There are frequently mediocre teachers who are held up as examples—often by people who are anti-union, or even just anti-teacher—of why teacher tenure is a bad idea. Making it near-impossible to fire an incompetent teacher, the critics argue, is bad for kids and bad for newer, better teachers who can't get jobs.
Violet Nichols, then, is the shining example of why teacher tenure exists. And Nichols, a veteran sixth-grade teacher in Fairfax, has finally won her battle with a district and principal who seemed determined, for unclear reasons, to get rid of Nichols.
Nichols has a Ph.D. and has been teaching for decades. She repeatedly got positive evaluations and accolades from students and teachers alike. One now-adult Nichols taught recalled how Nichols had given her confidence, helped her get into a gifted and talented program, and even helped her apply for financial aid for college. Before the student headed off to college, Nichols showed up with supplies, including a microwave and a comforter, the young woman would need at school.
But in the past couple of years, the school principal decided that Nichols was no longer any good—"incompetent," actually. They said Nichols refused to adapt to modern teaching techniques, including using technology. A teacher aide complained that Nichols once turned her back when someone else was speaking (Is Nichols meant to be disciplined as a sixth grader would be?). Another said Nichols had allowed E-mails to pile up in her in box, apparently a cardinal sin in our new world of control through gadgets and technology.
The petty nature of the complaints suggests that the dissatisfaction had little to do with Nichols's performance as a teacher at all, but rather about personalities. Nichols was active in teacher advocacy, which may have irritated administrators who like to be feared. And some of the complaints seemed manufactured: Nichols indeed used laptops in her class, along with an interactive white board favored by some. Veteran teachers often rightly question whether a teaching technique is better simply because it's newer or requires more technology. Nichols appeared to understand the importance of relating to students as individuals—a technique parents and former students lauded.
And there is evidence that, in classic elementary-school fashion, Nichols's critics were out to get her. As the Washington Post reported in an excellent story on the case, Nichols was denied an opportunity to see her dying sister—and then reprimanded for her performance during the personal crisis:
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."
I admire Nichols for even agreeing to keep teaching in that school after the way she's been treated. She must really love the kids. And that's the most important characteristic for a teacher.
- Read Joshua Kim: Open Online Courses Are No Substitutes for Classroom Learning
- Follow the Thomas Jefferson Street blog on Twitter at @TJSBlog.
- Check out U.S. News Weekly: an insider's guide to politics and policy.