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The dangers of getting rid of tenure

POSTED February 7, 2014 7:09 p.m.

I had several great teachers, a few mediocre teachers, one real bad teacher, and mostly good teachers during 13 years in public schools.
All except two of those years were in the Western Placer Unified School District. That was back in the 1960s and 1970s.
Those last two facts are extremely pertinent. It was during the days of high growth in California as well as a teacher shortage. Not only did Western Placer pay on the low side for teachers but they were located in an area that wasn’t exactly desirable at the time for the lifestyles of college graduates or even more seasoned teachers. Couple that with the fact Western Placer was a high-tax, low-wealth district with limited resources and you could argue the school district serving Lincoln, Sheridan as well as the foothills and rice country of western Placer County wasn’t exactly a magnet for promising teachers.
In a Los Angeles courtroom last week, nine students ages 7 to 17, sued to abolish public education tenure and seniority in California. Their argument centers on “grossly ineffective” teachers, ranging from teachers who routinely fall asleep in class to those that play YouTube videos while ignoring students. Their lawyers will present evidence saying that just one ineffective teacher can supposedly reduce a student’s lifetime earning expectancy by 3 percent.
I am aware of what a bad teacher is. I had one. She didn’t fall asleep in class but if she had it would have been a blessing.
Each week, three out of the five days, she’d spend showing films that most of those in her sophomore class had seen in the sixth grade. Since the Placer County Office of Education’s film vault wasn’t exactly expansive on California history, that school year we saw some films three times. She’d even toss in non-social studies films to kill time.
That wasn’t her worst transgression. She’d check transcripts of incoming students each year and pick out the top five in each of her classes. Those picked would often be sent to the library to either study for other classes, to develop tests for her subject matter or devise extra credit items for the other students such as crossword puzzles. It was a blessing because the time that you were actually being lectured in the class it wasn’t unusual for her to make glaring misstatements about rudimentary California history. I never challenged her but others she had culled from the herd did. That would then typically lead to a 30-minute or so exchange that at least half of the class ignored to chat among themselves, nap, throw pencils into the ceiling, or crumple up paper and throw it at others.
Based on that, you think I’d be gung-ho for gutting the state’s tenure law that essentially makes it next to impossible to dismiss a teacher based on performance after 18 months of being on the job.
Guess again.
The principal at the time was in his early 30s, He believed teachers not using “modern” methods had to “get with it” or go. Since tenure was an obstacle, he set his sights on one teacher who happened to be way past retirement age. He tried to make life as miserable as possible for her.
I could tell you great things about Virginia Garrett. There are Lincoln High graduates that credit the discipline and interests she piqued as both an English literature and freshman English teacher with giving them the skills to excel at Cal Berkeley, CalTech, USC, and even the General Motors Institute of Technology.
Anyone who knows me will tell you I often speak too fast and am often hard to understand when talking. Mrs. Garrett was also in charge of the public speaking and drama club, including a 52-year Lincoln High tradition at the time known as the senior play. You can imagine how stunned people were when I landed the lead role. (It was in Woody Allen’s “Don’t Drink the Water.”) Not just because I got the role, but they could clearly hear and understand everything I said on stage.
She drummed Chaucer, Oedipus Rex, Beowulf (as a freshman) and other classics into you, as well as the mindset that drive is essential for everything and that the only way to grow is to become the harshest critic of your work.
Back in the 1980s when a series of investigative stories that I reported for the Press-Tribune led to the termination of several city and county officials for malfeasance in office, plus a series of columns I had written had garnered awards in a statewide newspaper contest, Mrs. Garrett made it a point to cross my path.
First, she congratulated me. She then demanded to know why I wasn’t moving on and doing serious writing, specifically penning sonnets and such. She was serious.
Backing up a bit, I had the unique perspective of being a recent student when I was elected to the school board at age 19.
It was when I discovered the real reason why – in the case of Lincoln High – a bad teacher was left untouched and a good teacher was hounded.
To say there was an administrator at the district level with an agenda that wasn’t necessarily to put education first would be an understatement. 
I honestly believe the vast majority of administrators and teachers are above board. School districts are like many government institutions where those that call the shots that matter often answer to no one. 
California’s teacher tenure law needs updating. There’s no doubt about it.  But to toss it out completely would be a grave mistake.

This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Journal or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at dwyatt@mantecabulletin.com or 209-249-3519.

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