What Tenure Means to Me

By annetteboardman (annetteboardman is a pseudonym of a college professor who teaches at a university in Missouri). This essay originally appeared on DailyKos.

It doesn’t mean that I don’t want to work anymore, that I have permission to never update a class, or get grading done in a timely manner.  Perhaps you thought it meant that I didn’t need to actually make any challenging assignments, or perhaps do just a bubble-sheet midterm and final, and perhaps a three page paper that I wouldn’t give any feedback on except for a letter grade at the top.

The Missouri state senate this week passed a bill (it still has to go to the House) for school teachers.  They wanted to get rid of tenure altogether.  But they compromised by making it ten years in the same school district (you start over again if you change districts).  You know, if you don’t threaten people with losing their livelihoods, why would they work to do a good job?

As the bill’s sponsor, Jane Cunningham of Chesterfield, says:

“As long as the teacher does not own their job, if you will, then they’re going to be really working to prove themselves and do a good job, so it gives us five more years of encouraging and giving motivation to teachers to really produce.”

Although I teach at a university, I am quite concerned at the movement in the state of Missouri to get rid of tenure in public schools.  It shows a deep distrust of people’s motivations.  Teaching is not an easy job.  It is not a good-paying job.  Even though it is “only” nine or ten months of the year, it is not a 40-hour-a-week work schedule.  And there are many things other than just teaching that goes into it.  A teacher may be called upon to be a baby-sitter and referee at times, a role model and motivator, a security guard and career coach.

So in exchange for these extreme demands for little enough pay that often teachers need to take summer jobs to make it through the slow season, for being expected to teach kids who haven’t got support for academic achievement at home, or even breakfast or a meal the night before.

I teach university, and I have the benefit of not teaching things that everyone has to take, such as statistics or English comp.  So I don’t have the things that teachers have to deal with, of students who are mandated by law and/or their parents to show up in classes.  And they resent it, sometimes violently.

But I do value tenure in my own job.  I love my job.  I work long hours for a salary that, while quite pleasant, is low on the national scale of people with my rank and years of experience.  I like tenure because I don’t have to worry about having a dean (like the one I had when I first started who took a dislike to me before I was hired) who will write bad reviews specifically with the goal of getting me to leave or making sure I am not rehired  (He left finally, instead of me).

I have been tenured for twelve years now, and I have continued to try new things in the classroom, developing and refining assignments and even new courses to fill needs in our programs (both departmental and school wide).  I spend 50+ hours a week in class, in meetings and in conferences with students, and then lots and lots of grading takes up much of my evenings.  I answer emails at all times of day and night (I keep odd hours).  And in the summer I prepare new classes, read books for new content to incorporate in my lectures, and try to manage research that is hard to do during the year.  I work year round, even though I am paid for nine months.

If I had to worry about being renewed every year I might actually spend less time on teaching so I could get more publishing done.  And I could make sure that students “liked” me on evaluations as much as possible.  Lots of extra credit, higher grades, etc., a lot of credit just for showing up and making opportunities to make up work that has been missed.  All the things that won’t really cut it in the job world, but make more students like you.

If I didn’t have tenure, I would be more worried.  It is not that I don’t “really produce” — I am tenured, but I take pride in my job.  I want to do well, and it is important to me to be a good teacher.  Tenure is a statement that I am not ever going to have to be worried about losing my job if I show up, do my job, and don’t (literally) screw my students.  I don’t have to worry that I can be replaced by a younger, prettier, or cheaper professor.  I cannot be fired because I am close to being vested in the retirement program (that vesting has already happened, of course, but I know someone in a different field who worked in an at-will state who was fired the year before the vesting happened).  Or because I get sick and am costing the health insurance program too much.  The combination of lack of tenure and no need to show cause when someone is fired or not rehired is a dangerous thing in trying to put together a career.

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