“I never thought I’d end up in the paper,” says Fairfax Education Association member Violet Nichols, wistfully, “but I did.”
In fact, Nichols was featured in three articles in The Washington Post earlier this year, giving her all kinds of publicity she would have been happy to do without. A veteran sixth-grade teacher at Rose Hill Elementary School, Nichols was the focus of a teacher termination case that, in the end, spoke volumes about the value of continuing contracts and due process for teachers.
After years of positive evaluations, Nichols found herself the target of Rose Hill administrators, who in 2010 moved to fire her. “I had been told I exceeded expectations,” says Nichols, “but my former principal decided I was no longer to be part of the school.” There were accusations that Nichols, who has taught for more than 30 years and earned a doctorate, hadn’t kept up with the changing educational times.
“She was under constant scrutiny with frequent observations,” says Michael Hairston, former Fairfax Education Association president. “They were documenting everything they could.”
Just how serious administrators were about firing Nichols became painfully clear the day she got word at school that her sister had been rushed, unconscious, to the hospital. Nichols asked permission to leave but was told no one was available to cover her classroom. Later the same day, as she tried to cope with the situation, an assistant principal came to observe her.
“It was SOL review time and I gave a review test created by teachers,” says Nichols. “It wasn’t the official test, but it was being used elsewhere in the school. I got written up for an improper test environment.”
By the time she got to the hospital, her sister had died.
Nichols was out for three days for the funeral and when she returned, she ended up with two more write-ups: one for failing to provide sufficient materials for a substitute and one for teaching with laryngitis when she got back.
That was enough for administrators to place her on “conditional reappointment” status and give an improvement plan and one year to meet it. At the end of the next year, they recommended her for termination.
All along, Nichols had followed FEA’s advice, writing letters of rebuttal about the write-ups and filing a grievance. “She had the courage to defend her reputation as a professional,” Hairston says.
After long considerations about just retiring and going away quietly, Nichols decided to do the opposite and fought back—hard. “We are being held accountable to people who have zero or minimal years of experience and have no idea how to run a classroom,” she says.
FEA/VEA got her an attorney, who was “brilliant and really fought my battle,” Nichols says, and she took on the school system. “I went public, and I found I wasn’t alone,” she says.
Far from it, actually: FEA stood with her all the way. “Had she not been a member,” says Hairston, “it would have been very difficult and expensive for her to fight this. But we were able to get her a fantastic attorney and it cost her nothing out-of-pocket.”
The fight wasn’t easy, nor was it quick. Nichols spent a year on administrative leave while the process played out, culminating in a multi-day hearing before a three-person fact-finding panel. Administrators testified against her; parents of students and former colleagues testified for her.
Hairston was a member of that panel, and says that Nichols’ qualifications were evident during the proceedings. “She’s the kind of person you want in the classroom,” he says. “With all her experience, she’s able to use different methods to connect with kids, parents and the community. She’s well-liked and well-respected. You can’t put a value on that. She spoke well in her own defense, and clearly brought a lot to the table.”
In the end, the panel found, unanimously, that administrators had not shown any convincing reason for Nichols to be terminated. In fact, one panel member, a retired judge, called Nichols a “teacher who went far beyond the requirements of the classroom to foster a love of learning,” according to the Post’s account.
“It was an honor to represent a member with such great credentials,” says Hairston.
The panel recommended that Nichols be returned to the classroom, and she will, although at a different Fairfax school.
“This is a win for all of us,” she says. “If it wasn’t for VEA and FEA, I would not be able to tell this story. If not for due process, I would not have had my day.”