looks like - what the objective criterion-referenced standards are for teaching.  If we can figure out and agree on what makes an excellent teacher and an average teacher, then we should be able to come up with some concrete idea of what makes a “unacceptable” teacher.

But then what do we do with teachers who are below par? Right now, if any are identified at all, they get an unfavourable review, and are required to re-do the review process. I’ve never known a teacher who was let go for incompetence. And there's a tricky arbitrary nature of teaching – like it’s a talent, not a skill, that creates a feeling that it's arrogant for anyone to suggest that they're such good teachers, they're actually capable of judging others. There’s a strong but subtle social norm that we don’t criticize our own, and there’s actually a bit of legislation that requires forms signed in triplicate whenever we do make a less-than-flattering judgment call against a colleague.

Regardless my suggestion that teachers are the only people competent to evaluate other teachers, fostering a climate that encourages critiques of peers might lead to a toxic workplace. My aim in that post was two-fold: to find a way for teachers to observe others for their own learning, and to find the best people to ensure we’re working up to a measurable standard. But it falls apart, of course, if it’s used vindictively – as soon as anyone feels it gives them any power over another person.

Regardless, I'll take a stab at a teacher rubric considering all discipline as much as possible, but likely leaning towards histories and world issue courses in which there are so many topics, the teacher can’t be expected to be an expert on all of them. And it’s very much biased in favour of my personal teaching style. It would be interesting to get many teachers together to create a rubric for our department, school, board, or province.  Excellence under this rubric is only possible in the teacher’s subject area which is not always a reality.  I've got a background in history and fine arts, yet spent many years teaching English and science for which I have no qualifications.  The author of the article was shocked by this part of the system, but it's sometimes a necessary evil when sorting out very complex timetables.

For those uninitiated in rubrics, this is how I was taught to use them back in the day, but I've never heard any other teacher do this: Underline each point that applies from all columns then pile pennies (real or imagined) that match the number of points underlined in each column. Then move the pennies towards each other two at a time from the outside-in (as one moves right from excellent, another will move left from weak) until pennies are in two adjacent columns. If there are significantly more in one, then that’s the final evaluation. If it’s pretty even, then it’s between the two. BUT any unacceptable points might wipe out anything else the teacher does. One unacceptable could lead to a discussion, two or three to a suspension pending some further education, and more than that could lead to termination. Unlike many rubrics I see, sometimes it makes more sense to have some ideas under good, then not another until unacceptable. There are some expectations that are either there or not there.

Because tables don't work well in blogger, check out the rubric here, and comment below.  Would it work?  Are there factors missing or unnecessary factors cluttering it up?  Can we actually make teachers accountable?  And do we actually want to?

1 comment:

Peter Reese said...

Dear Marie:

Thank you for providing this article called "I'm a first-year teacher who'll automatically be fired at the end of the school year."

As a senior supply teacher, I would just like to comment on this article. I really think it needs a second voice :)

The author (Alex Ventura) writes:

“On top of all of this, because this is my first year of teaching, I automatically lose my job at the end of the year. Even though I have received glowing reviews from administrators, I will be pulled from my position so that someone with more seniority within the school board can apply for my job.”

Well, from what I gather from this article, Alex was a long-term occasional teacher that successfully completed a full-time teaching assignment. The job was finished at the end of the school year and now Alex is very frustrated that he will not be hired back because he’s a very new teacher and knows he will fall to the bottom of the seniority list.

Now, my question to Alex is: why should he automatically be given his job back in September? Why?

Even if Alex did a terrific job, why should he “automatically” be hired back without considering anyone else? Shouldn’t other candidates be considered? Shouldn’t there be an interview selection process? Where’s the credibility? Why should principals simply be handing over jobs to the same people when there are thousands of other highly qualified teachers out there with far more experience? That’s why we need a seniority list! To stop principals from shortlisting their own “tiny” group of teachers and hiring who they want.

I am also not familiar with what “glowing reviews from administrators” means since principals were never required to formally “evaluate” the performance of occasional teachers. I assume Alex is referring to receiving good “references” from his administration; however, references are not evaluations and like you have mentioned before,

“but I wonder to what extent they show exceptional teaching since, from what I've seen, principals often don't even know the supply teachers' names, but they write the letters regardless.”

So, how can we really “trust” the administration then? How can we really know if Alex is getting glowing reviews? How can we know for a fact that principals are hiring the “best” teachers when they’re just handing over reference letters to people they can’t even remember? It doesn’t make any sense.

Peter R.