Can I Lose My Teacher’s License for Leaving an “At Will” Job?

Question: I live and teach special education in a public school in a state (New Mexico) that is an “at will” employment state. I am a member of a large teachers union, and every year we are provided a teaching contract for the calendar year. The New Mexico Public Education Department, which licenses teachers, advised me that, if I sign a teaching contract, and leave during the school year, they could void my teaching license.

Also, they say that, since it is an “at will” state, the school district can terminate my position, without cause.

This all seems very one-sided, in favor of the employer. Can you help clarify?

Jay, Peralta, New Mexico

Answer: Nearly every state in the United States is an “at will” state. Don’t forget what “at will” means: unless you have agreed otherwise, either employee or employer can end the relation at any time. It is that important phrase – unless you have agreed otherwise – that seems to be operative here.

“At will” employment is often not “purely at will.” Many people limit their “at will” employment in many different ways. For example, an employee might agree not to quit without giving at least two weeks notice. Likewise, an employer might agree not to fire an employee without giving two months notice – unless misconduct has taken place. These are examples of voluntary limitations on the “at will” relation.

Sometimes the law requires a limitation on “at will,” too. One federal law, the Workers Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (commonly called “WARN”) requires employers who are shutting down a large facility in one location to give affected employees at least 60 days’ notice before firing.

From what you’ve told me, it sounds like the New Mexico teacher’s licensing authorities take the position that quitting in the middle of a school year, if you’ve signed a contract, would be a kind of misconduct, and could justify your loss of license. This makes some sense to me, as a parent, because I’ve seen the disruption in kids’ lives when the teacher decides to “pack up and go” in the middle of the school year. It could be even worse for special education students. As an attorney, I could lose my license, too, if I agreed to take care of a matter for a client, and failed to keep my word. Professionals, like teachers and attorneys, are held to a higher standard of conduct than many others. Our licenses are “privileges,” and must be continually earned.

You’ve also been advised that school districts can terminate an employee’s employment even without cause. I’m not familiar with your union contract, or New Mexico’s laws, but I have seen two things that might be true here: (a) local school districts sometimes have an “opt-out” clause in their teacher’s contracts to take care of the possibility that they have 10 teachers of special education, but only enough special education kids to fill 3 classrooms. (b) Also, local school districts sometimes have an “opt out” clause that allows for terminations in event that the local school budget fails to be approved by voters, forcing austerity budgets to be put into place. My guess is that your union contract permits this, but requires any teacher “furloughed” for this reason be paid at least one-half of salary, or be given “first hire” rights if any positions open up.

Thus, sometimes “at will” is not pure, but affected or limited by contracts, and laws. It seems yours is limited by both. Your union representative should be able to explain this best, and should be able to show you precisely how it is covered in your union contract.

Best to you. Please come back, and bring your friends and colleagues!!

Best, Al Sklover