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Why bad districts lose good teachers

Heidi Burtner an art teacher Proviso West High School Hillside for past eight years was told recently she is being

Heidi Burtner, an art teacher at Proviso West High School in Hillside for the past eight years, was told recently she is being let go because she does not have tenure. | Supplied photo

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Updated: January 23, 2012 2:14AM



For all the benefits teacher unions have embedded into school culture, tenure is quite possibly the most damaging so-called “perk.”

The Illinois Legislature, finally, is acting to change that.

A bill moving through the Senate and co-sponsored by state Sen. Ed Maloney (D-Chicago) tips the scales in the seniority-based system of teacher layoffs, a subject of heightened circumspection due to the state’s woefully late billing cycle.

The state owes hundreds of school districts millions of dollars, forcing schools to exercise the frustrating cycle of releasing teachers now to make the numbers work, only to rehire some of them in the fall.

Who gets screwed? The teachers without the golden seal of tenure.

Heidi Burtner, an art teacher at Proviso West High School in Hillside, is a dear friend of mine. The headlines announcing changes in Springfield synchronized with her experiences in the classroom. Burtner is a classic example of tenure gone awry.

Unexpectedly last week, a substitute teacher interrupted her third-period art class. Human resources needed to speak with her down the hall. Administrators notified her she would be released at the end of the school year, the same scenario that occurred last year — not because she isn’t an excellent teacher, which she is, but because she is not tenured.

Burtner has been with the district full time for almost eight years. She was approved for tenure in 2006.

But she was pregnant with her second baby and wanted to take a year off, which she was warned would jeopardize her tenure.

She was advised to game the system by claiming, after the baby was born, she couldn’t return to the classroom due to postpartum depression.

“Get a doctor’s note,” people told her.

She refused.

“I have to commit insurance fraud to keep my tenure?” she said last week. “No. It’s wrong, unethical and not to mention, embarrassing to ask a doctor for a note like that. I said ‘no.’ So when I came back, I had to start over.”

Burtner is one of the school’s gems. She is enthusiastic, participatory, responsible and student-focused. She oversees several clubs, earned her master’s degree and has been nominated by students and faculty for teaching-excellence awards.

She has spent time outside the classroom tutoring students, including a wheelchair-bound girl with quadriplegia. She taught the girl to draw using her mouth.

I know these things because I hear them firsthand. Over many dinners, my friend has talked at length about her students. They call her “Miss B.”

She is an art teacher prototype who often wears bright Bohemian tops and Birkenstocks with a pencil tucked into her piled-high blond hair. Her own artwork is displayed throughout her home.

She is loyal to a district that has not reciprocated.

“Because of tenure, another teacher with no chops got the position for next year and I was released,” she said. “Everyone knows it’s wrong. I’m totally invested here. I had no plans on ever leaving until this.

“You’ve got people just passing time and collecting paychecks. They’re not even teaching anymore. There are teachers who hate it here, who are vocal about their hatred, who are failing 50 percent of their students, who have confrontations with students, confrontations with parents, and they get to stick around.

“You have teachers here who are late to class, who strut in with their jackets over their shoulders like they’re the president of the United States. There is a lot of that.”

Did I mention my friend doesn’t mince words?

She didn’t, apparently, when she learned she would be released. News of her tirade in the human resources office quickly spread throughout the building.

She was dismissed because she isn’t tenured. She cried tears of frustration and, mostly, sadness for her students.

“With decisions like this, the students aren’t even factored into the equation,” she said.

Even though she may get called back in August, she will leap at a new opportunity if it comes along.

Last year after being notified she would be released, she waited months to hear whether she had a job. On a Friday afternoon in late August, the district welcomed her back. She was expected to report to school Monday morning.

The bill in Springfield that aims to rework tenure is Senate Bill 7. You can read it at www.ilga.gov.

“The biggest change in this agreement is that we will have better-qualified teachers in the classroom,” Maloney said in a statement. “No longer will the practice of ‘first hired, last fired’ keep poorer performing teachers in schools. The benefit of this approach is going to go to the students.”

Let’s hope.



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