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How can we make teaching a career we want for our students and children?

REUTERS/Jim Young
In a survey conducted in 2008 by the Education Sector, 69 percent of teachers agreed with the statement that tenure is "just a formality — it has very little to do with whether a teacher is good or not."

I am a 14-year veteran public school teacher, and every year I’ve spent in the classroom has only confirmed that I have one of the most important and rewarding jobs in the world. Each day, I have the honor to teach curious and bright seventh-graders, and to encourage them to believe that, with hard work, they can succeed at whatever they set their minds to.

Holly Kragthorpe

I’m a 14-year veteran public school teacher and I love my job. And yet, I struggle with encouraging my students to pursue careers in teaching.

Not because teaching is hard (it is) or because teachers don’t get paid enough (we don’t), but because, unless we reform our antiquated tenure system — which values seniority above all else — teaching cannot give my students the careers and opportunities I know they deserve.

Pink slips

Take, for example, my own entry into the teaching force. During my first few years in the classroom, I received a pink slip every single year. Sure, I was new and I had a lot to learn, but I was working hard and committed to getting better. In my early years of teaching I rarely received a pat on the back from my peers, or critical feedback, for that matter. Just pink slips.

Then, voilà: Three years passed, I received tenure and the pink slips stopped.

I could have been phenomenal at my job and producing great results for students during those first three years, and I still would have been pink-slipped. And I could be less than proficient at my job now, and as long as I outrank other educators at my school, I will continue to teach.

Tenure has yet to become a professional milestone for most teachers. In a survey conducted in 2008 by the Education Sector, 69 percent of teachers agreed with the statement that tenure is “just a formality — it has very little to do with whether a teacher is good or not.”

Does this inspire confidence?

Does this kind of system inspire confidence? Excellence? Does this kind of system sound like one we want our incredibly ambitious and capable children to enter?

I don’t believe my students (for the most part) are motivated by money or fame, or by the prospect of having a job that will be easy. Like many young adults today, my students want a chance to be challenged, to genuinely succeed and grow in their future careers and to be rewarded for their hard work.

They envision futures where they have choices, where they have opportunities to lead and advance in their careers, where they are celebrated for their accomplishments and supported through their challenges.

They don’t envision — nor should they — receiving pink slips, without a good reason or helpful feedback. They don’t envision being granted tenure arbitrarily, or losing their job because they were hired minutes after a less effective teacher down the hall.

Too little support for new teachers

I feel very fortunate to have a rewarding job at a school that I love, with colleagues who push and help me to be my absolute best. But too many teachers — especially new ones — don’t have the support that I now have. In 2007, the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future reported that teacher attrition has grown by 50 percent over the past 15 years. In one school district, 70 percent of new teachers left the field within six years.

The reality is that fewer and fewer people are choosing to enter or stay in a career with rigid, lockstep pay, where seniority is valued above all else and where they will be treated as an interchangeable part.

We desperately need more teachers who are passionate about closing achievement gaps and committed to getting results for all children. Yet our archaic teacher tenure system deters our best and brightest — like my students — from entering the teaching field, and turns away scores of educators after just a few, pink-slip-filled years in the classroom.

That’s why we must reform tenure in public schools: so that all teachers, not just those with the most seniority, have a voice; so that tenure is a meaningful and earned milestone in a teacher’s career — a career that has multiple pathways and options, with opportunities for teacher-designed leadership and hybrid roles.

I’m empowering my students — and my own children — to want and expect futures that are fulfilling, challenging and fair. And I hope that one day soon, I’ll be able to tell them that a career in teaching is guaranteed to be all that and more.

Holly Kragthorpe is a teacher for the Minneapolis Public Schools, a school leader for Educators for Excellence, which is funded in part by the Gates Foundation, and a teacher policy fellow at MinnCAN, an education advocacy organization whose funding can be viewed here. She is also a Minneapolis Federation of Teachers union steward and a member of the PTA in Minneapolis Public Schools..

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Matt Haas on 10/27/2014 - 09:58 am.

    Good luck with that

    Perhaps its the author’s position in a “good and supportive” environment that colors her mindset. Were she in a locale that covets cost savings over quality education she might see the value in protecting more senior (read more expensive) teachers from the bean counters axe. The knife cuts both ways, and to assume that fresh new faces are all that’s required to improve education is both ageist and naieve. Teaching is looked down upon by a segment the population that has deemed childhood not as a time of learning and exploration but as one of indoctrination into rigid system of beliefs and practices, anyone who might challenge that is an enemy. The rest of us already value the teaching profession and would have no qualms encouraging its pursuit by our children.

    • Submitted by James Hamilton on 10/27/2014 - 12:42 pm.

      Are you reading what you want to read

      or what was written?

      Nowhere in this piece do I see either an explicit statement or an implicit assumption that all our education system needs is new faces to cure all of its ill. Whether I agree with the writer in whole or in part, or not at all, this is a conversation we need to have, one that can only falter when the first thing one does is label a speaker’s thoughts as ‘ageist and naive”.

      I don’t know what your background is, Mr. Haas, or what your credentials are in this area. Here are mine. My son attended a public school through 5th grade, then switched to a charter school. I’m a third year middle school tutor, the brother of a man who has taught middle school students for more than 30 years, and the uncle of a young woman who opted to end her pursuit of a degree in education because of both earnings issues and the lack of respect accorded teachers today. I’ve spent a good deal of time in conversation with both regarding the state of public education and what can be done about it. I’ve also spent a good deal of time studying the contract in my own district. As a tutor, I spend a good deal of my time simply trying to identify the gaps in a student’s understanding and finding ways to fill those gaps.

      The writer has a point about the revolving door that greets beginning teachers. So far as I’ve been able to determine, it’s a cost-saving measure in most cases. A district can effectively freeze the cost of a number of positions simply by ensuring that those who hold the positions start at the bottom each year. The loss of a job is a major life event, one that takes its toll on the individual. Losing three positions in a row, struggling to find a new position and relocating each time adds to the stress. And for what? About $38,000 a year (St. Paul School District, current contract), about 60% of what a graduate can earn with a business degree. A custodian’s starting pay is $43,680. You can check my numbers here:

      http://hr.spps.org/Labor_Agreements.html

      Senior teachers have been complicit in this state of affairs, by agreeing to contracts which pay new hires well below their own salaries.

      There are “bad” teachers in our schools, by my standards. Teachers who live and die by work rules. Teachers who refuse to work with parent volunteers, even for such mundane tasks as compiling book orders. Teachers who are unable to explain a math process to a student in more than one way, but think that they’ll get through by saying the same thing over and over, in a louder voice.

      I could go on, as I’m sure could any person who’s had a child in school, public or private. Until we find a way to weed out the ineffective and reward the effective teachers and pay newcomers a salary that competes at least with what we pay the school custodian, we’ll continue to lose both students who might have become great teachers and licensed teachers who simply could not face the challenges outside the classroom.

      • Submitted by Matt Haas on 10/27/2014 - 04:21 pm.

        You miss my point

        All of what you suggest is great, none of it will happen. You assume good faith from those who wish to alter tenure rules, you in fact focus only on the fact that there might be “bad” teachers hanging on due to tenure. Listen closely, if you dismantle tenure, merit will not be any more or less rewarded, all you will do is open up teaching, which I consider probably tbe most important career imaginable for a stable, functioning society, to the petty, race-to-the-bottom, dollars over quality ideology that permeates the rest of our culture. Worse yet, you permit political ideology an even greater foothold in the education of our kids. I can’t wait to hear about the first administrator pressured let teachers go because they don’t “reflect the values of the community, (or at least those of the hacks who bought their way onto the local school board)”, can you?

  2. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 10/27/2014 - 10:23 pm.

    Walmart education teform

    A good start would be to expose right-wing billionaire-funded education “reform” groups like MinnCan. People like Kragthrope are a big part of the reason teachers have become so discouraged.

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