Deborah Meier: The Value of Tenure and Seniority

Readers note: This post was  originally in Diane Ravitch’s Blog on 18 June 2016

Background: Deborah Meier, founder of Central Park East in New York City and the Mission Hill school in Boston, explains the rationale for tenure and seniority from her perspective as a principal.


Tenure and seniority are often attacked by people of good will. As a former principal of several schools, I embrace it. The culture of Central Park East and Mission Hill depended on both, even if there were occasions when I wished otherwise. I’m not alone, as a principal, in this view.

The kind of noncompetitive shared “ownership” over the school that the staff and faculty displayed over and over and over again rested in large measure on their not having to balance their personal self-interest and their devotion to the school. There is nothing evil in our desire to have a steady paycheck, to feel secure even if you irritate those in charge, and to want to be able to plan one’s life ahead. These are healthy qualities that human beings should not be ashamed of. As FDR once noted, “freedom from fear” is one of the basics that democracy rests on—–fear makes for bad practice of teaching and democracy.

My capacity to provide leadership where needed, and build a strong staff rested on the fact that there were some rules of the game we couldn’t change, and were not available to our temporary biases. I could be strong and as persuasive as I could be without fear of intimidating others to follow my lead, or silence even young and inexperienced staff from venturing forth with their opinions—as long as I did not have the power to wreak havoc on their lives—and cut off the lively ideas that might otherwise inconvenience me. Experience close to home reminds me that even tenured teachers can lose their jobs if they annoy the principal too much in settings where staff cohesion is weak. Only such “irritation” is sufficient to get many principals to take the trouble to “get rid” of a staff member—-and cause can always be dug up when the desire is strong enough.

Finally, it’s hard to believe that some wouldn’t be influenced by having to pay senior teachers so much more than first year teachers, thus creating a tendency to punish experienced teachers who have to constantly outperform newer and younger colleagues. If we want people to stay we need to offer them a good shot at making decent pay as they get older. Given that most newbies leave within the first 5 years—perhaps inevitable—it makes sense to pay them less as they learn the craft, and while they have fewer adult responsibilities. But once again, as with tenure, if decisions about pay are made by one’s principal there is a never-ending tendency to “please the boss”. When someone should not be teaching there should be peer reviews, with the principal being a part of the process, for weeding out those who, at the present time, do not seem ready to be teachers.

This entry was posted in Leadership by Dr. Charles Bickenheuser. Bookmark the permalink.

About Dr. Charles Bickenheuser

My research focus is in cognitive language and leadership. My background includes classical philosophy, linguistics, and American authors of short stories, essays and poems. Finally, my doctorate is in education and my methodology is phenomenology and mixed method. I am retired from the active classroom; a long time ago I served as a medical sergeant in an airborne unit in Vietnam for two years.

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