HotSeat Interview: Meet The Reporter Behind The Violet Nichols Tenure Story
This week's big education story was Washington Post education reporter Emma Brown's chronicle of the effort to fire Violet Nichols, a longtime Fairfax County (VA) teacher.
How did Brown (@emmersbrown) get access to the secret proceedings, and what did she and education editor Nick ("Call Me, Maybe") Anderson have to leave on the cutting room floor? What's the behind the scenes reaction been from Nichols and others? How would the proceedings have differed if student achievement data were a part of the decision being made (as they will be starting this summer), or if we'd been able to review Nichols' classroom performance via video?
All that and more in this week's HotSeat interview, below.
Impressive story. How long have you been covering education?
EB: I’ve been covering Fairfax County since late August. I came here as an intern, wrote obituaries for a couple of years, and before that I was a math and science teacher in Juneau, Alaska.
Please tell me you didn't come through TFA.
EB: No. I did a one year Master’s, then spent three years in the classroom.
Had you ever had a teacher who was removed, or seen it while you were a teacher?
EB: Actually no, I was so fascinated to see this, this whole process is something that you hear about and hear talked about but I had never had an up close experience with a teacher firing as a student or as a teacher.
So how’d you get interested in this issue?
EB: This winter in Richmond I covered the debate over whether to do away with tenure in VA. They were going to take things to the next step, so that at the end of every three years the principal could basically get rid of a teacher without a reason. It came very close to passing. It was a big priority of the governor’s.
How about the Violet Nichols case in particular?
EB: I got a phone call from someone who knew there was a teacher fighting dismissal, and who knew she had decided to open her hearing to the public. It was good timing: I was right in the middle of writing about the fight over tenure in Richmond, and eager to see due process up close. I hadn't met Nichols or her lawyer and didn't know anything about the case when I walked into the first hearing session, so the story unfolded for me in the same way that it did for the fact-finding panel -- witness by witness, question by question. The more I listened the more it provided a window into this debate, a real face on the debate over whether tenure protections make sense for teachers.
What’s the reaction been so far?
EB: There’s been a lot of comments [1,200 at last check]. I think that the comments section mirrors the national debate. Somebody said to me, 'you can take away from this story whatever you want.' Some folks have seen it as an indictment of the tenure system, proof that it’s way too hard to fire a teacher. Others have seen it as an argument for tenure.
Is this your biggest story ever?
EB: It was a well read story, it was neat. Was it my most read story ever? It was right up there.*
What was the best or worst reaction you got?
EB: Someone emailed me and thought that there should be video cameras in every classroom all the time. That was a new one.
What about seeing Violet Nichols teach, if only by video or re-enactment? That would’ve been helpful.
EB: I never saw her teach. I never saw any videotape. What the story shows is that without seeing it with your own two eyes you have no idea what happened.
So maybe the crazy videotape thing will happen. Was there anyone you didn’t get access to?
EB: I would have loved to have been able to have interviewed the principal and folks in the district. Even though there was a lot of testimony, it was too bad I couldn’t talk to them further.
What was the hardest thing to have cut?
EB: The hard thing in general is how do you cut and keep it fair? I had many sleepless nights over that. It’s actually really hard for me to talk about the stuff we cut or didn’t cut because I’m so paranoid about being fair.
And so what did you cut?
EB: There was a little bit more about what was going on in the school, about what other teachers felt, and about the principal. The school system does a working conditions survey every two years and it really was a dramatic change from 2010 to this year, when there’s a new principal, which to me said that the teachers felt far more positively about their leadership than they did before. That got cut for space.
Was there anything included in the story that made you or your sources uncomfortable?
EB: Dr. Nichols did not want her salary in the story. I hadn’t had the conversation early on about what it means when a reporter writes about you. She was really shocked at the end that I told her that was in there. It’s public record. It’s an important part of the story.
What’s the lesson of the story?
EB: The process is so gray. It’s such an imperfect science. And there’s no student outcomes in the process. The district didn’t address whether her students were learning or the outcomes of her teaching. The only time it really came up was when her lawyer brought it up that her test scores were no different than anyone else’s.
Edited and condensed. You can comment below or follow Brown here.
*InterestinglyThis actually isn't Brown's most-read story. Her debut at the Post was a story about a 107 year-old man named Larry ("Curly") Haubner, which generated an outpouring of letters and $56,000 in donations to help him stay in his assisted living center.