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.”