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Thursday
Jun122014

What Killing Tenure Won't Address

When I'm not writing fiction, I work in education. I also live in California, I hope to have children, and I plan to send said kids to public school. Thus the recent court decision Vergara v. California, in which teacher tenure was ruled unconstitutional, cuts close to the bone. I'll say right here up front that I'm not a labor scholar, but I am operating under the assumption that the goal is a quality education for all students, especially for those who are least likely to get it via any other means, and for me, this means quality state schools. As my writing here is often at least a little personal, I'm going to take advantage of the blog format, skip the numbers and source research for now, and go straight to my gut-level response: this is not going to be good, not for students, and not for teachers.

There's an inclination in this valley to approach all problems in life from an engineering mindset, as one might expect. Problem is, this often translates not into a laser-like focus on the most stunningly broken parts of a system but into a laser-like focus on a specific part of the system with absolutely no ability or inclination to consider how it functions in the larger whole. There are huge and entrenched socio-historical-political realities that impact our education system at all levels, and a single part of how teachers are compensated can't possibly do justic to the complicated reality.

We all know there are horrible teachers out there. We also know that many of them tend to accumulate at the bottom of the system--that is, the school districts in which the least amount of teachers ultimately choose to work. We also know that these districts tend to be the ones with the greatest population of traditionally underserved students of all kinds--of black and brown students, of low-income students, of students from families without a strong history of education, of ELD students who have to work double-time to learn the language and the material, etc.

Tenure isn't why these teachers end up in these particular places, and while it does make it more difficult to get rid of them, I don't believe that simply killing it is going to have any positive impact on student success rate. I can see why someone might fixate on it--after all, if you're used to an office-and-boardroom environment, just the idea of keeping an employee around who doesn't contribute to the bottom line can induce nausea.

But here's the thing: kids aren't anyone's bottom line, or at least they shouldn't be. And I can think of many other things that have a greater influence on why poor teachers end up coming to struggling districts--and end up staying--than tenure.

 

  • FUNDING AND TEACHER PAY. Pay in these districts is usually bad. The way we fund our education system here makes absolutely no sense to me, unless you assume that the goal is to keep poor students and their families intergenerationally poor. Fund based on property tax? Threaten to kill funding if schools can't get their most vulnerable students to care about filling in bubbles? Threaten to close the entire school, often one of the few safe places in a neighborhood (not to mention a reliable source of food), gut the staff (many, if not most, of whom have been forming solid relationships with the student body), and create more chaos in the lives of the students, all in the name of "improving" their education? Right. Those things will work. In the meantime, salaries will remain low, even when compared to neighboring, but slightly wealthier, districts without the same kinds of needs. So a good teacher who needs to support his or her family can very easily be forced out simply based on economic realities. I've seen it happen. Right now, tenure is often the only part of the compensation package that's worth much of anything.
  • JOB SECURITY. This isn't just tenure, though tenure is a huge part of it. Teachers in these districts (which are the most inclined to be hit hard by economic downturns) are vulnerable, even if they do manage to stick around. Their pensions can be hit. Their medical benefits can be cut, or shrunk down until they apply only to the district employee, not his or her family (see: leaving based on personal economic reality and the need to support a family). Last hired first fired takes tenure into account, sure, but if your entire school is liable to be taken over and the staff either dumped or required to reinterview for their jobs, it doesn't mean much. That's hardly an environment that's going to attract skilled teachers.
  • SELECTING FOR MARTYRS. Don't get me wrong--I remember seeing the trailor for Dangerous Minds in the theater when I was in high school myself, and I was mildly impressed, though I didn't actually go watch it. But when Freedom Writers came out, I was a little more skeptical about the whole great-white-hope teacher-as-savior-in-urban (read: black)-school trope. So not only are teachers intended to get in there and "save" their students, they're expected to work extra jobs in order to buy the kids books. They're expected to neglect their own personal lives in order to complete a superhuman task (Waiting for Superman spells it out right there in the title). Basically, it's not a job--it's a calling, it's a passion, and that often means that when teachers do things like, you know, ask for pay and professional respect, along with working conditions that might allow them to stay at a school for twenty years without being chewed up and spit out, people are shocked. And then, all too frequently, angry. Because that's not how we talk about teachers--they're either martyrs or leeches. Models like that of Teach for America don't help either. Throwing underprepared college grads, no matter how innately talented, into the most difficult classrooms in the country is not a model for success. No, it's a model for burnout on the part of the teachers, incredibly high turnover (which means a loss of campus and district investment in training), and even more disrupted relationships for students for whom school is often one of few stable places in their lives.

So if you take away tenure under the rationale that it will make it easier to get rid of bad teachers in underserved districts, I have news for you: the only reason the bad teachers are there in the first place is because they can be. And it's also because they can't be anywhere else. Try to keep a failing teacher in a well-funding, parent-supported suburban school and see what happens. Tenure doesn't mean teachers can't be fired; it means that it has to follow a union-negotiated process. If a warm body is your standard, a warm body is what you'll get. And don't even get me started on the way this often plays out, where only those teachers who have other sources of family wealth or income can afford not to let compensation become a major issue, not to mention the general trend toward resegregation at schools on all levels. 

Fire all the teachers you want if tenure really does vanish. Go ahead. And congratulate yourself that you're having a real impact on education. Just don't expect highly qualified, compassionate, and dynamic teachers to line up to replace them until you address far more of the broken education system we've all got on our hands. Don't delude yourself into thinking that your impact will make any kind of positive, comprehensive difference.

Tuesday
Jun102014

My Early Summer Break is Over

Well, it wasn't a break, really. It was an intensive seven-week period in which I went through two sets of teaching search committee interviews, obtained a puppy, lost my husband temporarily to a burst of Silicon Valley controlled chaos, and adjusted to getting up before 6am (see: obtained puppy). 

Truth be told, the pre-6am thing is a work in progress. But I'm getting the hang of it.

More to come, and soon, in this space, both linked to The Loyalty of Water and my own musings. In the meantime, have a dog. May your week be this unabashedly joyful.

Wednesday
May142014

For Just a Short Period of Time

A very small group of people began to believe that we were not subject to the greater forces of nature, the planet, the universe. As one of their descendents, I've been thinking a lot lately about what it means to let this illusion go, what process we will have to follow, and what we, and our world, might look like at the end of it all.

But I still slip--it's more "the" world than "our" world. We will need a new mythology, a new stack of stories, to help take this all in. I've been wondering if maybe that's where a writer can do her most important work.

More to come on this one. A lot to think about. 

Tuesday
Apr292014

An Interview with Kim Golden, Author of Maybe Baby

Kim Golden has already had a busy year. She released her most recent full novel, Maybe Baby, began her new serial novella Maybe Tonight, and is currently at work on a third book in the series. If you don't usually read women's fiction, now is the time to begin, and Kim is where you want to start. Maybe Baby follows Laney, an American expat in her thirties living in Stockholm with her Swedish boyfriend Niklas. Laney has just realized that she'd like to have a child, and Niklas has just revealed that he's had a vasectomy that he doesn't want to reverse. With that, Laney's off to Copenhagen to check out a sperm bank with some slightly unorthodox methods, which is where she meets Mads.

Think you know what's going to happen? I admit that I did, too--until I started reading. 

What makes Kim's success even more compelling is that she publishes under her own imprint and does the vast majority of the work--which extends well beyond writing the actual book--herself. Kim lives in Stockholm, where she is the love refugee of her husband Tord. You may recognize her and her writing from an earlier post in The Loyalty of Water; read on for a glimpse into her process, imagination, and plans for the future.

Interview edited for clarity. 

Emily: First off, it's been really exciting to see from here how well Maybe Baby has been doing. Did you expect this? And where is it today? What's been the best placement on Amazon?

Kim: No, I didn't expect it at all! I hoped that people would like it, but I was more worried that people would hate the infidelity storyline.

Today it's at #18 on the Kindle Bestsellers List for African-American Women's Fiction. The highest it's been was #8. I think if I do a bit more marketing, it'll be back up again.

Emily: You know, that's not a reaction I ever had...even though I would in real life. Have you run into that before in anything else you've written? 
Or is that something that's often a third rail with readers?

 For me, at least, part of why it didn’t bother me was just how Niklas was drawn. I did feel his pain, but it was also apparent that he had been living his life without making any real effort on behalf of Laney for a long time.

Kim: People who read romance novels often swear by these unwritten rules and one of them is that the hero or heroine must not cheat. But, since Maybe Baby isn't a romance, I didn't care about that rule. There were still some people who bitched about it. With Snowbound, there were readers who completely flipped out about the infidelity there.

Click to read more ...

Tuesday
Apr012014

The Loyalty of Water: Towards Another Manifesto

I remember distinctly a particular fall afternoon during my freshman year of college. It was one of those perfect admissions brochures days, early enough so that the weather was still warm and finals held far less weight than the dining hall closing time. I was sprawled out on a lawn with a book and my bag, alternating between reading a few lines and turning my face towards the sun. And yet, as it was fall semester freshman year and none of us had solidified our social spaces, I was also keeping a sharp eye out for anyone I even slightly knew.

That's why I saw her. She wasn't anyone I'd seen before. She was tall and slim, with brilliant red hair, walking across Old Campus with the kind of ease I tried, and failed, to fake. Watching her I remembered that I had always kind of wanted red hair. It was less gentlemen-preferred and conventional than my own blond head (which I refused to dye out of a loyalty to an authenticity that I couldn't quite articulate). And I was immediately jealous of her completely, jealous with the kind of ferocity that you can only really pull off when you're eighteen and in a new place and completely out of your depth. I wanted to be her, and I knew I never could.

But it only lasted for that moment. As soon as I lay back down and looked up into the canopy of the tree above me, my envy vanished into the deep green overhead, and I understood. We were just leaves, she and I, leaves on the same tree, each a beautiful, singular expression of life. 

Liz Green talked about compersion, a feeling that's the opposite of jealousy, and that's what I felt so suddenly and clearly that afternoon. I've been feeling it a lot lately, too. I wouldn't say that I'm growing less ambitious with age--probably the opposite, truth be told. But I'm definitely growing less competitive. One thing I've always loved about creative work is that, whenever we can put aside the frequently uncomfortable fact that we're often competing for the same scarce resources in the form of fellowships or contests or jobs, what I do in my work in no way detracts from what any of these other guest writers have done. This isn't to minimize the very real limitations that exist, but it is to say that the community that we build is more frequently valuable, more sustaining in everyday life, than what we gain by focusing on those competitions.

There will always be someone, whether an individual or institution, ready and willing to place the emphasis on exclusivity, on some arbitrarily set boundary, on fostering a sense of scarcity. It's the dominant narrative of our culture, even as new media begins to chip away at it, ever so slightly, in certain places. I feel more and more strongly with the passage of time that part of my mission as a writer is to push back against that narrative, to stop myself when I begin to think about my peers as nothing more than my competition, and more than that, to insist in my work that each life is valuable. Each life is worthwhile. To remember that we all tell stories, and live lives, each as beautiful, singular, and necessary as the curving edges of any one leaf.

What's a leaf detached from a tree, after all, set aside on its own but cut off from the source of life? Dried up, brittle, and crumbling into dust. 

All this is to say that my community of writers sustains me, keeps me whole, and allows me to do the work that I do in this world. All this is to say, in at least ten times as many words, what the poet I came to adore during the spring semester of my freshman year puts so well:

Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul.
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

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