The Washington County Board of Education recognized 28 employees for achieving tenure at its March 7 meeting.
“We are very proud of you,” Superintendent Kimber Halliburton told the recipients. “And we hope you stay with us because we think there’s even more great things coming to Washington County, and we don’t want to lose you. We want to keep you happy here.”
Haley Carr, a fourth grade teacher at Lamar Elementary, has no intention of leaving her school system now that she has achieved tenure.
“I am a product of the Washington County education system,” said Carr. “I want to be able to give back in the community.”
This is the second year that teachers have been awarded tenure under the new Tennessee Educator Acceleration Model. TEAM requires that a teacher stay in the same position for at least five years instead of three. Teachers who received tenure under the former system are not required to reapply.
On April 15, 2011, Gov. Bill Haslam signed the Tennessee Teacher Tenure Act that increased the criteria for a teacher to receive tenure. In addition to in-class evaluations, teachers also must have outstanding test scores from their students for two consecutive years before being awarded tenure.
“I think [the state] changed the criteria to make sure that the only teachers getting tenure were going to be consistent with getting good marks,” said Emily Couch, a sophomore studying education at ETSU.
However, tenure no longer secures an educator’s job. Teachers remain accountable for their students’ annual test scores. After two years of poor testing, teachers may be stripped of their tenure recognition. This makes it easier for a teacher to be fired.
“Tenure is now earned, not given to educators,” Carr said. “I consider tenure a great milestone for teachers who have consistently demonstrated effectiveness and commitment.”
Emily Freitag, former assistant commissioner for curriculum and instruction in Tennessee, told the TEAM Reform Support Network that she expects regular improvements to the program.
“We see this as an arc of work rather than a one-year plan,” Freitag said. “We focus on what we want to see in the future, recognizing that we learn as we go.”
This means that the two-year limit on poor test scores could change.
It remains difficult for educators to be fired if they have tenure and acceptable test scores. However, sometimes a situation ensues that requires a school system to take action against one of their employees.
At the March board meeting, the audience was updated on the status of Jennifer Collins, a fifth-grade teacher fired from Gray Elementary for insubordination and unprofessional conduct.
Collins was dismissed from Washington County Schools on Oct. 28, 2016. This was a result of numerous complaints from parents and students dating back to 2014. Collins was accused of kissing, hugging and rubbing students on the head.
She did not deny the claims, but did request a hearing with an impartial hearing officer. Judge Randy Kennedy listened to testimony for two days before sending his decision to the board on Jan. 25. He released 14 findings in favor of Collins’ dismissal.
Collins was unavailable for comment.
On Feb. 6, Collins made an appeal of Kennedy’s decision to the board. In April, the board will vote one of four ways: to sustain the judgment of Judge Kennedy, to send the record back if additional evidence is necessary, to revise the penalty or to reverse the decision.
“[My] opinion is termination is in the best interest of student safety,” said Halliburton. “And we do have a sitting juvenile court judge as an impartial hearing officer. So, I will be asking this board to sustain the decision.”
If Collins did not have tenure, or was tenured under the new system, this process would be simplified. However, because she is tenured under the original program, it is difficult for her to lose her job.
“It is clear that tenure is effective in large portions of our education system,” said Carr. “But I feel that there are still aspects that need to improvement in order to fairly and fully provide tenure.”
Virginia McCoy, the Tennessee Education Association’s staff attorney, is concerned that school administrations are not granting tenure to teachers who met the criteria. She spoke to TEA communications liaison Amanda Cheney on Feb. 6.
“Our number one priority is that TEA members are treated fairly,” McCoy said. “Our legal team is working hard to ensure school districts are following state law and moving forward with recommending eligible teachers for tenure status.”
Regardless of the lack of safety that tenure used to provide to educators’ jobs, teachers remain optimistic.
“Knowing that I have to have a level of effectiveness…will keep me striving to do my best in my profession for my students and myself,” said Carr.