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Inside a Teacher's Termination Hearing

The Washington Post's Emma Brown takes a deep dive into the proceedings surrounding a tenured Virginia teacher's fight against termination. The piece illustrates the complexity of defining what makes a good or bad teacher—especially in a district like Fairfax County, which has historically not taken any student achievement measures into account in making that determination. (That will change next year when Virginia follows many other states' leads in requiring student achievement to be a "significant" factor in teacher evaluations.)

Violet Nichols, a mentor teacher with more than 30 years experience and a doctorate, was recommended for dismissal on the grounds of "incompetency" in the spring of 2011. She hired a lawyer and exercised her right to due process.

During the hearings, administrators characterized Nichols as "incompetent, intransigent and undeserving of her teaching position," writes Brown. The now-retired principal, Terri Czarniak, said that Nichols' teaching methods were outdated, that she did not cooperate with other teachers, and that she wasted class time.

Nichols testified that she had been "unfairly attacked" by the principal—perhaps because she is black (Czarniak is white) or because she was a union leader. Several former students testified that Nichols had been a kind and influential teacher. Nichols also said that her classroom observations had been unannounced—and that one had been performed the day her sister was in the hospital dying and the principal had rejected Nichols' request to leave and be by her bedside.

Nichols, who has been at home all year but continued to receive her $92,000 salary, had received only positive evaluations until 2009. Her test scores had not differed from the other 6th grade teachers' at her school, reports Brown.

The hearing panel ultimately recommended that Nichols be moved to another school, not fired. One member explained that the administrators had "demonstrated valid concerns about Nichols's methods," writes Brown, "but they had not convincingly explained how a teacher with such a long record of success had become incompetent in such a short time." The school board will have the final say this summer.

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