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Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Trouble with Tenure

Yesterday’s shocking-yet-unsurprising shooting at the University of Alabama’s Huntsville campus is certain to fuel the gun control crowd. But what of the anti-tenure agitators? Tenure has long been a hot topic in education. Should someone who has been employed for three years be entitled to the golden ticket? If yes, why doesn’t every job offer tenure as a reward for sticking it out?

Tenure, we have heard, is the hobgoblin of American education. Unmotivated and burned-out teachers are guaranteed a job for life, once they’ve achieved tenure. There is no inducement for a teacher to improve if tenured teachers can’t be fired. The arguments against tenure go on and on. So do the arguments for tenure. And, as in so many issues, the truth lies somewhere in the midst of the battle.

In education, tenure is not limited to teachers; there are many educational support personnel who also qualify for tenure. The truth about tenure is that it is not a guarantee.

Ten years ago, I was a union representative in a public school system in New Jersey. In other settings that position would be “shop steward.” As a member of the school district’s association, the NJEA (New Jersey Education Association), and the NEA (National Education Association), I witnessed uses and abuses of tenure from both sides of the table. The worlds of public education and university education are not the same; however, both venues are extremely political. A bad teacher who can play politics well is apt to keep a position forever, whether there is tenure or not.

Any teacher can be fired. There is no law or contract provision that protects the employee unconditionally. Tenure makes the process a little more difficult. Just as life insurance doesn’t guarantee you will live forever, tenure is not a guarantee that you will always have a job. Tenure protects from being fired at whim. It provides a structure for termination, if termination is deemed justified. If there are a lot of rotten teachers, it’s because there are a lot of lazy administrators who know it’s easier to write satisfactory evaluations than to fire someone. This is not limited to education, in every field there are people who skate by because writing them up and disciplinary actions are just too time consuming. When the employee is protected by a union, the process becomes even more involved.

What happened in Alabama? At this juncture we know only the basic facts. Three are dead, three are wounded. A faculty member, who had just been denied tenure, is being held. How could this happen in a university setting? I used to call the “association” to which I belonged a “teacup union,” because we were too genteel. Often during negotiations, when the Board of Education got tough, we were conciliatory. I wasn’t promoting breaking board members kneecaps (no matter how I felt), flattening tires, or burning down schools, but I felt that when negotiations start getting down and dirty it’s time to put on our war paint. I was in the minority. The hierarchy reminded us that we were not a union, but an association. Answer this, do you say “teachers’ union” or “teachers’ association”?

What may have happened in Alabama is the trouble with tenure. Imagine yourself in a competitive, political environment, devoting your time and energies to proving yourself. After a number of years focusing on one goal, you are informed in a brief meeting that you are not good enough; every effort you have made is unappreciated. You may be the best at what you do; you may have contributed more than anyone else to the education of your students. If you’re not going to be tenured, it’s pack-your-bags time, no matter how good or devoted you are, no matter how much you care. When you apply to other institutions, they do the math, know you were denied tenure, and wonder why.

An administrator who doesn’t like a teacher, a vindictive bureaucrat, an envious or threatened supervisor, and parents who don’t like the teacher’s views are all given the opportunity to cut that person free “before it’s too late.” Months before a tenure date, the employee may learn of machinations to eliminate him or her from the system, and if the decision to deny tenure is fought, the stress is tremendous. In many cases the staff member will know why tenure was denied, but it isn’t the “official” reason. No matter why, it’s a stain on the resume. The individual will work again, but the choice of assignments won’t be as prestigious or promising. Combine that with a terrible economy and you have a very disappointed employee who is unsure of both career and financial prospects.

We don’t know what caused the staffer at Huntsville to attempt to kill all her coworkers, and being denied tenure is no excuse. We do not condone her actions, but we can imagine what it’s like to see everything for which you’ve worked go up in smoke while standing before the one who lit the match. What must it be like, then, to be in that position and be armed?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

I Am Sixty Going on Seventeen

One of the things that most amazes as one grows older is the human’s infinite capacity for immaturity. Based solely on empirical evidence, i.e., my own personal experience, I have discovered that there really is no division between being mature and being immature. There is no magic threshold one crosses, such as turning 21…40…60…90, that defines one as mature. Older yes; mature, not necessarily.

Remember when, as a child, you woke up on a wintry morning, peeked out a window, and saw a gleaming white landscape? If it was a weekday, your first reaction was, “Yay! No school!” (If your first reaction was, “Darn! No School!” then you were probably born mature and are not going to get anything out of this essay.) Currently, all of Western North Carolina, where I happen to be, is under a thick blanket of snow. Some mountain roads are impassible and many vehicles are buried. Especially mine (Yay!).

When there’s lots of snow “Little Me” comes out. I am sitting in my nice warm bed with my nice warm laptop wearing my nice warm pajamas in the middle of the afternoon, thinking “Yay! I don’t have to go grocery shopping tomorrow.” My level of maturity is questionable for several reasons: a) I’m still in my pajamas; b) I’m still in bed; and c) my first thoughts at the falling of the first flake are about all the things I won’t have to do, whether I planned to do them or not. The fact is that it doesn’t matter if I want to do them, I can’t! My road hasn’t been cleared and there’s no getting out of my steep driveway.

Not only are there lots of things I don’t have to do away from the house, there are plenty of things I can’t do right here at home. I can’t pick up the branches and twigs that have fallen all over the yard from the high winds we experienced this week—they’re buried in snow. I can’t upright the bridge over my creek; it’s frozen in place (which is the wrong place). Of course I can’t rake leaves or pull weeds; I can’t even see them. And, best of all, I can’t shovel the snow from the driveway because the driveway is gravel and I don’t want to disturb even one pebble. Unlike that schoolgirl of yesteryear, I don’t have an “adult” who has a list of things I could be doing while “stuck” home. Husband Chip doesn’t mind what I do as long as it doesn’t interfere with his naps and meals (talk about a baby!).

Meals are another really cool thing. When Chip is home for dinner, I generally cook (although we do have a weakness for Jukebox Junction when the roads are clear). I actually provide balanced meals that might be considered passé because they consist of an entrée and two sides, or something from the slow cooker with meat and lots of veggies. Chip, of course, insists on dessert. But when I’m alone, Little Me prepares the meals. “Prepares” is an exaggeration when lunch consists of Snapple Diet Peach Iced Tea and a snack-sized bag of Lays Classic Potato Chips (although this is uncompensated product placement, it is also an example of my lack of maturity—I insist on having exactly what I want), or Frigo Cheese Sticks and a Coke (make that Classic Coke).

Being married has probably saved me from being toothless and diabetic. Left to my own devices, Little Me is perfectly satisfied living on fortune cookies, mozzarella cheese, potato chips, shrimp, Chinese dumplings, and lots of sugar. When I was younger I pictured little old ladies sitting at the kitchen table, sipping a cup of broth for dinner alone. Back in the day, I could never have imagined a little old lady, sitting in a bed shared with four cats and a dog, eating junk food, with a computer on her lap and Law and Order on TV.

If it sounds like I spend a lot of time in bed, that’s only because I kind of do. Like middle class children whose rooms are their fortresses, I go to play (on the computer), read, or do my homework in my room. Sometimes I even sleep there. My bedroom is across the hall from the kitchen, and of course I have my own bathroom (I’m not that great at sharing). This is all in the back end of our house, so most days I just close off the rest of the house and spend my time in the bedroom and the kitchen; I can claim maturity by saying it cuts down on heating costs. I spend one day a week in my granddaughter’s bedroom while my house is being cleaned. Being immature, I like being “taken care of.” Being old, I never have anyone tell me to mind my manners or clean my room. There are real advantages to being old and immature.

Being old and immature means that you always get to wear what you want, eat what you want, watch what you want, and mostly do what you want. Since age provides its own excuses, you never have to lie about why you did or didn’t do something. You either forgot or…“You know, it’s my age…” If you’d rather spend time with your cats than with your relatives, it’s okay. Everyone will say you’re eccentric. “Eccentric” is just a classy word for old and immature.

Now, I have had a real problem with turning sixty. It’s all psychological, of course; isn’t everything? But Little Me is actually loving it. Just think, Little Me thinks, in two years I get a raise in my allowance. I remember looking forward to the “important” birthdays that meant an increase in my allowance as much as Little Me is looking forward to collecting social security. If there’s any left to collect. Can you imagine being a child and told you don’t have to do any chores anymore (do children still do chores?)? That’s how Little Me reacted when I retired. I think it can best be described as “Whoopee!”

Maybe being immature is what makes getting old unacceptable. However, I have begun to adjust to being sixty (sixty years, two months, eleven days, 5 hours, and 27 minutes as of this writing). Little Me likes it a lot because all those things that were once forbidden to a juvenile are now options. And, instead of being “just a child,” I am comprised of all the ages I’ve ever been.

Not Your Mamacita's Chili

Have you ever seen a recipe you’d love to try, except there’s one ingredient that you really hate? “No substitutions” may be a good rule in a greasy spoon, but it doesn’t apply in the kitchen. If you’ve read anything I’ve written, you might surmise that I don’t go out of my way to conform my behavior to society’s standards. I’m not a sociopath. Really. I’m not. I just can’t see doing what I don’t enjoy in order to be considered correct. When you take a recipe and make a few changes, you are not committing sacrilege; you are inventing another dish.

I don’t consider myself a picky eater because I’m the one who does the grocery shopping. That means that I don’t buy things I won’t eat, like zucchini, green beans, or lamb. I don’t cook foods that I don’t like and I don’t include ingredients that a recipe calls for just so that I’ll make an exact duplicate of whatever. Sometimes that means I leave something out; sometimes it means I substitute. My favorite meatloaf is the Quaker Oats Classic Meatloaf recipe, but I don’t always have oatmeal in the house. I’ve substituted cracker crumbs, pretzel crumbs, crushed cereal, and packets of honey-nut instant oatmeal for the Old-Fashioned or Quick Oats in the recipe. Nobody died; nobody got sick; nobody even complained. If I’m going to make meatloaf, it’s not going to be the same each time because I might have something sitting around that I’d like to add. Raisins, for instance. Don’t groan; if you make an Italian meatloaf, add some raisins and pignoli nuts. I like a variety of textures and flavors, and the fruit and nuts do the trick.

Meatloaf is no longer a regular menu item at our house because I don’t actually like ground beef all that much. I think it’s kind of gross, which is why I’ll eat a kid’s burger and not a half-pounder. If I’m craving a burger, it’s more that I’m craving the burger experience than the meat. It doesn’t happen very often, anyway, and when it does I give half the burger to Charity. Charity is my dog (Charity Marie Doggie-Dog, to be exact).

Chili is one of my favorite dishes; it’s regularly featured at my table. Unfortunately, if you are going to make chili, you are going to use ground beef (or ground — ugh — turkey) and kidney beans. I don’t like kidney beans. You already know I don’t like ground beef. So how is it that I make a lot of chili? Easy! My chili has neither ingredient. Shoot! I’m not afraid to substitute main ingredients; if you’re willing to substitute sea salt for table salt, then you’re ready to go whole hog. Um… excuse the hog reference. Ground pork is the meat in my chili. Chip likes to repeat something a very wise man once told him: “If there’s beans in your chili, you don’t know beans about chili.” My agreement is totally self-serving.

Ground meat and gravy don’t make much of a main course either. I know some people like it, but it won’t fly here. Corn is my number-one favorite vegetable. Corn on the cob, creamed corn, corn chowder, corn bread, corn muffins, roast corn, sautéed corn — bring it on. Corn is what goes into my chili instead of kidney beans. I also used to make this with chili powder and Tabasco, but found that prepared seasoning mix took the guesswork out of the equation. This is not a chili that will appeal to everyone; it’s a don’t-knock-it-til-you’ve-tried-it suggestion.

Here’s the recipe for Bob’s Non-Conformist Chili. Feel free to change it to your own tastes.


1 pound ground pork
15-ounce can tomato sauce
1 medium onion
1 packet Mild Chili seasoning mix
1 can corn

While browning the pork in a frypan, chop ¾ of the onion and add to pork. Stir occasionally to break up the meat. Once the pork is browned, add tomato sauce, undrained corn, and seasoning mix. Stir. Cover. Let simmer over a very low heat a while. Use your judgment: if it seems too thick, thin with water, adding a tablespoon or so at a time.

When my daughters were little and not vegetarians, I served chili over white rice. I was surprised when I moved south that no one serves rice with chili. Heck, everyone in Louisiana has a rice cooker; I thought they served rice with everything. (For my vegetarian granddaughter, I substitute Boca crumbles for the pork. She’s not much of chili eater, but it still gets devoured, especially by the chief omnivore in our house.)

When you serve pork chili, many people won’t even realize they are not eating beef chili, but I don’t suggest serving this to your Orthodox Jewish friends, who also would not appreciate the toppings.

How to top this fabulous chili? Sour cream, grated Monterey Jack cheese, chopped onion (that ¼ onion you reserved), and tortilla chips. Each of these should be on the side so diners can build the chili “their way.” If you want to serve it authentic Bob-style, use those small round tortilla chips. If you want to eat it authentic Bob-style, you’ll forgo the fork or spoon and pick it up with the chips. Yum.

Most non-OCD cooks substitute ingredients all the time. Often it’s because someone won’t eat something (e.g., garlic, black pepper) or because there are dietary restrictions or allergies. It’s not a great act of bravery to substitute spices or liquids, and once you’ve experienced either an unchanged or improved dish, you’re ready to switch out on a grander scale.