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Reaching tenure as a teacher: More than a voilà moment

Ryan Fiereck

There seems to be no end to the articles about teaching and public schools. While I try to keep an open mind and a thick skin about commentaries critical of my profession, I was struck by a recent claim by a colleague in MinnPost.

Holly Kragthorpe wrote this about the day she received the due process protections commonly called tenure: “Then, voilà: Three years passed, I received tenure and the pink slips stopped.”

I know each school district is different, and for that matter each building in a district can be very different, but my experience with my tenure was not a “voilà” moment. I doubt it was for most teachers.

She wrote she experienced layoffs, frustration and finally received a continuing contract as sort of a prize because she kept coming back.

That was far from my experience.

Working toward tenure

I spent my three years before receiving tenure working hard to improve my curriculum because I wanted my district to give me the top rank of “fully engaged.” I went through 96 hours of in-class study. My teaching was observed by administrators 16 times. Each observation came with support and feedback that made me a better teacher and my classroom a better place to learn.

Like Kragthorpe, I received pink slips. My first came in my first year. I blamed deep cuts in school funding, not the district’s policies on layoffs or tenure. When I questioned my future in education, it was because I doubted Minnesota would ever invest in its schools again and I worried about the direction schools were going with the increased emphasis on testing.

After three years of working hard on my classroom instruction, I was handed another pink slip that March. I was disappointed and worried about how I would pay my bills, including a hefty student loan payment, but then I experienced one of the most inspiring moments of my career.

Important feedback

An administrator told me, “Ryan, I’m really proud of your classroom. When you started, I was worried you would not make it. I didn’t think you would be patient enough. Over three years I’ve seen you become a good teacher. I’m sad to see you leave our building.”  

It gave me confidence. It also reassured me that my administrators actually got to know me during all those observations and conversations about my craft. They considered me an educator that they wanted their students to have.

Later in that school year, I received a recall notice and was transferred to an opening in another school. This meant receiving my due process rights, or tenure.

This was not a “poof” moment. It should not be treated like a magic trick or a participation medal. I was able to gain employment in a district I believed in and where I worked so hard to prove myself. I wanted to provide my students with the best chance to be successful inside and outside my classroom, and the district had given me another chance to do so.

That was more than a few years ago, but I still have the same concerns about Minnesota schools. Budget cuts could still mean my job. I’m still trying to find better ways to prepare my students for what comes next. I worry about their test scores. I worry about how, due to the focus on those test scores, my students’ curriculum has been stripped of many of the memory-making opportunities that were special to me as a student.

Observations lead to growth

I also still look forward to the three to four observations of my teaching each year. The feedback is sometimes positive and sometimes critical, but it all helps me grow as an educator. That support is critical to teachers at all points in their careers.

Tenure is the least of my concerns, because it exists.

I’m able to enter my administrator’s office and have a tough conversation about what my students need. I’m not brushed aside. I like to think I’m worth the trouble because I’ve invested the time and effort into our students and our building. But if it’s just because I’m hard to replace, so be it. My students benefit either way.

Ryan Fiereck has been a computer technology teacher in the St. Francis School District for nine years. He is a father of two young students.

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 10/31/2014 - 05:29 pm.

    Might have been nice to see Ryan mention he’s on the EdMn governing board. Of course that had nothing to do with his defense of tenure…nosireebob

    • Submitted by Erik Hendrickson on 11/02/2014 - 01:55 pm.

      Why would Ryan being on EdMN governing board have any affect on his beliefs about teacher tenure??? He is a teacher first. Tenure is a protection that allows teachers to speak up and question administrators about issues that affect students; without it, an administrator can dismiss a teacher because he/she does not agree with the administrator. It is time the general public get the fact that unions do not protect bad teachers, but they ensure that due process is followed, and teachers are not fired because an administrator does not like them or their beliefs…

      • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 11/02/2014 - 04:00 pm.

        With all due respect Eric, even thoughtful Democrats don’t buy those tired chanting points any longer.

        The NEA and its afilliates are losing support from people of all political stripes, and for good reason.

  2. Submitted by Jeffrey Kolnick on 10/31/2014 - 06:17 pm.

    Bravo

    Thank you Ryan for this intelligent reflection on the importance of tenure and the clear statement on how it is EARNED.

  3. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 11/01/2014 - 11:17 am.

    Teacher tenure

    is a substitute for paying adequate salaries.
    The job security granted by tenure makes the job attractive even though better paying private sector jobs are available; particularly for people with STEM backgrounds.

  4. Submitted by Jim Barnhill on 11/01/2014 - 01:42 pm.

    Thank you Ryan

    Thanks to Ryan for writing so eloquently about his experience as a teacher to obtain the right for due process in his employment.

    My experience mirrors that of Ryan’s. My probationary period of 3 years was marked by numerous observations across 7 administrators, mentoring by some of Minneapolis finest mentors, and working with numerous teams of people who saw the quality of my work. To earn due process rights, I also did applied research in the classroom, was reviewed 3 times per year by a team of administrators and peers, and learned how to give that same kind of coaching to my own peers. During this 3 year period of blood, sweat, and tears, I had to advocate for my students who have emotional and behavior disorders, students that are very difficult to serve. This advocacy did not often win me popularity contests as it involved telling administrators, teachers, parents, and students alike things that they didn’t always want to necessarily hear, but things that were important to the success of my students. That’s okay. That’s my job. Today I continue to advocate for my students as I did then, but now with the knowledge that I as long as I do a professional job, I cannot be capriciously discharged when I have to tell someone in power things that they prefer I not acknowledge publicly. Thanks again to Ryan for raising people’s awareness as to the rigorous process we go through to become the teachers we are today.

    Jim Barnhill
    MN Board of Teaching Member

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