Fuck you, Mr. Wilson."
The slight, dark boy shifted from groggy to confrontational in a flash, embarrassed and angry at being awakened, and enjoying the focus of 30 pairs of eyes. A small smile played around his mouth as all chatter ceased.
"Sorry Randall, I don't go that way."
The classroom exploded in laughter and the lesson continued, but later, in a quiet moment, the teacher took the student aside to talk. In a considerate way, he laid down the law: "You respect me and I will respect you, but you can't talk that way in my class."
George Wilson taught history classes for the 2013-14 school year much the same way he had for all of his 13 years in education. The former businessman and coach is a gregarious type, serious about education but quick to crack a joke with — or on — his kids. Students who start off the year hating the teacher who won't let them sleep in class are often the last ones lingering by his door in June, trading last-minute jokes with sheepish grins.
"There's no big, a-ha moment like in TV or the movies, where we hug and suddenly we're best friends. It's a process," he says in an accent still softened by his Roanoke roots. "I'm not from the 'hood, but I don't front about that. I was born in the country. But I have high expectations for them, and I set a high bar."
Wilson, who requested we use a fake name, just completed his third year in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools this June. His co-workers at Whitewater Middle School regularly bounced discipline cases to his room rather than refer kids to the principal's office, and he had continually been rated "proficient" on his evaluations. So he was stunned when he was summoned to the office in mid-April and told his contract was in danger of not being renewed.
TEACHERS IN NORTH CAROLINA are expected to perform near-magical feats: create lesson plans that meet the individual needs of dozens of students in classrooms with no size caps; circle back to re-teach difficult subject matter while still making adequate yearly progress; and at evaluation time, demonstrate proficiency in standards as varied as global awareness and making instruction relevant to students' lives. When a teacher meets most of these expectations, you would think his or her job would be secure. You'd be wrong.
North Carolina educators have next to no job security or protection if targeted by a rogue administrator. Principals can conduct unfair evaluations, go back and add negative comments after a teacher signs off on an observation, or sit on evidence that could save a teacher's job, and a teacher has very little recourse to preserve his or her reputation or livelihood in response. Adding insult to injury, the way in which such terminations are accomplished is nightmarishly murky and convoluted — nowhere spelled out and publicly available — so a teacher caught up in the process is essentially fighting blind. This year, dozens of CMS teachers experienced just such a situation. And the effects on students and schools are immediate and lasting.
"Consistency in staffing is important to building the culture of a school. The experience families have with their schools builds year over year — it's easier to connect with people you know well," says LaTarzja Henry, assistant superintendent for CMS community partnerships and family engagement. In the past, she recalls, teachers often taught generations of families — siblings and even parents. "That kind of trust is harder to achieve when turnover rates are high."
"CMS is aware of the problem" of principals using observations as weapons, an official close to the administration said. It would appear so. In a mass reshuffling, CMS released a report assigning over 40 principals to new schools for the 2014-15 school year, with nine more positions expected to be filled before fall. Overall, a quarter of CMS schools will have new leadership when school recommences. Last year, 28 new assignments were made during May and June. Coupled with the losses of teachers, this kind of instability could hurt students.
Wilson says his superiors cited shortfalls in his classroom leadership and ethical standards. But when he pressed for details, he couldn't get answers. He couldn't understand the former charge, when up until the final days of school, students were continually dispersed to his class when other teachers were either absent or couldn't control the students' behavior.
"On more than one occasion, I had administrators bring students to my class because they were acting up in other classes. So that was shocking. Also the insult of not being proficient in ethics. You may never see a teacher demonstrate ethics, but if you never see them do anything unethical, you mark it off [on the evaluation]. That one also hurt; it pissed me off."
Though Wilson had objections, his principal pressured him to sign off on the summation, which she said was due to the district that day. She assured him that she would retract it when he brought in evidence, called artifacts, to show he met the standards. He complied within days, rushing to turn them in over the first weekend of spring break. Weeks went by without word. When he asked his principal about pulling back his evaluation, she stalled, promising to call after lunch or stop by his room to discuss the progress. She never did. About a month later, she told him the superintendent had decided not to accept his evidence. Crushed, he requested his artifacts back. But when he stopped by the office to pick them up, the principal "literally pulled them from the same place, behind her desk on the floor in the corner, where I saw her put them when I first gave them to her. From the exact same spot. Right then and there, I felt she had never looked them over." Principal Valarie Williams, who was replaced by Beth Thompson in June, refused to comment for the story.
THE SYSTEM MAY not be set up to fail teachers deliberately, but due to lack of oversight, it often does. Probationary teachers (those with less than four years in CMS) get at minimum one announced observation and two unannounced visits per year. In addition there are walkthroughs, or 5- to 30-minute unofficial observations that are used to build the official report, the timing of which are up to the principal's discretion. Post-observation, teachers huddle with administration to discuss their scores. There are six state standards to meet, and CMS provides an extensive list of indicators for each standard that provides examples of behavior that meets the standard. To pass muster, at least two (preferably three) observers must have checked off each standard.
One observation can't show proficiency, but taken together over the course of the year, they measure growth. Teachers are allowed to add comments to supplement what the observers didn't see. Most educators don't worry too much about the evaluations, as generally CMS principals and other administration are not seeking to hurt their teachers.
CMS Superintendent Heath Morrison has said on several occasions that if an administrator has a teacher who is struggling, the job is to help them improve, not run them out the door. If after a second observation a teacher is still receiving "developing" as opposed to "proficient" marks, they receive a Performance Counseling Letter (PCL) that spells out areas they need to work to improve, and they should begin to meet regularly with the principal or administration to build a goal plan around that. Following the completion of the PCL plan, if a principal remains unconvinced of their progress, the teacher receives a letter stating the recommendation that their contract not be renewed, known as a nonrenewal.
The process looks good on paper, but there is no oversight to ensure the administrators are executing it effectively or fairly: Wilson never received a PCL plan or counseling. His experience went from a blindsiding evaluation to the nonrenewal letter. And while teachers can submit rebuttals, those don't trigger an investigation — they are filed, but there's no assurance that they will be seen by higher-ups.
"I sent my letters to the correct people and got back form letters; I tried to talk to HR and got Anthony Ratliff, a liaison," Wilson says. "Ratliff is a good guy, but he's a bridge, not a decision maker. But for someone to make the change or get you into a meeting or a hearing, you can't talk to them. I honestly believe no one read my objections. I thought I would have the chance to tell my story, or someone would at least look at my case individually, but I couldn't talk to anyone." Ratliff, who works in human resources at CMS, refused to comment for the story, and as of press time his boss, executive director of CMS Employee Support Services Avery Mitchell, had not returned calls.
WILSON FACED a coyote ugly choice: he could resign, foregoing unemployment assistance, and hunt for another job, or try to fight the recommendation for nonrenewal and run the risk of losing. A nonrenewal on a teacher's record is a career-ending scarlet letter: most school districts won't even consider hiring a teacher with that mark.
Teachers fighting a nonrenewal must petition the CMS Human Resources chief Terri Cockerham for a board hearing, comprised of three district-selected administrators, but there's no guarantee they will be granted, let alone win, one. Charles Smith, president of the Charlotte-area chapter of the North Carolina Association of Educators, put it this way: "So do I take the sword in the right hand and stab myself, or take the sword in my left hand and stab myself? In most cases we try to convince our teachers to fight it, but if you don't have your ducks in a row, you don't have a great opportunity to win your appeal before the committee."
Smith is that rare North Carolinian who grew up in a union house; his dad, a sheet-metal mechanic, joined a collective bargaining organization, and his brother is a union member. He acknowledges the reservations many in the state have about unions, but insists there's strength in numbers, ticking off benefits like the 40-hour work week, minimum wage, women's protections and equal pay for equal work, all results of hard-won union battles that the general public now enjoys.
"My great-grandmother worked in a cotton mill from age 10 or 12, making 7 or 8 cents an hour," he says. "One unified voice is much more powerful than a thousand individual ones." Smith says teachers often wait until trouble comes to turn to the association, when the group could offer more help if it was aware of issues from the beginning. In states with strong teacher unions, such as Michigan, teachers have free legal support when taking on administration; are guaranteed duty-free lunches (where they can eat without being forced to watch classes); and are paid overtime for putting in extra hours. By contrast, North Carolina administrators can require teachers to come in early, leave late and attend extracurricular activities with no compensation; commandeer teacher planning periods for meetings (so teachers spend more unpaid time at home on lesson plans); and refuse sick days, docking teachers $50 per day instead. All this for the privilege of ranking 46th in the nation in teacher earnings.
The North Carolina Association of Educators recently won several legal battles in the General Assembly, including one fighting the repeal of teacher tenure, at least for those who have already earned it. But this isn't tenure in the traditional sense, such as a college professor or skilled tradesman might have, which would insulate someone from layoffs and staff cuts. For North Carolina schools, tenure simply means that teachers who have worked more than four years in a district would be guaranteed a board hearing before three schools officials if their job were in jeopardy. It grants them career status and due process, but not actual protection against getting fired.
Wilson, who as a three-year teacher was ineligible for tenure, decided to fight the nonrenewal. Wilson put together two heart-felt letters explaining why he felt he deserved a hearing, but received vague form letters with no confirmation that his request was approved, and no time line for when he could expect to hear anything definite.
For the last five years, the number of teachers leaving the district has nearly doubled, from 449 in 2009-10 to 858 as of April 2014, out of 8,309 in CMS altogether. According to figures provided by the district, not counting the roughly 30 percent of those separations that were linked to the low pay and the 5.59 percent who retired, a whopping 65 percent left or were driven from the district. At Whitewater Middle School, 28 of 44 teachers will not be returning for the 2014-15 school year. The issue hit home personally for this writer: my husband, a math teacher at Whitewater, was one of the ones forced out of the classroom. It was in attempting to navigate the subsequent maze of appeals, timelines and evidence that I discovered there is no clear and accessible guide to direct teachers fighting for their jobs.
"UniServ directors help teachers navigate the process," Smith says, referencing people who act as go-betweens for the local and state affiliates of the National Education Association, including the NCAE. "But I'm not going to tell you that CMS or any school district makes it easy to do — and this is just my personal opinion — but it's so you will resign and not collect unemployment."
AFTER RECEIVING a form letter from Superintendent Morrison stating that the recommendation for nonrenewal would stand, Wilson started job searching.
"Looking at applications for other teaching positions, that's one of the questions they ask: 'Were you nonrenewed?' I thought I had to resign to look more viable." So at 5:59 p.m. on the deadline day for teacher resignations, he buckled.
It's hard to say that wasn't the wisest action. Even if Wilson had been granted a hearing, which is questionable, the board may have opted to simply review the paperwork and not have him present.
"In North Carolina, they do not give [all] teachers the right to a hearing," says Ann McColl, general counsel for NCAE statewide. "That's a big deal, because that's when you have the chance to say 'That's not fair.' North Carolina does not provide that, or a means of disputing evaluations, so these evaluations are kind of a bright line. All we're looking for is the basic notion of fairness. We know there are problems with the implementation of evaluations."
What to do if you think you may face nonrenewal
Find a copy of the North Carolina Professional Teaching Standards at ncpublicschools.org and request from the district CMS' standards, called the CMS Indicator.
Keep evidence, such as professional development certificates, throughout your career to show you're meeting standards.
If you get an evaluation you don't feel is fair, write a rebuttal each time and submit it to your administrator.
If you get a PCL, do what's on there and document that you've done it. Create a paper trail.
If the performance counseling meetings, which should follow a PCL, become contentious, file a grievance with HR. They won't change a rating on a summative unless they see a pattern at the school where it's happening to more than one teacher, or if it's such an egregious attack on a teacher that it's crystal clear. But when you have documentation, it's hard to refute.