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Virginia Journal of Education


On Point

As the debate over continuing contract rights for teachers went on in this year’s General Assembly, one educator made his feelings known in a letter to his local legislators. Here are his thoughts:

By Peter Pfotenhauer

If I understand the supporters of doing away with continuing-contract rights for teachers correctly, they feel that a significant number of teachers are not performing up-to-par, and it needs to be easier to get rid of these burned out, ineffective educators.

I disagree with the assumption that there are an exceptional number of poor teachers, but for the sake of argument I'll temporarily accept the premise. So, explain to me how grandfathering the protections afforded to this "underperforming" group of experienced teachers will help remove more of them from the classroom?

I fail to see how holding newly-hired teachers to a tougher standard will benefit students if the current "bad" teachers still follow the same rules proponents of this “reform” claim make it too hard to remove them. Won't this process simply lead to new teachers facing uncontested dismissals every year for a longer time and then again every three years? Why would the best of the new graduates, career switchers and others want to come to Virginia if they’ll work for less money (The average Virginia teacher ranks 35th nationally, lower if you throw out the Northern Virginia region), in larger classes (Virginia ranks 41st in the nation in average class size), with a less secure retirement benefit (VRS members will see their retirement investment value drop by an average return of 52 percent by switching from a defined benefit plan to a defined contribution plan), and under constant threat of job loss with no reason given?

Changing continuing-contract rights will not improve the profession, nor will it solve the mythical bad teacher problem. This proposed “solution” fails any test of logic.

Removing a poor teacher from the profession is not difficult at all. There is a clear process which affords teachers the right to a hearing and a showing of cause for the dismissal. I see my school board go into closed session every meeting to discuss personnel matters, so obviously competent administrators are using the current process with few problems.
Malcolm Gladwell, in "Outliers: The Story of Success," wrote about research showing that regardless of occupation, people tend to produce peak performance after about 10,000 hours of investment in an activity. Athletes usually hit their prime after 10,000 hours of perfecting their craft. Mozart and Bach arguably produced their most creative compositions after around 10 years of playing, which is about how long it takes people to spend 10,000 hours working. Under current conditions, which will get worse if the General Assembly continues to underfund the SOQs, most new hires will never reach this level of expertise. Today, half of all new teachers quit within five years, overwhelmed by the job requirements and limited training.

I know that my second year of teaching was exponentially easier than my first, and I feel I’ve improved, in some way, every year since. But it was after around my seventh or eighth year of teaching (teachers work more than 1,000 hours per year) that one day I realized that most of what I did had become so internalized that I could anticipate student needs, multitask during class, and carry out the complex activities related to managing, engaging, inspiring and educating a class of 12-year-old hormones-with-feet better than ever before. I still feel that I can walk into a classroom and deliver a much better product at this stage in my career simply because I have trained my brain to process, react and anticipate what will happen. Some kids say I use "the Force" like a Jedi. Will I lose that edge sometime in the future? Maybe. Most people do. But I'll last a lot longer, and be more effective, if I can teach classes of manageable sizes, with proper support and training, and with the tools I need.

 Are there burned out teachers? Sure. Why do they get that way? Maybe the poor pay, long hours, huge classes, ineffective emphasis on testing, lack of discipline, constant bashing from politicians, paperwork, and a general lack of respect from a culture increasingly more interested in immediate gratification than sustained effort contribute. A better recipe would be to follow the examples of Japan, Finland and other nations that invest in their teachers, train the heck out of them, support them with manageable workloads and class sizes, and recognize that the skill set needed to truly excel can be taught and mastered, but it takes time and proper support. 
Removing teachers’ continuing-contract status does nothing to strengthen any of those key components. It does not support the honorable and important profession of teaching—instead, it demeans and attacks it while falsely claiming to help children. Teachers’ working conditions are student learning conditions, and taking away teachers’ rights is bad public policy.

Pfotenhauer, an English teacher at Ni River Middle School, is president of the Spotsylvania Education Association.




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