What are the main rights teachers have in the United States, and why is it important that teachers are protected by these rights?

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The two dominant reasons that teachers be protected by rights are the same reasons applicable to other employees and other citizens or residents: (1) employment conditions and security and (2) constitutionally mandated human rights. Labor unions in the 1800s and early 1900s paved the way in America for sufficient wages,...

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The two dominant reasons that teachers be protected by rights are the same reasons applicable to other employees and other citizens or residents: (1) employment conditions and security and (2) constitutionally mandated human rights. Labor unions in the 1800s and early 1900s paved the way in America for sufficient wages, health protections, work environment safety and restricted work hours. These protections, which are now defined by legislation as rights, were needed because the change from the agrarian peasant and village based servant systems, under which landowners had paternal responsibilities for people under their oversight, to the urban industrialized system--which included manufacturing and raw material harvesting such as coal mining--caused a rent in the social and cultural fabrics of Western countries that resulted in human abuses and unprecedented accumulation of massive wealth in the hands of a few commoners. Teachers, along with other workers, now have--and should have--the benefit of these labor rights.

Constitutionally mandated human rights, equally applicable to others in America, pertain to freedom from discrimination, protection against dismissal, freedom of personal and academic expression, and the protection of personal property. These rights are mandated and protected at both the federal and state levels by constitutions, statutes and regulations. there may be differences to how some of these rights are applied between public and private schools but, since all these rights have their foundations in federal and state legislative instruments, the differences are not substantive. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is an example of how federal legislation underpins the rights applicable to both private and public school teachers. Private school teacher contracts may also set out comparable rights in the terms of employment, such as specification of dismissal only with cause, notice and a hearing where appropriate.

Constitutional Rights

Equal Protect Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment: protection from hiring, workplace, firing discrimination based on the race, color, religion, sex, or national origin of the individual; Title VII and IX amendments protect against sexual harrassment.

Freedom of Expression of the First Amendment: Personal Freedom: Pickering v. Board of Education established the jurisprudence regarding protected forms of personal expression, such as writing newspaper editorial letters, though prohibitions exist against disrupting educational interest, undermining authority, and adversely affect working relationships. Academic Freedom: Freedom of expression in the classroom in regards to content taught and subjects discussed circumscribed by teacher responsibilities, the school's academic agenda, age and experience of the students.

Freedom of Association First Amendment Right to Peaceful Assembly: public school teachers may join professional, labor or other organizations, run for public office, and engage in similar forms of association if completely independent from their educational responsibilities.

Freedom of Religion First Amendment and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964: practice and exercise of religion and religious freedoms are restricted only by public school requirements of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment whereby religion cannot be taught in the classroom outside of an established Religions curriculum; religious and secular private schools may have other restrictions or inclusions.

Privacy Rights Fourteenth Amendment; "nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property": rights to privacy may be restricted by expectations of moral behavior, especially in regards to sexual conduct; if a school board dismiss a teacher for reasons of immorality, as outlined in teacher contracts, the courts system will usually uphold the school board decision, providing due process of dismissal (cause, notice, hearing) have been closely adhered to.

Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967: protects teachers over the age of forty from being dismissed for reasons of age when in all other regards the teacher is effectively fulfilling responsibilities.

Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978: protection from dismissal, demotion, or denial of promotion for women teachers on the basis of their pregnancy.

Certification Rights

While states require and regulate teaching credentials--certificates of competency assuring that all requirements have been met to satisfactory levels and by accredited institutions--the state agencies overseeing teacher certification may not act arbitrarily in creating or changing rules for certification nor may these agencies deny or revoke teacher certification on an arbitrary basis. Yet certificates may be revoked for carefully defined "just cause" as specified in regulations and teacher contracts. Some instances of just cause are:

  • Immoral conduct or indecent behavior
  • Incompetency
  • Violations of ethical standards
  • Unprofessional conduct
  • Misrepresentation or fraud
  • Willful neglect of duty

Tenure and Dismissal of Teachers

Tenure and Dismissal: [tenure definition] "guaranteed permanent employment after a probationary period, especially a teacher; to give someone a permanent post, as a teacher" (Oxford Dictionary; Random House Dictionary): Under the conditions of tenure, once a teacher passes the probationary period and attains tenure, in California the probationary period is two years, their teaching contract is renewed on a yearly basis. Tenure and renewal may be automatic or may be granted by the school board or be de facto through rights of custom. Dismissal of a tenured teacher may only occur for just cause and after due process. State law governs public school tenure while private schools establish their own tenure systems.

Due Process for Dismissal, Fourteenth Amendment and Cleveland Board of Education v. Loudermill: In Loudermill the Supreme Court established that minimum due process applicable to a tenured teacher is:

  • receipt of oral or written notice of the dismissal
  • receipt of the charges against them
  • receipt of an explanation of the evidence obtained against them by the employer
  • receipt of the opportunity for a fair and meaningful hearing.

Teacher Contracts

Teaching contracts between the employing school or school district are bound common contractual law. The provisions of a contract must all be met. There must be:

  1. an offer for employment
  2. an expression of acceptance of employment
  3. mutual assent to employment under the job description and conditions laid out
  4. the agreement upon and exchange of consideration

Some school boards, by state law, must ratify teacher contracts before they become binding, which means that a verbal pronouncement of hiring is not confirmed until the school board follows legal procedure to review and ratify the contract. Teacher handbooks, which are intended as reference guides to policy and privileges and which generally state they are not contractual documents, do not comprise part of the teacher contract of employment. Once a teacher contract is secure, by ratification or otherwise, there may be breach of contract, which is the violation of the terms of the contract: violation of the terms of the contract results in voiding and invalidating the contract.

Breach of contract occurs in two cases: (1) the school districts terminates a teacher without due cause, (2) a teacher resigns before the end of the contractual period, which is usually one year. Contractual breaches are usually settled in terms of monetary damages. If the district breaches the contract, monetary damages might include salary due on the contract plus cost to the teacher of finding another job. If the teacher has breached the contract, monetary damages might be the cost of finding a replacement teacher. Contracts are usually clear as to damages for breach of contract. Courts may order the teacher be rehired but there is a judicial reluctance to hear such cases since terms of breach are usually clearly detailed in the contract. Contractual rights for teachers have largely com about through the collective bargaining campaigns of teachers' labor unions.

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Some of the most basic rights that teachers have extends from the rights that workers, in general, experience.  For example, teachers have a right to work in an atmosphere free from discrimination and harassment.  Teachers have a right to be free from workplace bullying.  Given the varying dynamics of forces that are exerted upon teachers such as students, administration, and/ or parents of students, teachers might experience different aspects of bullying in the workplace and have a right to be free from these conditions.  I would suggest that another right that teachers have is the right to free expression of thoughts.  This is a challenging element because freedom of expression is a fluid quality, in general. As with all freedom of expression, teachers have a right to their personal opinion even as they educate the children of a community.  It would be in the best interests of teachers to understand or gauge the public opinion of the community in which they work, but teachers do have a right to their own personal opinion.  They might disagree with the prevailing opinions of the community around them, but are still able to carry out their vocation of educating children.

Unique to teaching is a right to teach a class free from distraction.  Sometimes, students seek to challenge the teacher's authority and seek to disrupt teacher instruction and the learning of other students.  Parents can be disagreeable when seeking to remedy their children's behavior when it is disruptive.  It is in this light where teachers have a right to demand their right to "teach in an atmosphere of order and attention."  In the midst of seeking to deliver the high quality of instruction within their vocation, teachers often find that some students are not simply willing to adhere to understood expectations of classroom decorum.  In such cases, teachers have a right to enlist administrative and parental help.

Given the challenges that teachers face in the modern setting of education, some of these rights are under siege.  The movement of corporate elements and the supposed eagerness to break up collective bargaining agreements and agencies, teachers are finding their rights increasingly challenged.  Districts and administrations are seeking to move away from a traditional model of teacher tenure and security and transform longevity in a school district by using different standards.  This employment of different evaluation models like the Danielson Model has been complemented by the increased presence of "Gotcha" administration.  The shift in paradigm has challenged teacher rights significantly.  Many teachers believe they are powerless and voiceless in the face of such change.  However, the teacher does have a right to use their voice in advocating their advancement as a professional and their reflection as an educator.  Danielson herself suggests this: "The most powerful use of the framework... is for reflection and self- assessment."  With the "crowded plate" that teachers often carry and the many hats they are forced to wear on a daily basis, there might be a belief that their own voice is not a part of the process of evaluation and reflection.  This element of a teacher's right to expression has not gone anywhere.  This affirmation of voice is critically important to teacher's rights.

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