I'm surprised at how many people believe it's impossible to terminate an incompetent teacher because of the work of unions. This seems to be one of those urban legends that has taken on a life of its own. The fact is all a teachers' association can guarantee is due process, not a job – I can tell you that as former president of both a local and state teachers' association. For employers who wish to behave like monarchs ("Off with their heads!") yes, it is frustrating for them to have to justify and document their treatment of a professional educator. Due process is, however, something we give the lowest criminal in our society, how much more our teachers? Schools are not improved and children are not served by autocrats being able to fire on a whim. Has this urban legend grown simply because the average American has gotten so used to employers being able to show anyone the door for any reason, at any time, without notice? No chance of improvement; no discussion; you're gone. The discussion should not be whether teachers deserve a fair hearing in their employment, but whether all employees should be given such justice.
Having taught for thirty years, I also have a unique perspective on the second part of this urban legend that says there are legions of "bad" teachers out there. First, I'd admit there are some, but truly not as many as you'd think; most really care and give their all for their students. Many of those we might term as "poor" teachers are simply in need of help in the form of a mentor or additional training. It's only a very small percentage that truly should leave the profession (I have, by the way, found these same percentages to hold true for most professions.) Second, if we fired every teacher someone at some point thought was bad, we'd have none. In my thirty-year career, I've had individual parents claim I was not fit for the classroom because: a) I insisted a child in 6th Grade do his homework; b) A girl got her first "B" on her report card; c) A boy was given detention for climbing the roof of the school, tearing off shingles, and throwing them at children below, and my personal favorite; d) I put a sticker that said "Good Work!" on a child's paper (The parent believed all rewards should be intrinsic. The parent went straight to the principal and demanded I be terminated. When he would not, she pulled her child out of school!) And I am one of those teachers who received top marks in every competency area that exists on my evaluation over all these years. With everyone being self-appointed experts on when teachers should be terminated, no wonder "everyone" knows there are "lots" of "bad" teachers out there.
More insidious is the toll all of this is taking on good teachers. Last Friday I went out with some colleagues from my former school. These are people who spend their weekends at school; people who are awake nights worrying about their students. It was sad to see the discouragement among them. Teaching is a difficult enough job without being afraid to turn on your evening news or open your daily newspaper. No matter what they do, it's not good enough. They are treated poorly not just in the public press, but by their administrators who think if they just pile on more testing, statistics, regulations, and E-mails they will improve education or at least keep their own jobs and be able to show their teachers who's in charge. You see good teachers care – it is their ability to empathize that makes them what they are. And so when we attack, belittle, and degrade their profession and them personally, we kill off a small piece of each of their hearts. By participating in the urban myth, we are collectively pulling down public education and the good people who serve our nation's children.