By Liz Bergren
The teaching profession can have its share of instability. When the economy is struggling, budget cuts are bound to happen. Public schools and teachers inevitably are targets when money is tight. Private schools are affected as well: When student enrollment is down and there are not enough families paying tuition, teachers and programs suffer.
Who Stays and Who Goes?
This question is answered in different ways. While seniority is still one of the main criteria for layoffs (least senior teachers are laid off first) in districts around the United States, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality, there has been progress in layoff policies. About 45 percent of the largest districts in the country now use performance as the primary factor in layoffs, with another 20 percent using performance as one of the factors. However, the author points out, “In spite of this progress, a full third of large districts still rely on seniority as the primary factor for deciding which teachers are laid off.”
Of course, objectively measuring teacher performance is tricky, with the most obvious evaluation category being student learning and growth. With some subjects such as math, where there are clear right and wrong answers, using testing data can be indicative of teacher effectiveness. For other subjects such as art, music, health, and physical education, the data of effectiveness is not so clear.
In 2009, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funded the Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) project to determine the best way to identify and promote effective teaching. The project narrowed down effective teaching into three measures: classroom observations, student surveys, and student achievement gains. According to the Foundation, partners in the project—which included 3,000 teacher volunteers in six districts, 20,000 videotaped lessons, student surveys, and student performance on state and supplemental higher-order thinking skills tests—identified nine guiding principles to help guide districts and schools to design systems to improve quality of instruction.
Amidst growing pressure to improve academic progress and school success, it seems wrong to rely just on seniority to make decisions about layoffs. For the sake of our students, I’m hopeful that we will continue to move toward a policy of using performance.
Dealing with a Layoff
In the spring of 2007, I found myself laid off due to budget cuts. I had been teaching for eight years in a school, and my job was given to someone my senior. Students and parents advocated for me, yet teachers who hadn’t taught my subject in 20 years were given my job. I was beside myself with sadness over this loss. I recovered and found a new job for the following school year, only to find myself in the exact same situation again! In both circumstances, I lost my job in the early spring, leaving me with months left to teach knowing that I was leaving.
It was hard to stifle my anger and grief, but I coped by focusing on what I could control in the moment and what new possibilities were ahead for me:
- What helped me most during this time was to focus as much of my energy as I could on what my students needed from me. I wanted them to have the best experience with me they possibly could, so that when they looked back on their sixth-grade year, they’d remember a teacher who supported and encouraged them. Though it can be difficult, keep students’ needs at the forefront.
- I also created an action plan for my future. At first I could see very few benefits to my layoff, but as weeks passed, I started to consider different career possibilities. How could I use my teaching experience to work in a completely different profession? I also considered future teaching jobs. I started to think about the benefits of potentially teaching in a school that had more support and a better professional learning community than where I was. This might also be a time to go back to school to advance your degree. In education, there are significant benefits to having advanced degrees. Becoming a substitute teacher is always an option, too, and schools are in desperate need of substitutes. It can even become a full-time job. Very often, one door closing can mean a new, and better, door opens.
Being an educator is an amazing profession. It has its unique challenges that people in other industries don’t have to face. If you’ve been laid off from a teaching position in the past and have additional advice, please leave a comment.
Liz Bergren is Free Spirit’s education resource specialist. She is a former teacher with 15 years of classroom experience. In addition to being a teacher, she spent five years working for Park Nicollet’s Melrose Institute where she counseled and taught classes to patients who struggled with eating disorders. She has a B.A. in health and secondary education from the University of St. Thomas and an M.Ed. in family education from the University of Minnesota.
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