By Michael Zwaagstra (AIMS Fellow)

Imagine you are a public school principal. You need to hire a teacher and you have two applicants who meet the basic job requirements. The first applicant has ten years of teaching experience and regularly scores outstanding performance reviews. The second has fifteen years of experience but receives only satisfactory performance reviews. Which teacher would you hire?

If you said the first teacher, you just violated Clause 6.11 of the new collective agreement between the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers’ Association and the Newfoundland and Labrador School Boards Association. Clause 6.11 states that “if more than one such teacher makes a request for the same permanent teaching position, all of whom are assessed as competent, suitable and qualified, preference shall be given to the teacher with the greatest seniority.”

In other words, as long as both applicants meet the minimum requirements, principals must hire the teacher with more years of teaching experience. It doesn’t matter if one teacher has better performance reviews, superior university qualifications, stronger rapport with students, or a better attitude. According to the new collective agreement, seniority trumps everything else.

While Clause 6.11 states that seniority only comes into effect when teachers “are assessed as competent, suitable and qualified,” the bar is, in fact, much lower than it first appears.

By definition, virtually all permanently employed teachers are competent since school boards can, and do, dismiss teachers who receive repeated unsatisfactory performance reviews. As for being suitable and qualified, any teacher with a teaching certificate and some experience teaching the proper subject meets this requirement. Simply put, most currently employed teachers meet the threshold of being competent, suitable, and qualified.

A strict seniority clause in a collective agreement makes sense in a factory job where workers are essentially interchangeable. Such a clause protects older workers from unjust age discrimination and ensures that business owners cannot ignore the interests of their long-serving employees. With people living longer and more productive lives than ever before, it is essential that older workers have fair opportunities to keep their jobs and advance. Age discrimination is wrong and older workers need protection.

However, teachers are not factory workers and they are certainly not interchangeable. Teaching is a highly complex profession and principals are tasked with ensuring that students receive the best quality of instruction possible. In addition, some teachers are better than others, whether that is a result of attitude, skill, education level, or a combination of these three qualities.

In fact, there is a wealth of research showing that the quality of instruction makes a huge difference to student achievement. As John Hattie, the director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute, has pointed out, some teachers have a much bigger impact on their students’ academic achievement than other teachers. For this reason, Hattie refers to good teachers as “change agents.” Some teachers are so effective that they can even compensate for the disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds of their students. Considering the importance of educating disadvantaged students, we should make sure these students always have the best teachers possible.

For those who worry that school boards could use declining enrolment as an excuse to replace highly-paid experienced teachers with cheaper inexperienced teachers, previous collective agreements already contained a provision stating that layoffs must occur on the basis of seniority. These layoff clauses are standard in collective agreements.

However, there is a huge difference between protecting senior teachers from arbitrary layoffs and guaranteeing senior teachers preference in being hired for newly vacant positions. Seniority should count when deciding who should lose their job, but it should have less weight in determining who should be hired for a new job. Teachers who wish to move to better positions should do whatever they can to become more effective in the classroom.

Finally, it is disappointing that the collective agreement takes away professional discretion from school principals. The notion that principals cannot be trusted to hire teachers on the basis of merit is an insult to their professionalism.

It’s too bad that principals do not have their own organization to advocate for their best interests, like their counterparts in British Columbia, Ontario, and Nova Scotia. Perhaps they would then be able to have their voices heard.

When it comes to hiring new teachers, merit should matter more than seniority.