By Kathryn Valido, former WEA President
We all recognize occasions where widely held beliefs turn out not to be true. They begin with a kernel of information that gets misrepresented to the point that “what everyone knows” is, in fact, simply wrong. The popular belief that districts are powerless to terminate bad teachers may have some basis elsewhere, but in Wyoming it is pure nonsense. The word “tenure” does not occur in the Wyoming Teacher Employment Law. Instead, Wyoming has adopted a fair dismissal law that permits termination if the district demonstrates “good cause.” This “good cause” requirement is exactly the same kind of protection against unfair dismissal that applies to state employees, sheriff’s deputies, firefighters, community college personnel, many police officers, municipal workers and others in Wyoming – all in order to allow them to do their jobs in the public interest.
Currently, should a superintendent recommend the termination of a continuing contract teacher, the teacher can request a hearing, held before an impartial independent hearing officer chosen jointly by the superintendent and the teacher. If the hearing officer recommends in favor of the teacher and the school board disagrees with the hearing officer, the board can reject the findings and move to fire the teacher anyway.
So, given the very broad grounds for termination (incompetency, neglect of duty, insubordination, unsatisfactory performance or any other good or just cause), the low burden of proof, and the fact that the administration is in total control of the evaluation process, one might wonder why it is “so hard to terminate continuing contract teachers? Well – it isn’t that hard! In fact, in more than 90% of cases where termination of a continuing contract teacher is recommended, the teacher elects to resign rather than go through a contested hearing.
Wyoming has 53 years of experience using the current system, one that allows administrators broad discretion, but holds actions that are totally unjust and irresponsible in check. If “good cause” protection is removed, the legislature is expressly authorizing bad faith, unfair, arbitrary actions against teachers. Districts would be able to fire good teachers for any reason no matter how unfair, irresponsible, or offensive that reason might be. In fact, without continuing contract protection, districts can fire teachers for absolutely no reason at all.
Consequences could include reluctance to discipline students, establish high standards and expectations, be advocates for students who are not being well-served, make suggestions for improvement, and otherwise act to serve the public interest. They may be less inclined to experiment, try new approaches or take risks. Doing what is professional and right for students can often place teachers in conflict with overprotective parents, school officials who want to avoid conflict, and administrators or board members who don’t want to acknowledge problems with the status quo. Teachers may have no choice but to just put their heads down and “go along.” Only the truly brave and the foolish will be willing to make any waves teaching in such an environment.
We know that when teachers feel valued and safe with a measure of protection against unfair dismissal, they are more likely to be student advocates and willing participants in efforts to improve the schools. They feel empowered to do what is right for students, even when it may be unpopular with administration or ruffles the feathers of parents. And it is no coincidence that the highest educationally performing country – Finland – has strong protections against unfair dismissal.
Wyoming courts consistently defer to school administration in determining the evaluation procedures – as simple or complex as they prefer. We know districts with robust systems that clearly identify excellence, based on multiple formal visits to the classroom, accompanied by frequent informal observations in multiple settings. We also know districts that do little more than complete checklists. We believe effective systems that identify indicators of effectiveness and promote collaboration between teachers and their evaluators must be in place in EVERY district in the state.
Perhaps most frustrating to education professionals state-wide is that this arbitrary and punitive proposal to eliminate continuing contract status is being couched as a part of school reform. True school reform requires a working environment that nurtures educators who are willing to encourage students to stretch beyond the status quo, to go out on a limb to effect change, take risks and expect student commitment. None of us opposes employment decisions that include effective evaluation based on research-based effectiveness indicators. \None of us wants to teach next door to an ineffective teacher, and none of us wants to be subject to the whim of an ill-prepared evaluator or over-zealous community or school board member. All we want is fair treatment and a safe environment to do what we dearly love – TO TEACH!