What is the Dance of the Lemons?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The “dance of the lemons” is a term used to refer to the practice of reassigning bad teachers to new schools or districts, rather than firing them. By “bad” teachers, this means people who have been convicted of crimes or who have done other ethically questionable things. Many people in the education community and beyond are understandably upset with this practice, and a number of reforms have been proposed to end the practice.

"Dance of the lemons" refers to the practice of reassigning bad teachers to new schools.
"Dance of the lemons" refers to the practice of reassigning bad teachers to new schools.

You may also hear the dance of the lemons called “passing the trash” or “the turkey trot.” It stems from the very simple fact that it is extremely difficult to get rid of bad teachers, especially after they achieve tenure. One of the main reasons for this is the strength of the teacher's union; unions are designed to protect teachers, negotiating good contracts for them and ensuring that they are not fired without cause, but many unions will go to bat for every terminated teacher, including teachers terminated for very good reasons. Once a teacher achieves tenure, which can take as little as two years, he or she becomes virtually unassailable, thanks to the strength of the union.

In a classic example, a school responds to reports that a teacher is abusing his or her students with an investigation and a suspension, and the teacher threatens to litigate, backed by the union. Rather than dealing with the legal costs, the school might make arrangements with another school to simply transfer the teacher, in return for the teacher's agreement to drop the case.

Schools engage in the dance of the lemons for a variety of reasons. Getting rid of bad teachers isn't just difficult, it's also extremely expensive. While a teacher is on suspension or undergoing dismissal proceedings, he or she is entitled to pay and benefits, even if the teacher is in prison, which can be a drain on a poorly funded district. While poor teacher quality is an obvious concern for educational administrators, they may also find their hands tied by the tenure system, and sometimes administrators will find bad teachers shunted upon them; in many schools, hiring and firing choices are not up to the school's administrators, but rather dictated by the school board.

Several proposals have been made to end the practice, including laws that would ban people convicted of certain crimes from teaching, or reorganization of districts that would give administrators more power to decide which teachers to hire. At the very least, this would prevent egregious offenders from continuing to teach, and give administrators more autonomy. However, negotiating ways to end the dance of the lemons is tricky, as people do not want to undermine the strength of the teacher's union, which can be a powerful tool for good teachers.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@anon62562: I agree with your idea, but you apparently don't know the stark reality of unions. All big unions for any skilled careers have the equivalent of tenure. Most industries call it "seniority." My father suffers because of his own union. They encourage laziness by protecting the most senior employees in layoffs, rather than allowing the company to layoff based on performance.

There have been many times that his job has been threatened by layoffs, and the only way he's kept his job in the most recent layoff is because the company's legal department found loopholes in the union contract to let him stay if he takes a huge cut in pay.


"Unions hinder the educational process..." Nonsense. The rest of the developed world has unions and teachers are strong enough to fight the system and dumb administrators.


I don't know what to say. How can people be so anti teacher and anti union? Everything in the system is pro business and pro employer, but when common workers band together in order to afford lawyers to grant them legal rights according to the law, somehow that is dirty.

People complain about incompetent teachers when it is really management that is incompetent. They just want everything their own way and at the snap of their fingers, fire someone they don't like or didn't do him any favors. It is incompetent managers and bosses who don't know how to manage a workplace who are the problem.


To anon37556, Post 11: Your comment about homeschoolers is so dumb! I wonder what the prison population is, public schoolers or homeschoolers?


Tenure for teachers should be eliminated. No such protections exist in the private (for-profit) sector. nor should it. If you don't perform, you're out!


Being extremely liberal, I am a big union supporter--however, I think that unions should have two goals:

1- Negotiate with management (the school board, in this case) for better pay and working conditions on behalf of the represented workers.

2- Maintain a positive public opinion of the profession.

Teachers' unions have a problem following [2], and school boards need to stand up to the teachers' union and say that, as the elected officials over all the public schools, they get to fire teachers if a principal brings forward evidence of misconduct.

I used to be a teacher and was a member of the teachers' union, primarily because of reason [1], and to secure legal representation if I were ever falsely accused of sexual misconduct.

No longer teaching, I'm now working as a computer programmer, enjoying the pay of a teacher with 20 years of experience--after two years on the job.


Re: "If employees of schools were not represented by a lawful union, they would be paid minimum wage, Do you want your kids to be taught by a halfwit."

That's the problem - they *are* being taught by halfwits; just halfwits that are represented by the Union. The NEA is the biggest scam and failure, and the most dangerous organization in the USA.


I worked with unions for years and the key thing you must understand is that generally, their leaders are as political and incompetent as the people in Washington, D.C. 80 percent of the problems and grievances in virtually any union shop are caused by 20 percent of the employees - and those are the employees who get 80 percent or more of the attention by the union. Unions are necessary in some places but in reality in today's world, they are not nearly as important as they were when they originally became popular. In fact in most cases they hurt business, industry and the economy. All you have to to is look at what happene in the auto industry.

Teaching unions may even be worse because they protect terrible teachers (the same 20 percent referred to above), get in the way of sound practices and hinder the educational process with extremely counter-productive work rules. Regardless of the rhetoric you hear from teacher union officials, they do not work to make education better and if you believe that goal ranks anywhere in their top 20 list, you're a fool. The objective of the union is always to improve the wages, hours and work conditions of its members. One of the top union officials years ago said that unions will look out for the interests of the students when they start paying union dues - and that is exactly the way unions work.

There are thousands and thousands of well motivated, concerned, caring teachers in this country who do everything they can to help prepare students for life and they should receive good pay and all the recognition and help they can get - but if you think that is going to come to pass because of unions you are an absolute fool.

Unions hinder the educational process and they are one of the main reasons we are falling behind the rest of the world in that area.


Good subject! I would like to say to the home schoolers, though,that you can only shelter your kids for so long, then they have to face the challenges of the real world...without the mom and dad shelter. As an employer, I can say that home schooled kids don't assimilate very well in society.

Sorry...but that's how it is. Most successful citizens are a product of our educational system...warts and all.


Great discussion. But the article fails to mention that Unions have a contractual and a legal obligation to represent their members and also non paying employees, in some jurisdictions. Everyone is entitled to their day in court. During the investigation period an employee may be suspended with or without pay. After all the information is complied a hearing is set where evidence is provided from the employer and the Union. Then depending the outcome the employee may appeal.

If there are criminal charges involved then the accused has right to a trial and legal representation, and his day in court. Just like everybody else.


I know many half wits who claim to be teachers. We home schooled and our now young adults have doors open to that weren't available in the system. I unfortunately know of excessively racist teachers (of all races) and having biracial children, these people were never an option. (possibly teachers should keep their mouths shut when out of school.)


If employees of schools were not represented by a lawful union, they would be paid minimum wage, Do you want your kids to be taught by a halfwit.


I agree with NeverTheLess. I was a union member at a company where the union was comprised of about 80% of the occupational workforce, so I'm a firm believer that unions are a necessity at some businesses. One thing that I hated seeing, however, was the union fighting for employees that actually deserved the punishment they got, if not worse. If my understanding was and is correct, unions are required (at least in some states) to fight for every employee, whether they're a union member or not. That same principle applies to whether every employee deserves it or not. That sort of equal representation is a necessity in the judicial system, such as with public defenders - however, I don't think it has any place in the workforce. At the very least, when it comes to people who've been tried and *convicted* of crimes of this nature. If someone is being investigated and in the process of being tried for crimes like these, I don't think that it's unreasonable for them to be suspended with pay - people are innocent until proven guilty (hence the "with pay"), but as a precaution it's not unreasonable to keep them away from contact with children.


My father was a teacher, and he fought for higher pay as well as other benefits, but in my opinion, if the unions don't start acting more responsibly, then they are likely to suffer from the backlash of a disgusted public.


I'm appalled. what's wrong with those unions? and the people who belong?


This really does happen! My son was the victim of this "pass the trash" crime 25 years or so ago! in Arlington, Texas...


does this happen in Canada too?


I have found most of your items interesting, but this one seems to just bash unions. Weak administrators and school boards are also responsible for this problem.

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