Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Firing Teachers

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Nov 30, 2008

Originally posted on Half an Hour, November 30, 2008.

Responding to Clay Burrell.

One of the myths prevalent in discussions about the education system is that union rule prohibit the firing of bad teachers.

This goes completely against my experiences of interactions with actual teachers, who, collectively, respond like a herd of frightened gazelles. Why are they so frightened, if they can't be fired?

They're frightened because the myth is pure fiction. Teachers can be - and are - fired all the time. And they are fired for what amounts to the most frivolous of reasons. The unions, far from being the protector of incompetent teachers, appear to be helpless to protect any teachers.

And that - not the protection of bad teachers by unions - is what is blocking excellence in teaching.

That - the fact that teachers answer to administrators who often have no idea what constitutes excellence in teaching - is what blocks improvement in the classroom.

Don't believe me? Well, let's explore. The phrase "teacher fired" - in quotes - yields 112,000 results in Google. Let's look at some of them.

  • Florida High School Teacher Fired Over Internet Pictures and Part-Time Work - in this ridiculous instance, a teacher, Tiffany Shepherd, was fired for working as a 'bikini girl' on charter fishing boats. Leaving aside the fact that teaching does not pay enough to pay back student loans, this teacher was obtaining work experience and doing nothing illegal or even (beyond the most prudish description) immoral. Oh, and no evidence that she was a bad teacher.

  • Connecticut Teacher Fired Over Myspace Page - his teacher was fire for having a MySpace page that had "among other things, pictures of naked men with 'inappropriate comments' underneath them." We are not told what the comments were, nor told what the pictures were (perhaps they were of the governor of California in his first shot in Terminator 2). Again, this is a firing for perfectly legal behaviour under the heading of 'nappropriate'.

  • College Teacher Fired Over Loyalty Oath - here we have the ridiculous case of a teacher refusing to sign on to some politically motivated doctrine. "The loyalty oath was added to the state Constitution by voters in 1952 to root out communists in public jobs. Now, 16 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, its main effect is to weed out religious believers, particularly Quakers and Jehovah's Witnesses."

  • Texas Teacher Fired for Maintaining Grading Standards - a 6th grade teacher gave math grades that parents thought were too harsh. The teacher was fired. "Parents, unhappy with their child’s performance in a class - usually because the student just isn’t making the grade - go outside the system to prove that their child is, in fact, the genius they thought he was."

  • Parents of Connecticut Teen Mistakenly Believe Daniel Clowes's Comics Are Sexy - "Nate Fisher, a Connecticut high-school English teacher, resigned last week after the parents of a freshman girl complained that he'd given her a copy of Eightball No. 22, a comic book by Daniel Clowes." The comic is no more "borderline pornography" than is, say, Gossip Girl.

  • Teacher fired over explicit emails to students - this case, from Canada, is a bit more borderline. A teacher emailed a student suggesting she touch a male in a suggestive manner, then report back. In retrospect, really bad advice. But worthy of a firing?

  • Elementary school teacher suspended after autistic child voted out of class - no word yet on whether the teacher was fired or just suspended for a year without pay after she had the class vote on whether a disruptive student (later diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome) should stay in class.

  • Teacher fired for questioning charter school - a charter school teacher, Gerald Norde, started asking questions about students listed in the register, students he had never seen or who had not attended to weeks. He was fired. Keep in mind that charter schools are paid per pupil.

  • Magic trick costs teacher job - a Florida teacher, Jim Piculas, does a trick where he makes a toothpick disappear. He won't be teaching any more. "I said, 'Well Pat, can you explain this to me?' 'You've been accused of wizardry,' [he said]. Wizardry?" he asked."

  • Quaker Teacher Fired For Changing Loyalty Oath - what heinous crime did math teacher Marianne Kearney-Brown commit to merit being fired? She - a Quaker - inserted the word "nonviolent" into her loyalty oath.

  • Latina teacher fired for not regurgitating the same old crap - yet another case of firing a teacher because the do not toe the party line. She is a high school teacher who was fired from her position at a school in LA because her curriculum was too 'Afrocentric'."

  • Teacher fired for branding students with cross - in this one, I'm going to side with the administration. Even if the mark had no religious connotations, searing student flesh is beyond the bounds. John Freshwater, an Ohio teacher, deserved to be fired. Oh - and he was.

  • Doh! Teacher Fired for showing Simpsons Movie - Aquil Abdul-Salaam was fired, not because the copy was allegedly a bootleg, not because it's non-standard curiculum, but because the movie has been deemed inappropriate for children. I've seen the movie. The rating is ridicoulous, and the movie is tamer than Bambi.

  • Teacher of the year fired over '4-letter-word' quiz - Kim Littrell, a former teacher of the year, was fired for giving a quiz that hinted at, but did not contain (and actually prohibited), the use of obscene words. For example, "What word means 'intercourse' and ends with a 'k'?" The answer is "talk." Questionable? Maybe. A firing offense? Don't be ridiculous.

  • Teacher fired after asking students for back rubs - third grade teacher Donna Coulter crossed the line and was fired. Inappropriate, sure, but folks, these are grade three children. I think the instruction "don't do it again" would have sufficed.

  • High School Teacher Fired for Teaching Harper's Article About Magical Penis Theft - yeah, I can imagine how the critics went ballistic over that one, despite the fact that the article itself is innocuous and that t could be purchased by any person from any magazine shop in the country. Philip Watt, a secondary school teacher is Brooklyn, was fired for giving a copy of the article to students.

  • Teacher Fired For Protecting Student - a teacher intervened vocally (not physically) when a police officer was roughing up a grade seven student, and was fired. Polica James Houston was workingat a Denver area charter school at the time.

  • Teacher Fired for Talking About Peace? - Indiana teacher Deb Mayer was fired for talking about peace protests after the start of the Iraq war.

  • Oregon Biology Teacher Fired Over Bible References - It's probably the sort of talk that would have had me howling with outrage - a teacher using Biblical references and alluding to Nazi Germany while talking about Planned Parenthood. or maybe it was, as biology teacher Kris Helphinstine defended, an exercise in critical thinking. No matter: Kris won't be working again.

  • Teacher sues city after being fired for affair with runway model student - the boy, age 17, was not a student. That did not protect Queens teacher Gina Salamino from being fired.

  • Teacher Fired for Calling Students Filthy Animals Speaks - Steven Clark, who endured "months of harassment, which included having objects thrown at him, getting stabbed with a pen and having his pockets picked," was fired for calling his students "filthy animals who belonged in a f---ing zoo."

  • US teacher fired for non-literal bible reading - Steve Bitterman, a teacher at a community college in red Oak, Iowa, told his students not to take the story of Adam and Eve literally. You guessed it: fired.

  • Teacher Fired Over MySpace Photo -yes, yet another. And it doesn't even contain nudity. "In it, the woman wears a pirate hat and holds a large plastic cup. She labeled the pic 'drunken pirate' and school officials said that her posting the photo online constituted a breach of professional standards and promoted underage drinking."

  • Teacher fired after testifying - Chuck Laramie, a teacher for juvenile sex offenders at the Howard Center in Vermont, was fired after testifying to a state legislative committee.

  • Unweb ma axed as teacher: suit Jewel Redhead was fired from her teaching position in Queens for being unwed and pregnant. Yes, you read that correctly.

  • Sub teacher fired over bin Laden note - a teacher in Pittsburgh was fired for writing the following in the margins of a news article: "Osama bin Laden did us a favor. He vulcanized us, awakened us and strengthened our resolve." He said it was for a book he was writing. Doesn't matter. Writing such a message is not a firing matter.
Well, that's enough. This should show pretty clearly that teachers can be and are fired, often over the most ridiculous and trivial of offenses.

Yet, we don't see in this list teachers being fired for incompetence. This raises an interesting question. Given the ease with which teachers are fired, one would expect incompetent teachers to be easily fired. So, either, the news does not report on the firing of incompetent teachers. Or the people who could fire incompetent teachers simply don't do so.

I suspect that it's the former. I suspect that incompetent teachers are fired, but that this is simply not reported as news. Presumably there are statistics on this somewhere. But I would certainly, at this point, be very hesitant to draw my conclusions about the rate of teacher firings from the daily news.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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