Education Opinion

Principals as Tyrants

By Walt Gardner — July 03, 2013 2 min read
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Teachers unions are lambasted for placing the interests of teachers over those of students. But what if the interests of students are subordinated to the interests of principals? That’s not a theoretical question, as the news from William Ramsay Elementary School in Alexandria, Virginia illustrates (“Alexandria teacher fired despite no negative evaluations,” The Washington Post, Jun. 30).

Despite positive evaluations, John Nolan, who was finishing his second year of teaching at the school, was fired by his principal Rosario Casiano. Because Nolan was still a probationary teacher, he had no rights. His attempts to get a reasonable explanation or a review were futile. Casiano’s decision was final. The district refused to discuss his dismissal.

I’ve written often before that without strong unions, even tenured teachers are at the mercy of vindictive principals. Readers will recall the situation at Brooklyn Technical High School, one of a handful of elite high schools in New York City, where a vengeful principal poisoned the instructional atmosphere (“Principal’s War Leads to a Teacher Exodus,” The New York Times, Jan. 28, 2004 and “A Bully on the Wrong Side of the Principal’s Desk,” The New York Times, Dec. 21, 2005).

Why do principals treat teachers this way? The simple answer is that they can. The state education code, board of education policies and court rulings give principals enormous power. In the hands of a bully, the results are predictable. Teachers unions used to be the only way teachers could fight back. But they have been emasculated because reformers argue that they are protecting teachers who have no business being in the classroom. What about principals who have no business being in their position? Who takes them on?

The rebuttal to my view is that good teachers have nothing to worry about because “everyone knows who they are.” But as the notorious Brooklyn Tech case showed, even exemplary teachers had no immunity from the principal. I taught under five principals during my 28-year career at the same high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District. It’s impossible to explain to those who have never taught how a tyrant can destroy teacher morale, and in the process hurt students. I expect to see more outrageous instances of teachers being harassed and discharged as the accountability movement accelerates. This will please union busters, but it should enrage parents who want the best for their children.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.