My friend is being fired from her teaching job.
As sad and sympathetic as I am for my friend, I cannot say that I am surprised. I’ve known this teacher for several years, and I’ve seen the burn-out coming for the entire time of our friendship.
This teacher has been using language like “those kids” and “the kids” for a long time. Listening to her refer to students like this, as opposed to talking about “my kids,” is a red flag for me. I know that when I stop referring to my students as mine, then I’m flirting with burn-out and with phoning in my job performance.
I was out to dinner with my friend this weekend, talking about the unsatisfactory performance reviews, and this teacher’s up-coming hearing. While sitting there, I was torn. I felt empathy and compassion for her. She once was a fantastic teacher. For the last two years, she has been facing constant scrutiny. It would be incredibly hard for me to hear that I was not doing a good job. I would feel defensive, too. I would want to shift the blame to the kids, my principal, or the parents rather than face the shame of acknowledging that it was me who was the problem. At the same time, we both knew that it was time for her to leave the classroom.
My friend had the services of a lawyer from our union. However, even with that support, she was thinking about quitting and transitioning completely out of the education profession.
After a moment, I said, “This might be really hard to hear, but I wish you would fight. I think that if you fight and lose, you could do a great service for your fellow teachers.” In this new, post-Vergara California, I think it would be good to remind folks that the current system works.
Let me take a quick aside to talk about the current system. Despite what I often hear in the media, teachers do not have “tenure.” Rather, once we have moved past our two-year probationary period, teachers in California gain due-process rights. After we start our third year, we cannot be fired unless the school district follows a process. We certainly do not have “jobs for life.”
My friend is a great example of this. If she doesn’t just quit… if she fights for her job and loses, the whole process would have taken two years. During the 2012-13 school year, she received two unsatisfactory reviews from her principal. At the end of that school year, she was given an improvement plan. This past year, she didn’t follow through on the plan, and earned more unsatisfactory reviews.
If she fights and loses, she will show that the process works.
Too often, I hear from the anti-tenure camp that it is “impossible” to fire a sub-standard teacher. Too often I hear that the teacher’s union is only interested in “protecting the worst” of my colleagues.
Next for my friend is a hearing. I hope she goes through with it. While it may be embarrassing for her, shameful even, to hear the case against her, if she has the courage, she could do a lot of teachers a great service. She could stand up with CTA and NEA and say, “See? The system works. I burned out. I needed to leave the classroom, but I didn’t know it at the time. My school knew, and they had a way of transitioning me out.”
I doubt that she will though, and I can’t blame her. If I were in her shoes, I don’t know if I would have the courage to stand up and open up about no longer being good at my job.
There but for the grace of God go I.
I hope I never burn out. I hope that if I do someday, I will find ways to reconnect to why I love my job and reclaim my inner fire. If I can’t, I hope I have the courage to do what’s best for the kids.