Teacher Layoffs Loom, Spelling Doom for City Schools

Let’s Make Sure Good Teachers Aren’t Forced From Schools That Need Them


Published: March 30, 2011

When I was a high school junior, I took Latin as an honors elective to prepare for the dreaded SATs. Latin is a language that makes some students run home in tears every afternoon, begging some higher power to flood the classroom where Latin grammar books were stored, but did I pretend to be mute so I wouldn’t have to stutter through 50 lines of text every class?

A proposed bill puts many valuable teachers at risk and threatens city schools and the livelihood of educators already struggling to find jobs. (L. Francois/the Observer)

The answer to that question is a hearty “no.” I actually enjoyed Latin class. More than that, it turned out I was quite good at Latin, thanks to nothing less than a miracle-working teacher who guided me through every mispronunciation, misspelling and mistranslation, right through to finals period.

Our class read books, acted out plays and hosted Latin language parties, complete with togas and headpieces. Whoever said Latin was a dead language?

It would make sense, then, that someone like my Latin teacher, with years of teaching experience and a stellar track record with parents and students alike, would be rewarded for a job well done.

But under a new doomsday bill that would end seniority protection and lay off teachers based on negative ratings, misconduct or chronic absenteeism and lateness, my old Latin teacher could lose her job, thanks to one unsatisfactory rating by a (thankfully) now-retired principal. She only received this negative rating because she and the principal butted heads about the educational value of our monthly Latin parties, which were held after school and were not mandatory for the class. I guess we were having too much fun.

Introduced by Sen. John Flanagan in February as a response to possible cuts in public education funding, the bill is meant to help schools retain the best and brightest teachers while firing those deemed incompetent in the classroom. While the bill provides a decent start for creating an effective method for cutting teachers, it is lacking in key areas and could rid schools of some of their most faithful and competent educators.

In this case, it wouldn’t matter that the reasoning behind my former Latin teacher’s bad rating was completely unfair; she’d be on the same chopping block as even the most unprepared and ineffective teachers. If the proposed bill comes to fruition, teachers like her might have to put down the chalk, pack up their lesson plans and file for unemployment.

Under these criteria, even one unsatisfactory rating has the potential to cost a teacher his or her job, making it easy for principals to wield these bad ratings as weapons against educators, essentially ruling over the hallways and classrooms with an iron fist.

Not only can this be devastating to teachers, it also leaves parents and students out of determining which teachers have been able to academically prepare children for the future. Left out of any decision making are the very people the public education system is supposed to serve.

The second largest category of teachers threatened by looming budget cuts are those struggling to secure a steady form of employment within the city’s public education system. In theory, six months on the absent teacher reserve pool might seem like a long time, but to put that into perspective, it has taken many recent graduates even longer to find their first job. And teachers in the reserve pool still serve in administrative support or as substitute, part time or even full time teachers.

Meanwhile, a smaller number of teachers could be nixed for misconduct, chronic absenteeism, failing to obtain certification or for being convicted of a crime within the past five years.

Seniority would also go down the drain under the bill. Yes, seniority has its problems, as ineffective teachers can be kept on the payrolls simply for having been there longer while less experienced yet highly effective teachers are let go of much too soon. But if seniority ends, there’s nothing to prevent massive layoffs of these better-paid teachers in favor of lower-paid new ones, no matter how good the older teachers were. Older and more experienced teachers could more easily be kicked to the curb to cut costs.

To put it simply, the criteria that would affect the largest number of teachers is flawed. The bill could be improved by addressing potential unfairness in the ratings system, incorporating parents and students into the ratings process, and protecting older and better paid teachers from being laid off to cut down on costs. While laying off a chronically late teacher may benefit students, losing one because of principal favoritism will set them back. As with any job, workers should be judged on merit and effectiveness. This bill is a first step in that direction, but requires significant improvements to ensure that the right people will guide children to a better and brighter future.