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Due Process for Teachers at Independent Schools

by admin on February 16, 2009

Let’s talk about unfair dismissal of teachers at independent schools. If you cannot comfortably discuss this in faculty meetings, and you do not have trustees who think that faculty should have a voice in personnel policy (neither of these is assured at the typical NAIS school), this page may be the only venue for such a conversation. The Teachers’ Defense Fund promotes the institution of fair procedure–that is, a pre- ordained and decent severance procedure–at independent schools. This is not very different from the conception of due process that holds in society at large. Is there a cultural shift in NAIS schools–are administrators less likely now than before to respect the notions of due process and fair and consistent procedure in the dismissal of employees? Specific cases of both cost-cutting and panicked administrators (Wellesley professor Nan Stein’s phrase) lead us to this notion of a cultural change. You can take the pulse of your own school in this regard, but all should be warned: we at the Center hear routinely from dismissed teachers who had thought this could never happen at their schools.

Let’s put aside the theme of a general crisis. Crisis for the individual teacher at an NAIS school is to be terminated with no recourse, and frequently no explanation. This much we can recognize as an anomaly in today’s society. Schools can do this because we are employees at will, and because contract law often allows a complete lack of procedure, counselling, explanation or recourse. This takes place within the present context of cost-cutting, with parents and trustees demanding leaner budgets and greater productivity from staff. Teacher salaries lagged behind inflation in the 1970s. In the ’80s tuitions were raised at a rate much higher than that of salary raises. Teachers barely caught up with inflation before a reaction to the tuition hikes set in, and the lean budgets of the ’90s began. In the context of increased productivity–bigger classes, larger class loads and coaching assignments–teachers are disappointed not to see more equitable treatment, including a greater voice on personnel policy committees, and more enlightened relations with administrators. Some schools now have severe faculty morale problems; this is not the moment for an arbitrary dismissal to remind faculty that they have fewer rights than their public school counterparts, and less right than most workers to a rational and fair severance process.

With the one year contract as a constant reality check, it is hard to picture an NAIS teacher speaking out , or leading the charge, against cost-cutting that he or she views as damaging the educational product. There is this possibility as well: suppose the teacher who speaks out has been at the institution for many years and is on firm ground in decrying the results of measures taken by new and sometimes inexperienced administrators. Even if this veteran does not really criticize the head of school, he or she becomes the tempting target of an insecure head, and offers the bonus target of a fairly high salary. We have seen heads who cannot resist killing these two birds with the stone of an unrenewed contract. If you have seen this, you know the effect it can have on students, faculty morale, and the institution’s reputation.

We do not aim, in this space, to raise tensions still higher by examining the cases of teachers dismissed–without any hearing–because of some brush with gender bias, multiculturalism, accusations of sexual harassment. Schools struggle nobly with these cultural issues. And we know that teachers are victimized by the political jousting. We know because we read the same newspapers you do, and because we receive calls from the aggrieved teachers. The question remains:How and where can NAIS teachers hold a safe conversation on these touchy subjects?

When schools have not been prescient enough to offer this conversation in faculty and board meetings, we have found ways to hold it ex post facto. We have held it in courts of law, and in the court of public opinion, in op-ed pieces. We have encouraged teachers–even dismissed teachers–to broach this subject in their school communities and with trustees. We follow up our legal aid to individual teachers by proposing procedural guidelines to the boards of their former schools.

Our schools will always guard their independence, and school heads will want to guard the prerogatives they presently enjoy. On the side of consistency, however, stands the NAIS in its role as an accreditor and a guiding voice. As our schools charge ever higher tuition, and face more complex consumer demands, we assume that the NAIS will want to preserve the following: 1) a reputation for quality that is enjoyed as pride by both customers and employees; 2) some consistency in product among our schools (reflecting, among other things, fairness and consistent procedure in personnel policies); 3) the intellectual and spiritual strength gained by students who see that their schools can tolerate criticism and open debate.