Annie Hatch, a first-year humanities teacher at Oakland’s Life Academy, offers her reflections about the last-in, first-out layoff system. Her pink slip has yet to be rescinded.
As more and more layoffs are being rescinded, the fury that was driving a lot of healthy debate has seemed to subside. When the district initially announced that over 500 teachers in Oakland would be receiving pink slips, I heard a lot of people arguing that the district should rescind them all—that no teacher ever deserves a pink slip. But, the unavoidable reality is that some teachers will be laid off—this year, and in the future. And while this remains the case, we desperately need to rethink the seniority system.
Like a fine wine, I believe a good teacher gets better with age. There is a steep learning curve when it comes to the craft of teaching, and, I won’t lie, I am looking forward to not being a first-year teacher. Throughout the course of this first year, I have seen my classroom management skills improve exponentially. I can plan a lesson in half the time it took me in September. I am more efficient, more capable, more confident. I am better at prioritizing what matters, strategizing intervention, managing group work, and finding the essential question I’m hoping to teach through each lesson.
My more experienced colleagues are incredible and I feel so lucky to be able to draw on their professional expertise. I often consult them on issues I am having in the classroom and I am so thankful to be able to tap into their wisdom.
But to assume that ALL teachers improve with time is a dangerous fallacy. How will a bad teacher in a dysfunctional system that offers little in the way of encouragement or assistance ever improve? If this teacher is shuffled or bumped to a new placement after this initial challenging year, improving only gets harder. I would be willing to bet that in most districts, “bad” teachers, like bad wines, only get worse. The lack of support and constructive feedback they receive is taken as a sign of acceptance, and their bad habits become ingrained. Over time, if they stay in the profession, their lack of efficacy makes their teaching lazy, hopeless, or mean.
A couple years ago, I worked for a non-profit providing assistance for teachers in a big comprehensive Oakland public school. My first day on the job I walked into the classroom where I was assigned to assist and was told by Mr. C, as I’ll call him, “See those kids in the back? They’re special ed. Don’t even bother helping them. They can’t learn.” This heart-wrenching welcome was followed by problems riddled with errors that he brazenly put on the board. When I discreetly corrected him, Mr. C would retort, “It doesn’t matter, they don’t do their work anyway.” I heard Mr. C repeatedly make racist comments, and unfairly profile his black male students (a group OUSD is so concerned with, they now have an entire task force on African American male achievement).
Yet when students and I complained to the administration, we were told there were many complaints logged against Mr. C but all these complaints were simply not enough to cost him his job.
An LA Times investigation confirmed that firing bad teachers is nearly impossible. In the words of Joseph Walker, a former LAUSD principal, “You’re not going to fire someone who’s not doing their job. And if you have someone who’s done something really egregious, there’s only a 50-50 chance that you can fire them.” This sad truth is juxtaposed with a growing consensus that good teaching is the most important factor in student achievement (something teachers have known for a long time).
Multiple studies have confirmed that the difference between an effective teacher and an ineffective teacher can mean a full level of achievement, or more, in one year. A University of Washington study investigating the seniority system recently found that, “student achievement after seniority-based layoffs would drop by an estimated 2.5 to 3.5 months of learning per student, when compared to laying off the least effective teachers.” While teachers may balk at using test scores to determine effectiveness, or even at trying to quantify what makes a good teacher “good”, most of us know one when we see one. Likewise, most of us can spot a “bad” teacher and are aware of how much damage they can cause.
Even if you argue that new and inexperienced teachers are more of a problem than the few grizzled ineffective teachers out there, the seniority system is still affecting our most vulnerable populations. Poor students, students of color, and English Language Learners are disproportionately taught by new or beginning teachers. In February of this year, the court in Reed v. State of California found that, “teachers’ economic interest in retaining their jobs through a seniority-based layoff … is subordinate to students’ fundamental right to receive an education.” In the Reed case, a school full of new, yet highly-regarded, teachers were replaced by a string of long-term subs. Even in cases less egregious than Reed, we must consider that teachers make up the fabric of schools and we cannot or should not be easily swapped out.
The OEA party line is that the seniority system helps us “avoid capricious firing.” Yet what is more capricious than laying off teachers who have found an excellent match in their school site, are committed to their craft, appreciated and respected by their colleagues and students, have proven success in the classroom, and are continuously working to improve? Is firing those teachers less capricious than retaining teachers like Mr. C?
Yes, we need to take steps to help teachers improve at their craft—programs like BTSA are scratching the surface of this issue. But, I fundamentally believe that teaching is not a profession for everyone. We don’t believe that any person with any given skill-set, disposition, intellect, or work ethic can be a doctor or a lawyer. These professions are so highly respected because we know that not everyone has what it takes. Why should teaching be any different?
In March, when I received my pink slip, I heard Mr. C would be continuing on. I was hoping he would have opted for Oakland’s early retirement system, but he did not. Mr. C, and others like him—some worse, some only slightly better—will continue widening the skill gaps for our poor, urban students of color. As President Obama asserted during a speech at the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, “I reject a system that rewards failure and protects a person from its consequences. The stakes are too high. We can afford nothing but the best when it comes to our children’s teachers.”