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Debunking the Myth of "A Job for Life"

As a public school educator and as an MFT member, you have probably heard about “seniority” and “tenure” more times than you can count -- or, if you are new to the profession, you certainly will begin to hear these phrases. Both seniority and tenure are essential to our profession -- to protect our ability to plan and deliver curriculum that respects the cultures and backgrounds of our diverse students and to ensure our rights - to privacy, marriage equality, racial equity, and other civil and human rights - are protected while we are in the employ of the Minneapolis Public Schools.

But isn’t tenure a job for life? And doesn’t seniority protect bad teachers?

Tenure is often incorrectly thought of as “a job for life” or an inability to be fired. Both of these definitions are patently untrue. In public education in Minnesota, “tenure” is a way to indicate that an educator has the right to due process - that the employee is not “at will,” and able to be fired without cause. Tenure is especially important in public education - perhaps even more so in a district such as MPS - because of the diversity of our students, communities, and educational staff. Having the right to “due process” - that is, having the right not to be fired except for just cause - means that educators who teach controversial topics can not be dismissed because their administration does not agree with the curriculum. It also helps to protect educators from being fired because of issues of racism, sexism, homophobia, genderism, classism, ageism, and xenophobia that might be present in a building or district administrator.

Similarly, seniority can be misunderstood to be an antiquated system that protects teachers year in and year out. Like the misunderstanding about and misrepresentation of tenure, this is simply not true. Seniority is a designation of the length of time one has been employed by the district, and when lay-offs happen, seniority proscribes a “last in, first out” means by which educators are dismissed. This helps to ensure that lay-offs are not mis-used to punish teachers who have radical ideas, allow genderism, sexism, ageism, racism, or other -isms to be used to get remove teachers from the system, or try to cut costs by eliminating more expensive educators (typically those who have longer service) from the district.

But does this mean no educator can be fired?

It is always possible for educators who are not meeting the needs of students to be fired from the district. Tenure simply requires that a set of steps be followed by administration in order to do so - and gives the educator, in many cases, the chance to rectify any problems with their work. In instances of eggregious issues, such as sexual harassment or violence, the educator can be removed from the situation while the due process investigations take place. Having a process required for all educators who have passed their probationary period means that, although it might take time and effort on the part of administrators to dismiss an educator for just cause, educators who might have been dismissed without cause are protected.

Educators 4 Excellence

Not all educators believe that tenure and seniority should be preserved. For example, the teacher advocacy group Educators 4 Excellence, which was created in New York City in 2010, believes that if tenure was harder to achieve and seniority rules were dismantled, the “bad” teachers would leave the profession - or would be pushed out. The group’s numbers and influence have grown from 1500 members almost a decade ago to over 30,000 today, with chapters in several East Coast cities as well as in Minnesota. In fact, you may be acquainted with or aware of E4E members in your current or former schools and districts.

While E4E advocates for teacher-led change and promotes hiring of diverse educators, a problem that the MFT59 recognizes one that is essential to address, this union and the vast majority of other local and state unions, as well as our two national unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, do not believe that attracting and retaining diverse educators is at odds with tenure and seniority rights.

E4E is active in Minneapolis Public Schools and in the Twin Cities area districts. They often hold happy hours for educators, providing a space for discussion and socialization between educators, something that is attractive to many educators, especially those who are new to the profession and don’t know many people in our large district. The Minneapolis Federation of Teachers hopes to be a place where important discussions can happen around the issues that directly affect us as educators, our students, our families, and our communities.

Our monthly member meetings, committee, and events and actions are all some of the ways you can get involved in the discussions that matter most to educators - and if there isn’t a group currently focused on an issue you feel is essential, you can always start a group! We welcome all members to join MFT at monthly meetings - typically the 2nd Thursday of each month at 6:30pm for ESP chapter members and the 4th Wednesday of each month at 5:00pm for Teacher chapter members. Click here to view the MFT calendar for specific dates and times for each month’s meetings.

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