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Published in Print: September 1, 2005, as Slippery Slope

Slippery Slope

Teachers are laid off every spring, only to be rehired by fall. But this summer's cliffhanger might have a less happy ending.

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Kristen Stone knows how lucky she is, but that doesn’t make what she just went through any easier. After being pink-slipped last April, then spending six agonizing weeks waiting and worrying about her future, the 1st grade teacher learned less than a month before classes let out thather job in suburban Detroit wouldn’t be cut after all. It’s the second time in her two years at Addams Elementary School that the impending end of the term has threatened to become the end of her career.

So goes the shell game that’s played with teachers’ livelihoods every year in Michigan and in schools throughout the nation: When faced with projected budget shortfalls or declining enrollment, many districts hedge their bets by putting nontenured or first-year teachers on notice in April that they may not have a job come fall.

Notice of Termination
—David Kidd

“You can do the best job and be well- respected by your peers and superiors, but it all comes down to how many years you’ve been doing your job as opposed to how well you do your job,” says the 34-year-old Stone. “That, to me, is frustrating. It’s just a tough pill to swallow.”

Of course, many pink-slipped teachers are reinstated—some at the last minute—after retirements, attrition, and last-minute funding inject new life into school budgets. But the process wreaks havoc with teachers’ plans and destroys morale. And this year, especially in deficit-throttled Michigan, a last-minute reprieve from financial peril may not be forthcoming. As of mid-July, Stone was the only one of six pink-slipped South Redford School District teachers to be reinstated. Other suburban districts in the area issued layoff notices for up to 13 percent of their teaching staffs, and Detroit Public Schools is coping with an even deeper financial crisis: Nose-to-nose with a $200 million budget deficit, the district shuttered 34 schools in June and may close 60 to 75 more during the next three years.

The Motor City region isn’t alone. BJ Bryant, executive director of the American Association for Employment in Education, says pink slips have become an annual rite of spring for teachers across the country: “School districts are looking at it in a macroeconomic way, and they have to. But if you look at it from a humanistic point of view, it’s very hard on teachers.

“You don’t see hospitals doing this to doctors,” she adds. “You don’t see accounting firms doing this to interns. And yet we do it to first-, second-, and third-year teachers. And often the best and the brightest are the first to jump.”

Former San Juan Teachers Association president Nancy Waltz agrees. With nearly 4,000 teachers statewide getting the bad news this year, according to the California Teachers Association, hundreds in her Sacramento-area district alone, Waltz worries what effect the pink-slip cycle will have on teacher quality and recruitment.

“Some will leave the profession because there are other things they can do,” Waltz says. “We have absolute-top-quality people coming out of universities. They’re not going to stay in a district that pink slips them over and over.”

Neither are veteran teachers immune from the high-stakes waiting game. After teaching in the Bay area for seven years, Stephanie Floyd-Smith was recruited to San Juan to mentor first-year and struggling veteran teachers. This spring, the National Board-certifiedteacher got the dreaded superintendent’s letter for the second time in three years. She and her husband had been planning to have a larger family and buy a bigger house, but her job uncertainty put both on hold, and she’s considering giving up the classroom for administration.

Floyd-Smith recently found out her job is safe, but she knows that next summer could bring a strong sense of déjà vu. “If that happens, I’d have to start looking elsewhere,” she laments. “And then I’d have to seek tenure and start all over again.”

Looming layoffs are even harder to take for teachers nearing retirement. After three other careers and substitute teaching for two years in 38 different schools, 57-year-old Larry Burt found his dream job in 2003: an ostensibly permanent spot teaching 4th graders at Rose City Park Elementary in Portland, Oregon. Last spring, the district alerted faculty that heads would roll, but months went by before Burt knew just how far up the seniority list those layoffs would go.

“I’m putting my heart into this,” Burt says of his teaching job, which he learned over the summer had been spared. “I’m really connecting with my kids, the families, and the whole community. I’ve invested a lot of time and energy. All that is lost if I move to another school or district and start over. It’s nerve-racking. I think about it every day.”

Vol. 17, Issue 01, Pages 11-12

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