My New Thinking About Tenure

Girls in classroom, Traveling Library at Publi...
Image by New York Public Library via Flickr

My school has an old librarian.

I have no idea how old she is but I’d guess she’s well into her 70s.

She’s a lovely lady with beautiful script handwriting. She’s lively, opinionated and completely out of date.

She’s so out of date that she has become one more obstacle in the way of my students’ success.

Renovations completed a year or so ago doubled the size of our library. There are more shelves, more tables, more room to move, some computers and a printer or two.

We also have a big, wooden, card file with those narrow pull-out drawers. It is not maintained, but it is the only way to find out what books may or may not be on the shelves.

We may have the only library in NYC still using a card file. I hope so.

Two years ago I went to the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians because it was in Manhattan and because I was a member of the group.

At the meeting they have a smallish trade show for history book publishers to show their wares and for history-related organizations to try to entice new members.

One of those organizations was one of school librarians. They were showing the latest technological innovations in their field. I was drooling.

I told the woman behind the table that I wish my library were more technologically advanced but that we still use a card file.

“How is Mary,” the woman asked. “Hasn’t she retired yet?”

No, and she shows no signs of planning to any time soon.

I go to other schools where the librarians are using computers to teach students how to research beyond Wikipedia, how to tell a legit web site from a bogus one, and how to create a web page.

I go to other schools that have librarians who teach students about blogging, podcasting and creating animations.

I’ve only taken one class of students to our school library and that was six years ago.

I thought I’d arranged for a lesson on how to do research.

Mary decided to teach them cursive writing.

My students thought I was nuts.

My principal thinks it is time for Mary to move on.
I think it is time for Mary to move on.

All the students think it is time for Mary to move on.

Come the first day of school Mary will be in the library.

Mary doesn’t think it is time for Mary to move on.

Sometimes tenure sucks.

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28 Responses to My New Thinking About Tenure

  1. That is so sad. I’m not a librarian any more, but when I was, we were teaching 5-10 classes a day (my partner and I double-booked and split up). We helped teachers plan and co-taught. Modern research, digital storytelling, podcasting, film-making, and collaboration were staples of what we did on a weekly basis. The library should be the heart of the school and the hub for information; it should be an energetic place where learning and reading, both personal and academic, thrive. I’m sorry to hear that is not the case where you are. Cursive writing? Really? I haven’t used that other than to sign my name since I learned it in 4th grade; it’s a good skill, but I think understanding the validity of a source is a little more important.
    I’ve always thought that most people don’t need tenure. If you do a good job, then you won’t be let go. However, there also needs to be a balance, as some will feel hesitant to take risks if they feel that there is no safety net. I am not a big fan of tenure, although I wouldn’t turn it down at the moment either because of the political nature of education.

    • Deven Black says:

      Protection from political retribution is precisely why tenure was created. It is still necessary for that purpose. Like everything else, it has some unfortunate side effects.

  2. True, but the kids need the library skills they are not being taught. What are you going to do?

  3. NyackLady says:

    Thanks for your insights, Deven. Totally agree. But what do we do with those who are so entrenched and worried about their livelihood?

  4. Linda704 says:

    Deven,while I understand the point you are trying to make here, I must comment that tenure is only meant to protect due process. If Mary is not doing her job, then the administrator(s) should have been indicating such in her evaluation(s), and given her opportunity to improve. If she has not been given any suggestions, guidance or directives to change, what motivation does she have? I completely agree that the situation in the library is wrong. But tenure is not to blame.

  5. @JenAnsbach says:

    Deven, I don’t understand what your argument has to do with tenure. Why aren’t your administrators making sure that these things are being done? It seems like the administrators aren’t interested in having these things change. There is no guarantee that if you had someone younger that things would be done in a way that stays current (that’s what you want, right? Someone who is continuously changing with the times and not someone who keeps doing things the way they were done when he or she was hired?) if the administration doesn’t make that clear or demand it.

    Protecting someone’s right to due process and requiring someone to meet job expectations are two completely different issues.

    • Deven Black says:

      I’m not against tenure. I rely on it almost every time I open my mouth or write something.

      My principal has done all the things you and Linda suggest, including giving the librarian an unsatisfactory rating this past year. I don’t know that there are any specific standards for what a librarian is supposed to do, but I suspect that she meets the bare minimums.

      No, there are no guarantees that a younger person would be any more proactive in terms of keeping up with changes during her employment, but starting with someone fresh would be far more likely to bring us up to the 1990s (at least) than our current lingering in the 1950s.

      I suspect that my principal is loathe to bring this woman up on charges and would much prefer she retire voluntarily. I know that idea has been advanced by several people including me with little success. I suspect that should her performance not change, and no one expects it to, steps will be taken to remove her.

  6. Tim says:

    It’s a leadership problem. If she’s got an unsatisfactory rating, then a timeline has started and the clock is ticking. If the principal doesn’t know how to write a remediation plan that achieves her desired result, or if she doesn’t have the will to terminate someone, then that is a huge problem because optically it looks like a tenure problem, when in fact it’s a failure to lead.

    Card catalogs? And she only got the unsatisfactory last year? Your principal is contributing to a problem that teachers are being blamed for. It’s a wide-spread phenomenon, and it’s a bull that the professional situation should have grabbed by horns years ago.

    We’re going to need tenure more than ever in the near-term future because there’s only a few of us left willing to speak out against bad ideas.

    You’ve always been one of the more astute education writers that I follow; I wonder if you slightly regret the focus of this post.

    • Deven Black says:

      No, I regret only the title. This post was not intended to be about tenure when I started it and that last line surprised me a bit when I wrote it as I have always been a strong and vocal supporter of tenure. I will likely continue to be one.

      I kept the last line because I am often surprised by how my thoughts flow when writing. That is the purpose of a reflective blog as this one has often turned out to be. That is the thought I had so that is what I left there. It is something else for me to reflect on, I guess.

      As for leadership, there is no remediation plan in the world that will change Mary. She will have to be forced out and I am sire my principal has the mettle to do that. He is not in the ‘blame the teacher business,’ just the opposite. By fostering small teacher-run academies within the school he has been giving teachers more and more control of their programs and methods. His observations are fair and always come with ideas for improvement. I have never worked for as empowering a boss.

  7. Mike Ritzius says:

    I have to agree with Linda and Jen. In K12 environments, tenure simply means that a person has the right to due process. The administration needs to ensure that they have delineated the areas of improvement and have given her the opportunity to meet the criteria of the improvement plan. The blame here lies with the building administrators for allowing this to occur, not with tenure.

  8. Jayhawk100 says:

    Why is Mary still working?
    Has anyone talked to her about retiring? about libraries in the 21st century?
    This is a sad situation for all concerned. Not sure tenure is the problem–unless Mary was like this 40 years ago.
    Are you close enough to walk your students to a public library? Just a thought:)

    • Deven Black says:

      I don’t know what she was like 40 years ago but a colleague who attended the school 25 years ago says the only thing different is that her spine was not as bent back then. But 25 years ago she was still well within the norms of library science. Technology as we think of it today was not a factor in education then.

      Yes, our principal and other teachers besides myself have talked to her about retiring but I understand why she is hesitant. She never married and her only family is an older brother she cares for. The school is her entire social life and giving it up with isolate her. I would not retire under those circumstances either.

  9. Diane Lauer says:

    Maybe it’s tenure, maybe it’s leadership as some of the comments suggest. But, it’s all of us together needing to commit to our continuous growth and dedication to learning. We are leaders in our learning communities. And that is hard sometimes, to take risks, to grow, to unlearn. Your situation is untenable. What if it was just mediocre. Sometimes I worry more about that then the extreme because that is more the norm than the outlier. Thanks for taking the risk to write this great post and stirring up a lot of great perspectives. I’ve come to admire that in your writing. Please keep it up! 😉

    • Deven Black says:

      Thanks for the kind words, Diane. You’ve made a good point about those teachers who are just mediocre. Presumably they can be guided to improve and that should be the aim of educational (and political) leadership. Extreme cases like Mary are relatively easier to deal with.

  10. Catmikk says:

    Hi Deven: I don’t see why you’re taking a beating for this post. It’s refreshing to hear a teacher saying “sometimes tenure sucks.” It’s tantamount to hearing a NRA person saying that gosh, automatic weapons should not be available. Our country has gotten so strange. And people seem to not be able to grok the “shades of gray” thing.

    • Deven Black says:

      A beating is not always a bad thing. It shows I have stimulated thinking and that is rarely a bad thing.

      Tenure does have its downside, just as there is probably some upside to automatic weapons (though I have no idea what it might be, and no, I don’t care to discuss it).

  11. I’m not sure what it is.. Tenure or leadership… but it is frustrating I know.. and it seems that no matter how much advice and redirection some people get from leadership, they still don’t change, but yet (in my district) they’re still guaranteed the same position the next year. I’m sure administration grows tired of filling out those reports that don’t really seem to make a big difference. As professionals, it should be our job to keep current in our area of practice; whatever that may be. It is a shame that this is not a requirement of teachers.

  12. Sue Densmore says:

    Your principal needs to stand up and do his job. Surely part of the evaluation criteria for teachers in your building is staying current in curriculum and instruction.

    This isn’t about tenure. As usual, it is about an administrator unwilling to do the hard, uncomfortable work that comes with the territory.

    Tenure doesn’t suck.

    • Deven Black says:

      Again, the principal has done an excellent job raising the level of teaching in the building and every way of measuring student achievement shows this. That and improving the school atmosphere (the two go hand-in-hand most of the time) has been a higher priority than dealing with the librarian that everyone expected to retire within a year of the principal arriving. Now that the rest of the school is running well I expect him to focus more on the library situation.

      Anyone who does not see that there are occasionally problems with the tenure system is hiding their head in the sand and hoping the problems will disappear. Tenure is good and necessary, but it is not perfect.

  13. teacher333 says:

    Younger, less experienced does not necessarily equate to better! In our District, the classroom teachers teach these skills – is there any reason why you cannot? Or perhaps you and your fellow teachers could somehow include “Mary” in some new in-service with you, as a small group, to bring her up to speed. One day, someone will be writing of you in much the same way.

    • missbartel says:

      This isn’t necessarily true. There’s many teachers with tenure that are active in professional development and continually working their hardest to keep updated and relevant for the sake of the students and the society those students will live and work in. I have the utmost respect for these teachers who have not grown up immersed in technology. I would assume that someone as opened minded as Deven Black (whom I do not know in outlet other than his blog), who is willing to take our criticism of his writing, think through it and reflect on his own practice, is not a man who will be written about for being stuck in a rut.

      • Deven Black says:

        I am humbled by your support Miss Bartel. I did not have any real experience with technology other than email until I became a teacher and I work hard to keep up.

    • Deven Black says:

      Mary does not want to be brought up to speed, she wants everyone else to slow down to the way it used to be. She is included in all trainings but closes her ears and mind to change.

      As for me, I fervently hope that on the day I feel that I no longer have the passion for learning necessary to be a good teacher I have the great good sense to resign my position and seriously reconsider the rest of my life.

  14. ldorazio1 says:

    Deven, I completely see where you’re coming from. It took a lot of guts to write this: how many buildings have teachers whose once shining light has now faded with time? Like you, I’m not against tenure…but it is important to recognize the unfortunate side effects.

  15. Deven Black says:

    I just call ’em like I sees ’em.

  16. Keep Mary! Give her a department to run as she does now. She remains a resource in terms of skills, knowledge and competencies. Her role is not redundant, just needs expanding upon, perhaps with another.

    Assign a Library Technician to teach students and to maintain electronic databases. Surly there is a grant for that, or to sponsor Mary’s continued employment.

    Cursive is cool and practical in many “life on the edge” moments. Be prepared.

  17. SB says:

    Oh my.

    Can she perhaps retire from a librarian (because she surely isn’t a media specialist) position…but come back as a library parapro? That way, she still has the social outlet she needs and is still somewhat doing what she loves…but someone else who is well versed in 21st century library science is running the show.

  18. MD says:

    We have a media center clerk, but she does not doing any teaching because she is not a certificated employee. I am of the old school and think kids of today still need to be exposed to books in print. Kids can learn from older people, and older people can learn from todays students. If a person has a love for books, let them share it. Once that generation passes on it will only be a memory, but a seed planted in the minds of students.

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