Thursday, February 01, 2007

To Fire a Teacher

Via Pharyngula, I learn of a ham-fisted response by a school board to a complaint from a student. Seems a teacher was violating the US (Federal) separation of church and state, and using really stretched analogies, too. The former is apparently illegal, the latter just annoying.

An idea bouncing around inside my head for the last couple of days decided to escape. Several of the comments responding to PZ's post suggest the teacher should be fired. Similarly, whenever a discussion on Pharyngula or a number of other sites turns to the teaching of Evolutionary Biology to secondary-school students (or, rarely, younger), it is frequently stated that in many school districts, a courageous teacher explicitely tackling topics like natural selection, human descent, or anti-creationism would be very quickly fired by the school district supervisors after immediate and noisy complaints from Fundamentalist Christian parents.

Does anyone have any data on how frequently teachers get fired or otherwise significantly reprimanded after complaints from either students or their parents?

My impression, standing far to the outside, of school boards in Canada, at least, has been of extreme job protectionism, driven by union politics and other factors. This suggests to me that it's very difficult to fire a teacher for any reason, with possible exceptions involving accusations of sexually inappropriate behaviour (for obvious hysteria-related reasons). So how can truly bad, or even quite-good-but-persecuted-by-idiots teachers lose their jobs?

School boards must have some abilities to hire-and-fire teachers at will, union politics notwithstanding. So it should at least be possible for a small group of parents to oust a particular teacher. How often does this actually happen?

Then there's the issue of un-official pressure placed upon a teacher. Teachers typically live in the communities where they work (using, for today, the strictly geographical definition of the slippery word "community"). So an unpopular teacher could most likely be driven from a school by his or her neighbours making every day life, outside of school, unpleasant. I'm certainly not condoning such a strategy - but I imagine such would be fairly effective in many cases. Aside: does living in a large city protect one from such social pressures? Discuss.

How ethically sound is it to demand the firing of a teacher? How badly behaved does a teacher have to be to warrant dismissal? Does the relationship between the complainer and the teacher matter? I keep thinking of a comparison with the relationship between constituents and representatives in a representative democracy, like Congresscritters in the US, or MPs here or in the UK. I have heard it argued, very persuasively, that in a representative democracy, one's representative should not bend to every whim of his or her constituents. Rather, that MP was elected to make decisions for their constituents, based on foundational policies and pre-stated opinions advertised during the election campaign. Does this apply as an analogy to public-school teachers, in that teachers are appointed based on training and experience, and the rest of us agree they will teach "our" children subjects mandated by (elected) school boards in a manner consistent with published guidelines. We give the teachers a little lee-way in terms of teaching style, and some wiggle-room in terms of relative emphasis of various topics - like the way my grade 11 Chemistry teacher derided the entire field of Biology as "gross and boring" - he was certainly entitled to his opinion.

I can't think of a better way to end this post than to ask: does anyone have any good, solid data on teacher-dismissal frequencies by reason?


Carlo said...

I've always been rather weary of teachers in general. My own personal experience has demonstrated to me that, when teachers leave their area(s) of expertise, we start to have problems.

Basically we're putting a person in a position of power over youth and telling the youths to respect (and basically believe) everything the teacher is saying. A physics teacher talking about physics is fine but when they start going off about politics, religion, etc (and I've seen and heard it all) it can be difficult for a student to sift through what info they should respect vs. what they shouldn't.

I've also met way too many teachers who think that simply being a teacher qualifies them as an expert on everything, which doesn't help when they're spewing their random opinions to the classroom.

King Aardvark said...

Sorry about the late comment, but I just had to add that in highschool we had one teacher get fed up and punch a student. Even he wasn't fired, just transfered to an adult education centre.

TheBrummell said...

Late comments are allowed and encouraged - I get email alerts to the email account I check every second day or so; my replies to late comments might not be rapid.

Interesting tale, I'd not heard about transfers between highschool and adult education centres. I guess school boards have many options besides the politically-dangerous move of a firing.