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.