Don't Punish Teachers, Reward Them for The Valuable Work That They Perform

Apparently teachers are now the cause of most of Illinois' woes.

First, they have been attacked for what many consider overly generous pensions. Teachers in Illinois do not pay into Social Security. They pay into one of the state pension systems at a rate that is slightly higher than what others normally pay into Social Security. Recent proposals for pension reform include provisions for changing the benefit for those currently working. This is like changing the rules of baseball in the ninth inning. Had teachers known that their pension plan might no longer exist, they might have invested more aggressively. For many it is a little late in the day to amass enough money in a private retirement plan.

Potential teachers, and those early in their career, will realize that given the salaries they make, they will never be able to invest enough money to produce an amount sufficient to carry them through retirement. It's fine to talk about teaching as a way of inspiring young people, but bills have to be paid. One wonders how many good teachers will leave or never enter the profession if the state guts the pension plans. Now proposed legislation would alter tenure in order to make it easier to fire teachers, limit the right to strike, and eliminate seniority as the main criteria for continued employment when cuts are made.

Teachers play tennis with ideas. The point is to bat different ideas back and forth in the hopes students will learn to think critically, to put those skills to work, to appreciate that there are often many supportable views in a debate. It should come as no surprise that when exposed to a variety of views, some students or parents will find them objectionable. Complaints will be made to principals or college administrators. Too often the administrator follows the path of least resistance and sides with the complainant. Tenure protects the right of teachers to engage in the free exchange of ideas, which is essential if education is to be something other than endless days of rote memory work about vanilla issues.

There are certainly incompetent teachers, just as there are incompetent administrators, and especially incompetent legislators. The great myth is that tenure is irrevocable. Schools have provisions for regular evaluation of teachers; denying or revoking tenure requires someone in a supervisory position to make a case for dismissal, and to document the reasons why. When administrators fail to do their jobs, it is not the fault of tenure.

By the way, if you are able to read and think about this letter, thank a teacher.

Rick Becker is a professor of English. He lives in Washington.