For days, she had listened poker-faced as Fairfax school officials picked apart her classroom performance, arguing that she was incompetent, intransigent and undeserving of her teaching position.
Now it was her turn to tell a different story: that she was unfairly attacked by a principal determined to see her go.
Such hearings are central to the job protections known as tenure. Once politically untouchable, tenure has become a target for politicians from both parties who call it an obstacle to improving public education.
Since 2009, the District and more than a dozen states have either eliminated tenure or made it harder to get or easier to lose. This year, Virginia nearly joined them. But Republican lawmakers in Richmond fell just short of passing a bill that would have allowed principals to get rid of teachers without providing a reason. The bill is apt to be considered next year.
Critics say tenure makes dismissal so arduous and expensive that bad teachers are guaranteed a job for life.
Supporters say tenure merely promises safeguards to ensure good teachers aren’t arbitrarily pushed out.
But what makes a good teacher? What makes a bad one? And how do you tell the difference? These are questions with no certain answers. So the national debate over tenure rages among politicians and policymakers who speak in terms of black and white. And the business of judging a teacher happens — like so much in education — in maddening shades of gray.
Personnel proceedings are usually confidential. But any Fairfax teacher fighting termination may choose to make the hearing public. Nichols elected to open hers because she wanted to shine a light on what she felt was a witch hunt.
Her testimony was perhaps her last, best chance to influence her future.
She was a mentor teacher, she said, with a doctorate and more than three decades of experience. Her principals gave her positive reviews until the past two years. She knew she had changed kids’ lives, she said.
And yet she found herself in a tiny group targeted for dismissal: Of 14,000 teachers in the region’s largest school system, just two with tenure were fired last year.
Perhaps, Nichols said, she was singled out because of the color of her skin. Perhaps because she stood up for herself, or because she took a leadership role with the local teachers association.
She measured her speech, letting her incredulity hang in the air.
“I have a passion for what I do. I have given more than what is required,” she said. “I am surprised that Fairfax County Public Schools would do this to me.”
She had made her case. Now the attorneys would give closing arguments.
A panel of three fact-finders would have 30 days to sift the evidence and determine the truth. And Nichols would wait.
Nichols built a reputation as a no-nonsense sixth-grade teacher in 21 years at Rose Hill Elementary in the Alexandria section of Fairfax. She had a knack for building relationships with students, many of whom came from low-income families or spoke English as a second language.
But in a rapidly changing educational world, administrators argued, Nichols was stuck in the pedagogical past.
Terri Czarniak, the now-retired principal who moved to fire
Nichols in spring 2011, was first to testify. She detailed problems she had seen: too many work sheets, too little technology. The teacher wasted class time, Czarniak said, allowing students who finished work quickly to languish for long periods without structured assignments.
Nichols didn’t cooperate with other teachers, Czarniak said, and relied on outmoded methods of reading instruction. She had been told what to work on, Czarniak said, but hadn’t improved.
“I had to sleep at night, and I had to make sure that any student who has one of our teachers was getting the quality education that they deserved,” Czarniak said. “I just did not see it happening in this case.”
The fact-finding panel convened for five days over two months, usually in a converted classroom at the Virginia Hills Administrative Center. A Washington Post reporter observed parts of three of the sessions. Other testimony in this story comes from transcripts. Seven school system employees followed Czarniak in testifying against the teacher.
Sarietta Kaye, an assistant principal, said it used to be acceptable to teach the whole class at once, but “that’s not what school is like anymore.” Research has shown that effective teachers break kids into groups and tailor lessons to their needs. Nichols hadn’t adapted, she said.
A teacher trainer said Nichols had once been rude and unprofessional, chatting during a presentation and turning her back when asked to be quiet. A Rose Hill teacher said Nichols repeatedly allowed her e-mail inbox to fill until it couldn’t get new messages.
Together, these accounts portrayed a teacher who had undergone a noticeable transformation.
In Virginia, veteran teachers in good standing are evaluated every three years. In 2006, Nichols exceeded expectations on half the 22 measures by which Fairfax teachers are evaluated. She met expectations on the other half.
The narrative portion of that evaluation was filled with praise for her lesson-planning, use of technology, positive classroom environment and mentoring of colleagues. It was signed by Czarniak and Kaye.
In 2009, Nichols’s midyear evaluation was fine. But that spring, a case of vertigo kept her out of school for more than a month. Administrators said her evaluation would be completed the following year. She never received another positive review.
New York’s school system became infamous for its “rubber rooms,” where teachers accused of misconduct used to spend months or years, whiling away the hours, collecting paychecks as they awaited resolution of their cases. The rooms were shut in 2010 after a spate of negative media reports.
There is no such place in Fairfax. Until her case is decided,
Nichols is not allowed to set foot on the Rose Hill campus or participate in any school activities. She has received her salary — about $92,000 a year, records show — at home since last summer.
Nichols, who declined to give her age, spends time volunteering with the NAACP, shuttling friends to and from appointments and tutoring at church.
“Every day, I wake up, I know why I’m not at work,” she said. “But I can’t just drown in it. I have to do things to keep myself busy.”
She was one of 62 veteran Fairfax teachers put on probation at the end of the 2009-10 school year, according to school system data. Most eventually resigned, but 15 were allowed to keep working. Three, including Nichols, were recommended for dismissal.
Firing a teacher can be costly. Fairfax has spent more than $70,000 on outside attorneys in the Nichols case, plus additional expenses for internal staff time, the fact-finding panel and Nichols’s salary and benefits.
The Virginia state code allows teacher dismissal for “incompetency, immorality, noncompliance with school laws” and other transgressions.
Nichols was recommended for dismissal on grounds of incompetency. But then the school system offered her a secret deal, according to her attorney, Steven Stone.
He was not permitted to ask witnesses about it during the hearing. But in a statement he made for the record, Stone said the terms were these: If Nichols could find a Fairfax principal willing to hire her, the central office was willing to approve the transfer and allow her to work.
Or, he said, if Nichols applied to a school outside the county, officials said she could use a positive recommendation letter that Kaye had written in 2008 when Nichols had sought an administrative position. The central office, Stone said, was willing to provide “necessary supportive information.”
Stone, paid by the Virginia Education Association — an affiliate of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union — declined to be interviewed about the agreement.
School system officials declined to be interviewed about the Nichols case, citing the need for privacy in a personnel matter. Asked why the system would consider giving a positive reference for an allegedly incompetent teacher, spokesman John Torre responded, “While we cannot comment specifically on any type of discussions between the parties, it is very common in all kinds of employment cases that an attempt is made to reach some kind of agreement on how things would be treated if, for example, the employee sought employment elsewhere.”
Seven parents testified in support of Nichols. Four had children in her class in her last year at the school, when her evaluations were consistently negative.
Some had volunteered in her classroom. They said they saw Nichols do the very things she was accused of not doing: using the interactive whiteboard, working with children individually and in small groups, assigning hands-on projects.
Samantha Benson said her daughter had “blossomed” in the class. “She came home excited about learning,” Benson said. Nichols, she added, “was a hands-on teacher. She took the time to answer the questions of each child. She made them feel comfortable.”
Former students wrote letters in praise of Nichols.
Fatemeh Corlett, now 34, told the panel that, in elementary school, Nichols had helped her find confidence and get into
classes for gifted and talented students. Later, Nichols urged Corlett to steer clear of temptations in high school, edited her college
essays and helped her apply for financial aid.
Two weeks before Corlett was to move into her freshman dormitory — and become the first in her family to go to college — Nichols showed up at her home. She brought the kinds of things a kid needs for her first adult home: a fridge, a microwave, a comforter.
“Things I had no idea I needed,” Corlett said. “How can someone have such a big heart to think to do that?”
Nichols’s students scored no differently on state tests than other sixth-graders at Rose Hill, school officials said, but that didn’t affect how she was judged.
There is a growing national movement to base teacher evaluations on student performance, but it hasn’t reached Fairfax. So instead of asking how much a teacher’s students have progressed, administrators ask how faithfully a teacher uses methods the county deems effective.
In other words, the focus is on how teachers teach instead of whether students learn.
Starting next year, Virginia will require schools to take a different tack. Student achievement is to be a “significant” portion of teacher evaluations. School systems have latitude to decide what that means; Fairfax will unveil its proposal June 11.
But for now, in Fairfax and across much of the country, teachers are judged largely by what administrators see of their lessons — snapshots of activity in the complicated ecosystem of a classroom.
Nichols said in her case, the snapshots were skewed and misinterpreted. The critical observations began in fall 2009, and she disputed each one that year in written rebuttals to her principal.
Poor use of technology? She had three laptops for kids in the room, and she taught with the interactive whiteboard as often as possible. Too many work sheets? She used them only for review and practice, and she didn’t use any more than other teachers did.
And so on. The rebuttals were placed in her personnel file but received no response.
Nichols also argued that the timing of the observations, all unannounced, seemed unfair. For example, when her sister was taken, unconscious, to the hospital in May 2010, Nichols asked to leave school, but she was told there was no one to cover her classroom. A few hours later, an assistant principal dropped in for an observation of Nichols’s class.
Her sister died that day.
Nichols took three days off for the funeral. She left work sheets for her students to do in her absence. Upon returning to school, she received a memo from Czarniak criticizing her failure to “provide meaningful, productive activities for every lesson, including when you need a substitute.”
The following day, another assistant principal visited the class. It sounded as if Nichols had laryngitis, the assistant principal observed. “It was very difficult for the students to hear the questions you were asking,” she wrote. “This slowed down the momentum of the activity.”
Czarniak used evidence from those observations to write a year-end evaluation recommending that Nichols be placed on probation. She would be required to turn in lesson plans every two weeks and work with instructional coaches.
Nichols, who is African American, filed a racial discrimination complaint against Czarniak, who is white. Ten months later, the school system concluded there had been no such discrimination.
Rose Hill struggled to meet achievement targets under the federal No Child Left Behind law, falling short in four out of Czarniak’s six years at the helm. In 2009, the principal introduced initiatives to boost progress.
Sixth-grade teachers worked together to meet the directives. Nichols was “an integral part of the team,” said Mary Van Kula, one of two former Rose Hill teachers to testify in support of Nichols.
That year, Nichols became the building representative for the Fairfax Education Association, a local chapter of the NEA. Nichols said she thinks that helped make her a target. Rose Hill’s four previous FEA representatives all left the school or resigned, she testified. “I was bullied,” she said in an interview. “It was a clear case of abuse of power.”
Czarniak declined to be interviewed by telephone. Asked to respond to the bullying accusation and other questions, she said via
e-mail that it would be inappropriate to comment on a pending personnel case.
But “generally speaking,” she wrote, “dealing with a teacher dismissal is serious and time-consuming. The decision was not taken lightly and was based on my responsibility to provide every child with a quality education that is driven by current best instructional practices.”
Phyllis Pajardo, Fairfax’s assistant superintendent for human resources, also wouldn’t speak about the Nichols case. But she said the school system should be able to enforce standards for good teaching.
“We have the right to say, ‘When you come work for us, these are the expectations that we have,’ ” she said.
State regulations call for fact-finding panels in dismissal cases to have three members: one chosen by the teacher, one by the superintendent and one neutral party to whom both sides agree.
The Nichols panel was Michael Hairston, FEA president; Dwayne Young, principal of Centreville Elementary; and Johanna Fitzpatrick, a retired judge.
The hearing ended in late April. The panel released its findings nearly four weeks later.
School administrators had demonstrated valid concerns about Nichols’s methods, Fitzpatrick wrote, but they had not convincingly explained how a teacher with such a long record of success had become incompetent in such a short time.
Plus, the judge wrote, evidence had shown a “teacher who went far beyond the requirements of the classroom to foster a love of learning.”
The panel was unanimous: Nichols should not be fired, but she should instead resume work at another school. There should be a probation period for Nichols to address issues raised about her teaching.
That is not the last word. The panel’s recommendation went to the School Board, which has ultimate authority.
Nichols has asked the board for a public hearing of her case. It could happen as early as July. But before it gets to that point, she and her attorney hope to reach an agreement with the school system so she can return to the classroom.
“I’ve proven myself,” Nichols said. “I just want to go back to work.”