Denny and the Overpriced Retreads. . .

Cranky Blogger Warning!  This post is a heavy dose of emotion mixed with a splash of rational thinking.  Take it for what it's worth, which may be next to nothing when I look at it again in a week.  I'm too worked up to tell right now. 

Not long ago, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel (aka: Ol' Denny) took some time to wax poetic about his first days as a classroom teacher in Iowa.  He wrote:

As I entered my first classroom in Iowa, I recall the anticipation, anxiety, and fun in store! The learning curve was steep—I remember feeling overwhelmed by all the paperwork and forms. And there were 160 students counting on me—quite a culture shock from my student teaching days.

So I jumped in with both feet.

I took seating charts home every night and by the end of the first week of school, I had memorized every student's name. I was more tired after my first week of teaching than after working 2 full-time jobs all summer. It's a tough job, but it's also where I loved to be.

Today, I work in new surroundings as NEA President. But I still get the same rush from being part of such a unique and awesome profession. My new experiences will be special in their own way.

But those "first days" are always memorable!

Beautiful, ain't it?  Ol' Denny almost brought a tear to my eye. 

Heck, I could almost smell the chalk as little Hawkeyes pounded classroom erasers trying to please their heroic teacher, who sat smiling behind a desk littered with apple knick-knacks and graded papers sporting enough "You're Just Plain Super!" stickers to make an entire grade level beam with twelve-year-old pride.

You'd have to be a cold-hearted soul NOT to love warm reminiscences from a school teacher—especially when that one-time teacher now leads the most powerful organization representing educators in the nation, right?

Wrong.  You'd just have to be a first year teacher in districts like mine in 2009.  Faced with almost impossible budget numbers, schools across the country are cutting the contracts of non-tenured colleagues—-including those who are the newest to our profession—faster than the Little Ceaser's guy preparing $5 pizzas in Munchietown. 

Don't get me wrong:  We can't blame school districts for letting people go.  After all, state revenues provide the bulk of revenue for schoool districts and most states haven't got two nickels to rub together right now.  Budgets simply have to be cut—-and like most knowledge based service industries, cutting budgets in education almost inevitably means cutting people.

It's just that our profession cuts people so freaking carelessly!  

Take my friend Lucy—a REMARKABLE first year teacher here in North Carolina who found out the other day that her school hasn't got a teaching spot for her next year.  She had a first year that could easily have rivalled Ol' Denny's.  Her lessons were amazing, her kids were learning, and she completely loved what she was doing. 

She'd impressed her colleagues completely, but she's getting deep-sixed for no other reason than she's got one year of experience in a district that has to cut almost 700 teaching positions in order to balance the budget. 

What's even crazier is that if you were to ask Lucy's principals, they'd probably tell you that they'd RATHER keep her than some of the other faculty members that they're stuck with.  After all, it wasn't too long ago that they spent dozens of hours sifting through applications and suffering through job fairs to find the perfect match for their buildings. 

Sadly, they haven't got any kind of wiggle room in situations like Lucy's and she's been told to pack her stuff and keep her fingers crossed for next year.  Those first days ARE always memorable, aren't they Denny?!

Thanks to Union leaders who defend antiquated tenure practices, education as a profession is sending incredibly disheartening messages to teachers like Lucy that go a little something like this: 

"Gosh, that was great, wasn't it kid?!  You sure did a bang up job.  Got a real taste of the ol' apple-dust, didn't ya?  And dagummit, you're a natural!

"But that don't matter, see.  We're sorry and all, but you're getting canned because we ain't got the cash to keep you around.  It ain't nothin' that you did, though.  You were incredibly competent.  It's just that competence don't matter in this profession.  Heck, you could be Superwoman, but you'd still be Superwoman with one year's experience.   

"Instead, we're going to jack up class sizes a bit and give your position to someone who's been around here for awhile.  And here's the real kicker:  We KNOW that the person who gets your job might just be a miserable old fart making three times what your making who doesn't give two rips about kids and who beats the busses out of the parking lot. 

"But one thing's for sure:  That miserable old fart is going to have more years in the system than you.  I guarantee it!  

Good times, Denny.  Good times indeed.  

Do you really expect young, intelligent educators like Lucy to wait around for another TEACHING job? 

If you do, you must have been mainlining chalk dust for just a LITTLE too long.  Lucy's already told me she's done with a backwards profession that refuses to recognize merit.  "I was willing to work forever for next to nothing," she told me, close to tears over a career that she loved but that didn't love her back.

In the end, Lucy will get hired by some company or another that recognizes that she's a heckuva bargain.  Business tends to see talented young workers as the best of both worlds, don't they?  Sure, their rolodexes might be thin, but they often bring twice the passion while working for half the paycheck. 

And we'll be left with a handful of overpriced retreads working towards retirement. 

How does this make sense for kids?  How does this make sense for advancing our profession in the eyes of the general population?  When will we get to the point where EDUCATORS begin to insist that staffing decisions be made on merit rather than years of experience?

Tough questions, huh Denny. 

My answer:  Not soon enough.  I'm tired of losing Lucies



16 thoughts on “Denny and the Overpriced Retreads. . .

  1. Alan

    While I am one of the first to admit that experience is a valuable thing, it is also the easiest aspect of teaching to gain. You merely need time in a classroom to gain experience. Good teachers have personal qualities that put that experience to work to make them even better.
    Right now I am frustrated beyond ends. I came from poverty. Not just broke, impoverished.
    I lived years in a old broken down bus on a desert reservation, moved to slum houses in the inner city, pass between famliy members houses. I worked my way through school. Graduated with highest honors from a university with a top notch program. I have years of tutoring, volunteer work, and private lessons to augment my time as a student teacher. I have fantastic reviews and references from everyone I have worked with. I have been a guest lecturer, I have artwork in multiple shows, won awards, sold work to private collections.
    I can’t get a job, even as a teacher assistant.
    Principals say they are impressed with my work, the work of my students, etc.
    Someone with years in the system gets the job, or worse yet, someone related to someone in the system for years gets the job. A woman from my class who managed a c average in school, was nearly dismissed form her student teaching position, got the job. Her husband works there, and her mother is friends with the principal.
    I want to be teacher because I want to give students more opportunity than was offer to me. I want them to see that education is the great equalizer.
    Evidently the institution of education is still all about who you know, not what you know.

  2. Tyler

    It’s sad to see good, new teachers leaving the profession while mediocre (or just plain bad) teachers stay on board. NEA and local teacher associations have really brought some of this on themselves. Tenure is a nice bit of protection, but it ties the hands of administration officials when it comes to RIF’s.

  3. Dina

    And honestly, if one has done just the teeniest, tiniest bit of digging on alternatives to tenure, one will see that there are multiple, multi-faceted, wholistic models out there that far outshine what we’ve currently got– as well as put the lie to knee-jerk reactions that equate getting rid of tenure with the equally problematic test score/merit pay debacle.
    (I get kind of fired up about this issue too; did you notice?)

  4. Bill Ferriter

    Roger wrote something competely brilliant. If you haven’t seen it, check it out again:
    I’m afraid this is something we’ve brought upon ourselves. For years, we’ve said, “Oh, merit pay sounds like a good idea but it’s just impossible to judge how good a teacher is.”
    Well, if you argue there’s no way to judge for determining pay, it’s awful hard to argue that there is a way to judge for determining lay-offs.
    I’ve written about this a ton before, Roger….Instead of seeing merit pay as something to fear, we need to find a way to make it something that we can work with.
    Until we admit that we’re not all “created equal” as educators, we’re only holding our own profession back.
    And while I’m pretty hard on Ol’ Denny in this piece, he’s not the cause of the problem. Instead, it’s the millions of hard core union folks who he is ably representing!
    Union leaders don’t take positions on whims. They take positions based on a knowledge of the desires of the people that they represent. That means my colleagues are as responsible for poor hiring and firing policies as Denny himself!
    That’s a sad reality, indeed.

  5. Roger Sweeny

    I’m afraid this is something we’ve brought upon ourselves. For years, we’ve said, “Oh, merit pay sounds like a good idea but it’s just impossible to judge how good a teacher is.” Well, if you argue there’s no way to judge for determining pay, it’s awful hard to argue that there is a way to judge for determining lay-offs.

  6. SlimFemme

    My mother, a first year teacher at a suburban Chicago high school got her pink slip too. This is actually a third career for my mother. In fact, because of the absurd requirements for teaching in Illinois, she’s in significant debt.
    My mother has filled me with stories of the incompetence of school district administrators. In fact, the principle, who fired her, was arrested for beating his live-in girlfriend. She decided to drop the charges. They have a son together, poor child.
    Since his arrest was in the local paper, the students do not take this man seriously. And now, the school has a leadership vacuum. Nine principles have come and gone in only 8 years!!
    My mother deals with the discplinary problems daily. She’s had students flat out tell her, to her face, that nothing will happen despite writing up the student for a detention. Students have sex in the classrooms and in broom closets; the janitors have to clean up the condoms.
    My mother has no sorrow for being fired. In fact, she wanted to kick her heals after receiving the pink slip. She took it like a strong lady she is.
    My question is, why was this principle allowed to return? Why hasn’t he been fired? Doesn’t his behavior warrant terminiation? I can answer that question easily, NO, IT DOESN’T!! So much for helping the children.

  7. Andrew Pass

    I personally think that the community marketplace could decide which teachers stay and which leave. In other words, if there was more choice associated with schooling the better teachers would likely get to stay, especially if the power of unions was significantly limited. The problem is, what does it mean to be “better”?

  8. Bob Heiny

    Make sense? Yes. Offer a resolution? Perhaps I missed it.
    This is a practical issue, that requires cool heads and rational action. In my experience, emotions give opposition reasons to discredit your proposals.
    In the Sal Alinsky tradition, as for transparency, I’d urge teachers to find out how administrators made their decisions to RIF the Lucys.
    Who called the meeting, when was it held, who attended, who voted for which option? Find out what alternatives they had.
    Also, in the same tradition, expose the issue beyond the white gloves of administrative personnel matters.
    Find an aspiring investigative newspaper reporter to dig into whatever you decide to make an issue in that decision making process.
    Above all, someone in your NC county calls the shots in private behind public officials, including school supers.
    Get to that person, perhaps a long time landed matron who inhereted the position? Explain alternatives to her. Plead your case privately directly to her before doing anything else in public.
    A good slouth will figure out how to handle this situation.
    And at the same time, help Lucy find another position.

  9. Bill Ferriter

    Larry wrote:
    Saul Alinsky, the legendary community organizer, once said: “The price of criticism is a constructive alternative.”
    I’m be open to the idea of tenure elimination when I see such an alternative from tenure critics.
    I’m right there with you, Larry. I hate critics without solutions—and when I find myself in that place, it’s even more frustrating!
    I think a part of my emotion in this situation is that there isn’t an educator in America who can’t relate to the pickle that Lucy is in. We could probably all list a dozen people who don’t deserve the salary that they’re getting along with a person who deserves twice as much.
    And yet NO ONE pushes for change. We all just sit on the sidelines and say, “It is what it is. What can we do?”
    I guess I kind of feel like the first step towards change is making problems transparent. Once we stop politely biting our tounges when we know that ineffective colleagues are working in our classrooms, maybe there will be enough political will for real conversations about changing salary structures and hiring practices to take place.
    Does this make any sense?

  10. Larry Ferlazzo

    I can understand your frustration at losing a talented colleague.
    At the same time, though, many of my talented colleagues (who have taught far longer than me) have told me of experiences with past administrators which could have resulted in personal disasters for them, and for students who would no longer have the luck to be in their classes.
    Saul Alinsky, the legendary community organizer, once said: “The price of criticism is a constructive alternative.”
    I’m be open to the idea of tenure elimination when I see such an alternative from tenure critics.

  11. sweber

    It is a difficult time to be a school teacher or administrator. I realize that most school administrators struggle with the difficult decisions that they are required to make due to state and local budgets.
    No one wants to cut after school tutoring, but the lack of state funding makes forces such decisions. No administrator wants to get rid of a “Lucy”. Afterall, they spent several months looking for the exact fit for their school.
    I respect your thoughts and the fact that you are standing up for your colleagues. I also have an understanding of your views on teacher promotion/retention/and pay scale, based on previous blogs. I don’t think that a first-time reader to your blog will understand your full view on this topic based on your most recent remarks. You may wish to hyperlink some of your previous articles and thoughts.
    Good for you for standing up for young teachers. We have all been there and it is a stressful time in the school year, with or without the possibility of losing your job. Several first year teachers have relocated across the United States, following graduation. If they have purchased their first home, the economy makes it difficult for the to resell their home and find a teaching position in another state. As human beings, the best thing we can do is support our colleagues through these difficult times.

  12. Renee Moore

    Well, before everybody starts lining up to take shots at teacher union contracts and tenure as the culprits for it being so hard to get rid of bad teachers and so easy to cut the good ones……
    Here in the land of no tenure, no seniority, no union contracts,..where it is relatively easy (compared to places that have those things) to remove any teacher, there is still a decided capriciousness to who gets the axe and why. I’ve been on our Licensure Commission for years and can count on one finger of one hand how many districts have asked to have a teacher’s credentials removed for incompetence. Seems principals are too busy with other duties to document why these teachers need to go. I have seen teachers with years of seniority, as well as those with three or less simply let go (contact nonrenewal) for no better reason than personality conflict with the principal, or “let’s give that spot to the new coach.”
    More important, for the Lucies and some of those “overpriced retreads” there is too little in the way of real support, and real work evaluation for educators who need it when it might make a difference between them becoming great teachers or mediocre ones.

  13. Mike Fisher

    Before my wife and I moved to New York from North Carolina 5 years ago, I remember an article in one of the State Journals about teacher turnover in NC and the need for tens of thousands of teachers over the next decade. In fact, here in Buffalo, there are NO jobs…our education students have to move to other states to find jobs. What makes this worse is that the “Lucy” type of teachers are few and far between, which sends the message that school districts apparently value mediocrity and tradition far more than exceptional teaching. It’s a sad situation. It makes me want to write a similar blog post about how unions are undoing modern education–especially here in New York State. I’ve never in my life seen something so far removed from doing what’s best for kids as a teacher’s union like districts have here. It keeps bad teachers from getting fired and good students from getting a quality education!

  14. David Cohen

    Bill, it’s hard to disagree with your overall premise, but just as hard to see the solution. In the short term, do you think schools have the tools they need to determine who stays and who goes in hard times? You’ve written before about how your kids’ test scores weren’t the best in the building, so do you worry that Lucy would get your job if her kids’ test scores were better? Now, maybe if there were better evaluation systems in place, it might be different. One other thing to consider is that teachers have major disincentives to go anywhere voluntarily. Most have too little pay in the near term and are banking on that pension later. Many would face the same risks that other workers face because of our nation’s irrational link between employment and affordable health care elligibility. And then let’s just say that some teachers still have potential but need to move to a school that’s a better fit, make a clean start. In many cases, they can’t get hired at the same or similar salary. So, while I agree Lucy might be best for the kids, I understand why teachers are fighting to keep tenure. With fixes in evaluation, compensation, pension, health care, and transfer policies, I’d be much more comfortable talking about the end of tenure.

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