“Dear Miss Bhakta,” read the note. “Thank you for making this my best year in school ever! And congratulations, you deserve it!”
The congratulations were for winning my school’s 2009 Teacher of the Year Award. It had come with hugs from other teachers, glowing notes and emails from parents, and a laudatory letter from the principal. What I cherished most, though, were the words of appreciation from students themselves — words that said I was making a difference.
I was still smiling about the note when the principal came to my classroom. Her eyes were red with tears, and the moment I saw her I knew what was coming. Moments like this are all too familiar to teachers without much seniority in California. She was giving me a pink slip, warning me that I was at high risk of being let go, as so many caring and talented teachers are every year because of budget cuts. Sometimes the pink slips are rescinded at the last minute; sometimes they aren’t. But the system has forced many excellent teachers out of teaching and into more stable professions.
The annual madness is the result of LIFO, which stands for “last in, first out.” It is currently the law in California, and what it means is that school administrators must make teacher retention decisions based solely on seniority, without regard to a teacher’s effectiveness in the classroom. LIFO is the functional equivalent of an NBA team being forced to fire LeBron James because a bench warmer on the team has more years in the league. In the case of schools, it can mean that 30 or more children who have only one shot at, say, third grade, are being taught by an inferior teacher.