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Opinion | Adam Gray

Excellence in education

Putting performance over seniority is a win for teachers and students

sylvia nickerson for the boston globe

The Massachusetts Teachers Association and Stand for Children recently reached a compromise agreement on legislation that would put teacher performance over seniority in decisions about hiring, transfers, and layoffs. This is the right move for both students and teachers.

Historically, there were good reasons to base staffing decisions on seniority alone: gender equity, transparency, and freedom to voice disagreement, among them. Today, there are still reasons to take seniority into account. But times have changed. As teachers and union members, we must ask if the rules we’ve been accustomed to are continuing to serve our best interests and the interests of our students.

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This issue is personal for me. Last spring, I was displaced from my school as a result of seniority-based, quality-blind staffing policies. A month later, I was named Massachusetts Teacher of the Year.

In 2006, when I began my teaching career at one of the lowest-performing schools in Massachusetts, I struggled. But over my first few years in the classroom, I found my rhythm — largely by observing more senior teachers who showed me that it was possible for all students to achieve. During my five years at Monument High School in South Boston, one of my proudest accomplishments was developing an honors math society aimed at transforming school culture by incentivizing strong academic performance and positive behavior. When we started Mu Alpha Theta, only 13 students met the eligibility requirements of maintaining a 3.0 GPA, strong attendance, and positive behavior. Over the course of three years, that number tripled.

With my displacement, I moved from the struggling school I’d grown to love to the highest-performing school in the district, where — as much as I continued to love my work and my students — I no longer felt that I was having the same impact. Former students have emailed me to ask why I left them “for the ‘good’ kids.” This is truly heart-wrenching.

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My story is just one example. Many other teachers across the state can tell similar stories. I certainly wasn’t the most effective teacher displaced. Teachers with more than 10 years of experience — teachers I considered veterans and mentors — were similarly displaced because their years in the classroom were not enough. Certainly, several highly effective teachers were retained as a result of seniority, but many others had to move elsewhere.

We often talk about how quality-blind displacements are detrimental to student achievement. But they’re just as bad for teachers — both for morale and teacher retention. For me, the most important aspects of “working conditions” are the quality and commitment of the people I’m working with. At Monument, student attendance was abysmal — but teacher attendance was nearly as low, and the teachers who showed up every day were constantly picking up the slack for colleagues (both teachers and administrators) who were unwilling or unable to do their jobs. Surely in a profession that holds the futures of young people in its hands, we cannot afford to make any quality-blind decisions.

Last spring, I was displaced from my school as a result of seniority-based, quality-blind staffing policies. A month later, I was named Massachusetts Teacher of the Year.

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The Massachusetts Teachers Association has stepped up to compromise with Stand for Children. Without this agreement, Stand for Children would have pushed forward a ballot initiative that would have brought more wide-sweeping changes to school staffing policies, and, I fear, much more divisiveness within the profession. While teachers have good reason to be wary of the proposed legislation, we need to take this opportunity to figure out how to tackle this issue — rather than closing ourselves off to the possibility of change.

Of course, incorporating teacher performance into staffing policies will only work if teachers feel that we are being evaluated fairly and supported by our school leaders. Administrators have a critical role to play as we move toward a new statewide teacher evaluation system. If passed, the bill would not take effect until 2016, allowing crucial time for teachers and administrators to get the new evaluation tool right.

As I conclude my tenure as Teacher of the Year, our profession is at a crossroads. As teachers, we can continue to allow changes to be made to us, or we can raise our voices and lead the change in ways that we know will benefit students, teachers, and the profession as a whole. This is an opportunity to work collaboratively to elevate the teaching profession and our unions so that we are protected, respected, and supported to do the job we love.

Adam Gray is a teacher in the Boston Public Schools.
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