Tenure should be a celebrated accomplishment that honors teachers’ hard work — and come after more time, feedback, and support
Lisa Quon Heinsen | March 14, 2018
This week, many new teachers in California will be granted “tenure” and they won’t even know how or why or what it means for their career.
By the start of my third year in the classroom, I learned I had achieved permanent status (a term more commonly known as “tenure”) when a trusted colleague mentioned that I was no longer a probationary teacher. There was no congratulatory conversation with administration that I had now become permanent, no review of effectiveness, nothing to indicate what the decision had been based on; and regardless of their qualifications and suitability, the probationary teachers I started teaching with all received this same “rubber-stamp” of permanent status.
Perhaps the most important lesson I have learned as a teacher is that teaching is an artful science that takes time and support to grow. My first year of teaching was in a kindergarten class. I still remember the complexity and difficulty of developing lesson plans, learning how to manage a class of 20 students, and developing my students’ trust. Some had entered school for the first time, some did not speak English, and some came into kindergarten already reading and writing. It felt like a 24/7 job, as I spent seemingly every moment thinking about my students and how to deliver lessons to ensure each one was learning.
In my second year, I was unexpectedly moved to a fourth-grade class where I had to master a whole new curriculum and classroom management strategies for older kids. I had to learn how to teach students to work in cooperative groups and I had to earn their trust, all while following rigorous standards and teaching them the basic skills of how to read and write. It was literally like starting all over again, but without as much support. Without the adequate amount of time to be truly evaluated, administrators were making a decision about whether I should receive permanent status based on the mere 18 months I had spent in the classroom.
Unfortunately, my experience is all too common in California. Current law dictates that permanent status decisions be made after a year and a half, since probationary teachers must be notified by March 15th of their second year teaching if they will be invited to continue teaching in the district. Even though research shows that the most significant growth in a teacher’s impact on student achievement appears within the third through fifth years of teaching, our administrators have far less time to make this important decision. From my own personal experience, it wasn’t until my fourth year in the same grade level that I felt truly comfortable in the classroom. As a district Teacher of the Year, I know that even the best teachers need time and support.
If the goal is to attract, develop, and retain top-notch teachers, providing more time and support for their growth and development will be essential.
That is why I support Assembly Bill 1220, a statewide bill authored by Assemblymember Dr. Shirley Weber. This legislation is a teacher-led and teacher-supported bill that extends the teacher probationary period to at least three years and makes permanent status a hallmark of effective teaching.
By and large, teachers work hard and put in more hours than they are compensated for, do more work than is acknowledged, and impact students and families more deeply than is recognized. Permanent status should be a celebrated accomplishment that honors teachers’ hard work, and teachers should be given sufficient time and support to achieve this distinction. Extending the probationary period to at least three years and making permanent status a professional milestone is a good start to elevating the teaching profession to the level it deserves.
As a teacher, parent and tax-paying community member, I want to see effective teaching in every classroom. Our students deserve a strong education taught by highly qualified teachers who have earned their permanent status and were not merely rubber-stamped. Invest in our teachers; invest in our students.
Lisa Quon Heinsen, a first-grade teacher and founding member of San Pascual STEAM Magnet in the Los Angeles Unified School District, is in her 21st year of teaching. She is a National Board-certified Teacher, an LAUSD Teacher of the Year, and a member of Educators for Excellence-Los Angeles.