Debra Cassidy, a teacher at Berlin High School whose contract was not renewed, received a letter in April detailing the reasons she was not re-hired. The Hartford Courant also requested a copy of the letter. She has seen the letter and also talked to the Courant for a story to appear in Wednesday's edition. But she decided to break her silence and talk to Berlin Patch to give her side of the story.
According to Cassidy and the Courant story, she was not renewed because she "did not meet the district's standards and had lapses in professional conduct that included not quickly reporting a student's drug use."
Cassidy taught world languages at BHS. When word of her non-renewal made it to the student body, a student sit-in was held in the auditorium. The students were upset that she was not going to be able to keep teaching and wanted to make a statement to the administration. More than 100 students attended the sit-in at different times during the school day.
The Courant requested a copy of the letter sent to Cassidy in April and was granted the request by Superintendent of Schools David Erwin.
The major points in the letter were:
- Classroom instruction that does not meet the district's standards
- Two students being left in her room unattended for a period of time
- A delay in reporting a student was on drugs and impaired during her class
- She used foul language when talking to a parent.
Cassidy first talked about her level of expertise and classroom instruction.
"Mr. Kennedy observed one French 1 class, on Feb 10," Cassidy said. "The points Erwin makes in his letter are taken from the 'recommendations' column. He states I 'failed to afford students with opportunities to demonstrate understanding of the French language and its application.' The entire class was conducted in French. I asked them questions in French, gave directions in French, they responded in French. I used the technology in the classroom to support new sentence structures they had never seen in French. They read French words on the SmartBoard and matched them with pictures.
"Next, I 'failed to provide students with opportunities to initiate inquiries and questions regarding the materials presented.' It was a French 1 class and I was teaching them the names of colors. What sort of 'inquiries and questions' might they have had?
"Third, I 'failed to appropriately challenge all students' in my class and 'actively engage them in exploring the materials presented.' Yet Kennedy's 'commendation' states 'your class climate promoted engagement in and shared responsibility for the learning process' and 'you did promote engagement in the learning process through your technology-rich lesson.' It goes on to say 'but you did not provide commensurate opportunities for students to initiate their own questions and inquiries.' Again, it was a lesson on the names of colors. And their assignment that night was to write their own sentences in French, looking up the names of objects they did not know, that are typically those colors.
"Fourth, I 'failed to exhibit the ability to foster independence through differentiated instruction.' Kennedy stated: 'You acknowledged your students' prior knowledge in your planning' (this is one step in differentiation, knowing what the kids know) and 'you selected instructional strategies that 'mixed text/illustration mode to present the colors (and participate in) a review exercise...to get up and manipulate vocabulary to make meaning.'" So I appealed to visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners. Which is differentiating. Later he says: You helped your students 'to make meaning from unfamiliar sentences, with the help of illustrations (visual, artistic), and then apply their new vocabulary individually through the use of manipulatives' (bodily /kinesthetic). Check out http://www.learner.org/workshops/tfl/session_06/analyze.html. Thus is one of the videos in which I participated with the Annenberg Foundation to teach college students about differentiating and valuing diversity. I was one of 27 teachers nationwide to do this video series, and one of a handful of THOSE to do this workshop series. I know about differentiation.
"Erwin concludes his paragraph with 'based on direct observation of your teaching, you fail to meet the District's standards regarding expectations of classroom instruction.' Kennedy sat in on one class, on a half day, so it wasn't even a regular length class, commended my lesson, and yet Erwin based the non-renewal on that one class. Never mind the prior two years' positive evaluations."
Cassidy then talked about the other major problems the district had with her performance.
"As for the two students left in my room, yes, they were there," Cassidy said. "I had stayed after with three students who were working on their Spanish projects. One had finished her portion and had left. The other two girls, highly reliable, were just about finished, and I had to leave. It was about 3:40 p.m. I told them to finish.
"This is not uncommon in the building. One of my union reps told me when she leaves at the end of the day she sees many classrooms with only students in them, in the lower level, away from the admin's sight. The girls told me after being asked to leave my room they found another teacher who let them use his projector and SmartBoard, and left the room. When I told the assistant principal this, her response was, 'Oh, don't tell me that!'"
"As for the student who was 'on drugs' and "impaired" in my class, while chatting with a student of mine in the media center, who is on a sports team, I was asking him how the students whom I know were doing on the team. When I asked about a certain boy, the boy with whom I was chatting told me about that boy coming out of a bathroom and saying 'I just smoked a boughe,' slang for a cigarette. He proceeded to tell me about a teacher coming along and smelling it, calling the security officer, and having to shut down the boys' room.
"This was told to me on Dec. 7. The boy gave no indication that this event had happened five minutes prior, two periods prior or even within the week. I have been teaching for 30 years; I have a good sense of when something is urgent and when a kid is just telling me about a frustrating event caused by a teammate. He told me this story during period five. Several of the 'smoking' boy's teachers were scheduled to have a meeting with his mother after school that day. After the meeting, I told Mrs. Gagnon what I had heard. She rolled her eyes toward the ceiling and sighed, 'Oh, ___ (boy's name).' She never wrote anything down, nor did she ask me to document it.
"To continue, over the next several days, Mrs. Gagnon followed up with questions, including who told me the story to begin with, which teacher was involved, and when it had happened. Though I did tell her who had told me the story, Mrs. Gagnon never asked him anything about it (I asked him). Doing so would have determined when the incident in question had occurred. Eventually, she determined that an incident matching the one I described had occurred in September (remember we are now a week beyond the seventh of December). But according to her, we cannot be sure another identical incident did not occur on the day in question. They wrote me up for 'misconduct;' I initially refused to sign the write-up since it was preposterous but was informed I had to do so.
"Getting back to what Erwin calls my 'unacceptable language in the presence of a parent and ... Mrs. Gagnon,' during the meeting with boy's mother, I described an assignment the boy had done that day in my Spanish class to illustrate his typical behavior. Other teachers had described inappropriate behavior as well. The task had been to work in a group and survey the members as to how they were feeling that day (working on the unit's "emotions" vocabulary) and write sentences in Spanish describing their classmates' feelings. The boy had written "____ esta contento (is happy) because he got laid." When I told the mother this, she agreed that that was totally inappropriate and that she would deal with it.
"The next day, Mrs. Gagnon called me in, with union representation and with Kennedy present, and informed me that 'all the other teachers' present at the meeting had come to her 'appalled' that I had said that in front of the mother. She stated that I had told the mother that her son was happy because he got laid. I pointed out that that was not what I had said, nor would it have been what I would say because that was not the assignment. I also questioned whether my colleagues would say they were appalled at a statement I never made. I went so far as to ask, after the meeting ended, the other staff that was at the meeting. They all said, they had said nothing and/or that was not the statement I made.
"I had been asked to write a response to her accusation. I did so; pointed out that the assignment was such that the response she claims I read would not have been what she claimed I had said. She ultimately admitted she had 'misheard' me, yet this incident became a reason Erwin gave for my non-renewal. Kennedy even stated at the meeting, after she admitted she was wrong, that 'no matter what,' he 'stood behind his administrator.'"
Cassidy said that Berlin High School students have stayed in touch with her, sharing prom and sports photos with her.
"My students (yes, they're still MY students) tagging me in photos so I can see what they have done," she said.
She also pointed out that since she was advisor to the Drama Club, there was no play this year, as Mr. Kennedy did not find another advisor.
"The kids still tell me that Kennedy still is not available to them as students, and tells them (the newspaper editor being one) to 'email' him," Cassidy added. "She calls him the 'cyber principal.' I miss my kids and look forward to the last day of school so I may be in touch with them again. I couldn't work for administrators such as these; I honestly feel I was targeted because I refused to 'roll over' for them and challenged their lies.
"My refusal to write a resignation most likely added fuel to their fire, but I was not about to put in writing a desire to leave the job that I loved when I didn't want to go. I couldn't do that to the kids and parents who had supported me; it would have been a slap in the face. I am now fairly certain that my career as a teacher will end. The (Courant) article made me sound pretty bad but I'm not going down without a fight."