Every parent knows that along with all the wonderful teachers in their children’s schools, there are some that are just mediocre, and some others that are downright awful.
But no matter how bad they are at imparting knowledge to their students and encouraging in them a love for learning, incompetent teachers almost never lose their jobs. They just keep right on wasting everyone’s time and aptitudes for learning — and making their colleagues miserable, too.
The numbers don’t lie: From 2010 to 2015, a total of seven full-time, permanent teachers were fired for incompetence in Quebec’s public schools. That’s seven out of some 60,000 over a five-year period, or about 1 in 10,000.
The simple fact of the matter is that it is extremely difficult to fire a teacher once he or she has obtained tenure, also known as permanence.
Before obtaining tenure, a teacher will be evaluated on at least two occasions by school administrators. In numerous school boards, though, particularly francophone ones, as soon as a teacher is permanent, teaching quality is no longer evaluated.
That means if anything is going to raise a flag for school administrators, it will have to be complaints, whether from students or their parents. Sometimes, it is colleagues who complain that the students who come to them don’t have a solid grasp of the material that was supposed to have been taught by another teacher.
Of course, complaints don’t automatically lead to dismissal, nor should they. School administrators start by meeting with a teacher individually to find out whether he or she is experiencing any particular difficulties. They offer help, training, in-class observation if desired, advice, the support of fellow teachers, and so on.
If administrators receive further complaints, they can resort to pedagogical supervision, which involves regular follow-up over an extended period during which a teacher must achieve a certain number of specific objectives. Teachers demonstrating a willingness to improve will have all the necessary tools at their disposal to help them.
If pedagogical supervision fails to achieve certain specific objectives, administrators can then carry out an evaluation, and a negative result can then lead them to begin dismissal proceedings by submitting a proposal to the school board.
This long process is seen as very demanding, and administrators often throw up their hands despite a teacher’s incompetence and the complaints received. If they persevere, all throughout the process, the teacher’s union will take every opportunity to contest the steps taken, among other things by filing grievances.
Overwhelmed administrators will often respond by placing the problematic teacher in a situation in which he or she is no longer alone in a classroom, or by suggesting early retirement if the teacher is older. They can also favour the teacher’s transfer, thus making the problem someone else’s.
Teachers, of course, have every right to be assisted, and it’s perfectly normal for them to be able to call upon their unions to defend them. It’s the bureaucratic excesses making the dismissal process for incompetence so long and arduous that are the real problem.
The solutions, though, are well known. Schools could institute periodic teacher evaluations every five years, as is done in Ontario. More frequent standardized tests would also allow for better measurement of the quality of teaching and learning. Merit pay based on regular evaluations is also a solution worth considering.
In the end, though, the very concept of tenure for teachers seems absurd. A teacher’s competence should constitute the best guarantee of job security.
Quality of learning and the fight to encourage kids to stay in school depend on helping teachers do their best. But they also depend on weeding out the worst teachers. Doing so should be easier and more straightforward.
Youri Chassin is director of research at the Montreal Economic Institute, and the author of "Enhance the Standing of the Teaching Profession by Firing Incompetent Teachers."