By Sally Absher
When the legislature passed a bill in 2011 making it more difficult for Tennessee teachers to get tenure, many people thought this was a good thing. After all, the previous year, Davis Guggenheim’s pseudo-documentary “Waiting for Superman” popularized the false statement that “Tenure is automatic, and it means a job for life,” leading to an all-out assault on tenure by state legislatures across the country.
The bill, pushed by Governor Haslam, requires teachers to work five years, instead of three, to achieve tenure. It also created an evaluation procedure that can lead to revoking tenure based on poor job performance, and many teachers who will never attain tenure in spite of “Rock Solid 3s” on their evaluations.
In reality, KCEA President-elect Lauren Hopson told the Rude Awakening radio show last week, all tenure means is due process rights. “That means, if you are going to fire a teacher, you have to have cause, you have to be able to prove it, the teacher is allowed a hearing, and the opportunity for representation.”
Last week, the news that a number of highly regarded (at least by parents and students) KCS teachers had been “non-renewed” spread quickly across social media. One in particular was Kindergarten teacher Christina Graham, who some parents and colleagues worried, was targeted for non-renewal because of a speech she made during public forum at a BOE meeting.
In April 2014, Graham spoke out against the SAT-10 standardized assessment that was given to KCS students in grades K-2. This was not a state required assessment, and it has since been discontinued in Knox County.
But Graham may never know the reasons her contract was not renewed – as a third year teacher, she did not have tenure and she was told by HR that her principal acted within policy by terminating her without having to give a reason. No due process for teachers without tenure.
To those on the outside, Graham did everything right. She was a “rock solid 3” – having attained evaluation scores of 3 or more for each of her three years of teaching.
On the professionalism rubric, she has been recognized as a “Promoter” for the past two years. A promoter is defined as “a model teacher leader who promotes and delivers high quality, time intensive support to the school community and beyond, primarily focused on student growth as well as professional development and growth.”
Last summer, after hearing Dyslexia advocate Jennifer Nagle speak at several BOE meetings, Graham took an online class through the Dyslexia Training Institute to help her recognize the one in five students in her class who may have some form of Dyslexia.
Also last summer she and several other KCS teachers baked brownies and treats, and gathered at West Town Mall at midnight to welcome the KCS TSA teams home from their national competition in Washington D.C.
Graham spent a few days of her Spring Break this year in Nashville with fellow educators, meeting with legislators to voice their opposition to vouchers (note that the KCS Board of Education passed a resolution this year against vouchers).
She participated in a community clean-up in conjunction with KCEA and Keep Knoxville Beautiful at Fulton High School this spring. Fulton is not her school, or even her district, but she (and several SPEAK members) gave up a Saturday to support the teachers, parents, and students in the Fulton community.
She worked hard to get her Donors Choose project funded for her classroom. And now she worries she’s going to have to decline it. Meanwhile she is completing training to become a big sister through the Big Brothers, Big Sisters organization.
Was she targeted? We may never know, and worse, she may never know. Local TV station WATE picked up on the story, which soon spread to theBlaze.com and an invitation for Graham to appear on Fox News.
Graham is only one of many KCS teachers who were non-renewed. Dr. Kathy Sims, KCS Chief Human Resources Officer, told WATE that so far there are 33 teachers on the non-renewal list. The district has until June 15 to notify teachers if their contract will be renewed for next year. Last year, 55 teachers were non-renewed.
Sims also told WATE, “You can non-renew an employee for any reason or no reason, as long as it’s not an illegal reason.” But, how does someone know if the reason is legal or illegal, if they aren’t given a reason?
Teachers who were not renewed can apply for another teaching job in Knox County, as can teachers who were “riffed,” a term referring to “reduction in force” (a legal way to fire a teacher with tenure). For example, at Cedar Bluff Middle School, a STEM teacher, a Phys Ed teacher, and an AVID teacher were informed their positions had been eliminated.
Many parents have asked, “What can we do?” There are no easy answers, except to write letters, email BOE members, show up at meetings, and contact the press. The administration has proven it has little regard for teachers, but maybe they will start to pay attention if enough parents, grandparents, and taxpayers show up at meetings and demand answers.
The Board of Education will have their June Work Session meeting this Monday, June 1, 5 pm at the Andrew Johnson Building. The regular June Meeting is Wednesday, June 3 at the City County Building. Please attend.