Laying Off the Best Teachers: Michelle Apperson

The significance of seniority is surely understandable.  People who have put in the longest time deserve not to be the first who are laid-off in the face of hard financial times.  But there are very few principles whose application does not admit of exceptions.  In the case of saving life, everyone agrees that if one of the individuals dying owing to a natural disaster is one’s very own child, then one can pass over another person dying in order to save the life of one’s own child.  Similarly, if one of the people dying on account of such a disaster is the leader of one’s country, then one may pass over another person dying in order to save life of the leader of one’s country.  

When it comes to lying-off teachers owing to hard financial times, surely there are considerations that make the sheer absence of seniority unacceptable as a justification for laying-off a person.  Michelle Apperson is a case in point.  By all accounts she is a gifted teacher who has been for 9 years.  Yet, despite her talent for teaching she has been laid-off owing to the tough financial times of Sacramento City.  It does not take a genius to see that as seniority has been applied, it is given more weight than actual talent in teaching; and surely that is something wrong with that policy.  

Of course, what makes seniority such a very powerful consideration is its sheer simplicity with respect to application: For any two people Leslie and Adrian, either (a) Leslie has taught fewer years than the Adrian or (b) they have taught the same number of years.  And if (a) is true, then Leslie is the one who gets laid-off.  But suppose that 75% of the students in Leslie’s classes go on to attend college, whereas only 35% of the student’s in Adrian’s class go on to do so.  That is a difference of 40% in favor of Leslie and against Adrian.  Against this backdrop, laying-off Leslie rather than Adrian is ever so wrongheaded because it effectively penalizes the students, since to lay-off Adrian is to lay off the far better teacher.  

Nothing is more disconcerting than any policy of laying-off teachers owing to financial exigencies that entirely ignores very significant pedagogical ability.  In the case of the Sacramento City they needed only have added something like the following qualification: “Mere seniority applies except in those cases when a teacher has taught x-number of years and has been the recipient of a prestigious teaching award at least one year prior to there being the issue of teacher lay-offs owing to financial exigencies”.  Surely, this is none other than commonsense.  And the fact that this idea did not occur to anyone tells us something very profound, namely that teachers have been far more worried about protecting themselves than doing good for students.  

Please do not misunderstand me.  I fully understand the importance of people protecting themselves in their jobs.  There is nothing morally objectionable about that.  Yet, a job has a purpose; and when job protection entirely loses sight of the very purpose of the job, then something has gone seriously wrong.  This point applies to airplane pilots as well as to teachers as well as to police officers.  Seniority is an extremely important factor.  But it is simply not morally defensible that seniority be decisive no matter what other excellence there might be.  

By now who has not heard of Chesley B. Sullenberger, the pilot who landed the US Airways plane on the Hudson River because birds entering the engines had caused the engines to stop running.  Well, give may any two pilots—one with a Sullenberger like experience and one without a Sullenberger type experience; and my position is very, very, very simple, namely that having a Sullenberger type success experience with respect to flying mightily trumps not having one.  Any policy of laying-off pilots that does not embody that simple consideration is a morally indefensible policy, pure and simple.  Well, an analogous point unequivocally applies to teaching, though obviously not in a manner that is as dramatic.  Just so, we would have to be more than a little self-deceived not to appreciate the extraordinary positive impact that a good teacher can have upon a student.  Decades later, I can mention the teachers who absolutely transformed my life in a most positive manner.  Indeed, I can tell you the moment that it happened.  

Accordingly, for any institution—be it the union or city or hall or whatever—to be so besotted with seniority that it loses sight of the extraordinary excellence that a teacher actually brings to her or his students is for that institution to in fact betray students.  In the laying-off Michelle Apperson, the students of Sacramento City were betrayed.  Off course, seniority can be very simply and incontrovertibly applied to teachers:  Either a teacher has seniority or a teacher does not.  Alas, that is also true of pilots.  Yet, only an idiot would think that with pilots mere seniority trumps quality of experience.  Maybe we should treat the education of students more like the transporting of passengers on an airplane.  And in so many ways, the metaphor is very appropriate; for (1) each classroom experience can a most majestic intellectual travelling experience or (2) the classroom experience can be so horrendous as to not have been worth the trip at all.  The evidence is overwhelming that with Michelle Apperson we have an example of (1).  Hence, laying her off was a horrendous mistake.

© 2012 Laurence Thomas

About Laurence Thomas

Laurence Thomas is Professor in the Department of Political Science and the Department of Philosophy at Syracuse University. His most recent book is The Family and the Political Self and his most recent article in French is "Juifs et Noirs: Au-delà du Mal" in Trigano (ed.) Juifs et Noirs: du Mythe à la Réalité. Thomas has published numerous essays on the topic of friendship. The essay "The Character of Friendship" has appeared in volume on friendship, entitled Thinking About Friendship, edited by Damian Caluori and the essay "Friendship in the Shadow of Technology" has appeared in the anthology Moral and Moral Controversies edited by Steven Scalet and John Arthur. His most recent essay--entitled "Being Moral and Handling the Truth"--is about circumstances under which it is morally permissible to lie. Indeed, an example is given in Section IV of a lie being morally virtuous.
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