Inside a teacher termination hearing

EIA’s Intercepts links to a series of Branford (CT) Eagle stories on the local district’s attempt to fire a 27-year veteran teacher for poor performance. The hearings were open to the public.

A kindergarten teacher for most of her career, Denise Farina switched to fourth grade and then second grade in recent years. For 25 years she received satisfactory ratings. Then a new principal assigned coaches to help her improve her teaching skills, but she made no progress, administrators charged.

Administrators, teachers and former aides testified that Farina was incompetent all along, but the previous principal failed to take action.

Most of them cast their eyes away from Farina as they described her disorganized classroom, her failure to hold a class together, her lack of teaching skills and her bleak attitude. They noted that she did not focus when they gave model lessons. They said she was not engaged. Instead of listening she would sit at her desk writing checks or filing her nails. Several witnesses commented on her nail filing.

(Gail) Riccitilli, a former aide and reading specialist said the principal had told her to stop “enabling” Farina by doing her job for her.

Witnesses said Farina did very little teaching in her kindergarten years.

“In my memory, the student would color or have snacks,” (Betsy Romanelli) said. “She would be at her desk. She would do personal things. Such as banking, writing greeting cards, letting writing.”

Even Farina’s union urged her to resign after she’d failed four Teaching Improvement Plan interventions. Two times is enough, a union rep testified.

Intercepts asks the obvious question: Why did it take 27 years? That’s on the principals who let Farina teach year after year, ignoring complaints from colleagues and parents, and then let her move to an even more challenging grade.

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  1. Maybe Antonucci enjoys belaboring the obvious? Or maybe he’s not bright enough, all evidence to the contrary not withstanding, to see the obvious?

    From a purely pragmatic, self-interested point of view, who’s the smart principal?

    The current principal who’s spending lots of district resources and putting the district unflattering on the media map to get rid of a teacher who’d probably be gone in a couple of years anyway or the parade of previous principals who ignored the utter incompetence of the teacher?

    And what’s the lesson we can learn from this incident class?

    It’s that when you put the professional’s interests – in this case, of the principal – at odds with the supposed mission of the organization the professionals will generally choose to serve their own interests before they serve the interests of the organization.

  2. Thank’s for the link. Reading the whole story, the narrative rings true. But why blame the union? Blaming the union would be like blaming the consultants who testified to the same effect. Blaming the union would be like blaming a public defender for making routine legal motions in a trial.

    I’ve see the same thing. And I’ve also seen how the blame game interferes with our efforts to change the system and build the capacity where schools can actually have educational leaders with the capacity of building teacher quality using both carrots and sticks.

    And in my opinion, the “garbage in garbage out” methods by which we use data complicates the issue. There is nothing illegal about manipulating evidence in order to brief your bosses or testify to the Board. But doing the same thing in a legal process is illegal. At every level of education we are so used to repeating the same absurd sound bites that it is habit-forming. (Back in the day, the police used to joke that the skill they most needed was “creative writing.” I doubt they are so open today about the process by which warrants, for instance, sometimes are issued. But in the judicial system, there is always the potential for a third party to rule on the veracity of evidence, and certain lines can’t be crossed. To be an educator, however, you have to repeatedly say and claim to believe soundbites that we all know to be false. That’s just the way we play the game. We have to repeatedly claim that due to our high expectations the sun over our school now rises in the west.)

  3. According to the original articles from the Branford Eagle (New Haven Independent), Farina had a handful of parents and grandparents testify to her effectiveness as a teacher. There was no reported effort by the school district to get parent testimony to the opposite. Its also interesting that they have no complaints on file from parents, or perhaps they don’t keep such records. If everything reported about Mrs. Farina is true its hard to believe that parents weren’t complaining. Maybe having parents testify would set a precedent the school district doesn’t want. Assuming CT doesn’t test kindergartners it would seem that parent complaints might be one of the key triggers to taking action on removing a teacher.

  4. Don Bemont says:

    Allen wrote, “From a purely pragmatic, self-interested point of view, who’s the smart principal?

    The current principal who’s spending lots of district resources and putting the district unflattering on the media map to get rid of a teacher who’d probably be gone in a couple of years anyway or the parade of previous principals who ignored the utter incompetence of the teacher?”

    Exactly. Which is why publicity about story helps bring about real change. At present, the self-interested administrator is better off going after the teacher who makes waves. This kind of story makes administrators worry about ignoring incompetence.

    Next, we need stories about cheating and systemic manipulation of grades, graduation, and other measurements.

  5. If this teacher is really the stinker she is portrayed as, this principal is very smart. Yes, he is using resources to get rid of her, but it sends a very strong signal that he is willing to do that. Sometimes it just takes one or two to put the stinkers on notice that it is time to shape up.

    Good on him.

  6. “Farina came into the Branford school system at age 22. She had tenure by the time she was 26. Her father was a well known athletic director and football coach when she got her first and what turns out to be her only job.”

    Nepotism is not a good practice. Even if the children of employees are capable, they should work in other systems. This train wreck for the system could have been avoided if an earlier principal had refused to hire her.

    If there were 25 kids in each class, over the 27 years of this teacher’s career, that’s 675 years of academic growth lost. Not learning–not teaching–the early, foundations of later learning is more harmful than giving up the last year of high school. It would be very interesting to track the dropout rate among her former students, in comparison to the norm. I would also guess that, if the parents had the means, the rate of transfers to other schools was above the norm.

    Why wasn’t it documented? Because no one wanted any trouble. Because she had tenure. Because her father had connections. Because those who might have done something had reasonable doubts that their superiors would back them up. Note that the special education aide was able to get the child in her charge transferred to another teacher’s class. There’s no way to know how many parents were “bought off” by a transfer of their children.

    One reason to be wary of moving to a new town is, the new families’ children will be likely to be assigned to the teachers the established families know to avoid. Your child gets the teacher no one wants.

  7. Gee Lightly, maybe the previous principals just weren’t smart enough to see it that way, hey?

    I think it’s rather more likely that those principals weighed their options and figured sticking it to the kids for a year was better then kicking up a massive fuss trying to ditch a worthless but tenured teacher.

    Oh, and Don? The only message this incident sends to parents is that putting your faith in the professionals, whether that professional’s the teacher or the principal, is a roll of the dice. However the dice come up, that’s what you’re stuck with.

  8. Don Bemont says:

    Allen, you do not sound cheered by the possibility that this case could bring about some improvement.

    How surprising.

  9. It may, or may not, result in an improvement in the school.

    Getting rid of a lousy teacher is an improvement but if it results in getting rid of a principled principal then it’s a net loss.

    A good principal can’t do anything else but if calling attention to the failure of the district to create/enforce the sort of policies that make terminating a lousy teacher a swift inevitability rather then a decades-long problem results in the principal being quietly let go where’s the net win?

    On the larger scale, is this a widespread phenomenon? Are lousy teachers being dismissed on a larger basis then before? I rather doubt it since the underlying dynamics of public education are still firmly in place.

    You may now continue your slide into the dismissive cynicism that’s your substitutes for a worthwhile response.

  10. Deirdre Mundy says:

    I’m guessing most PARENTS didn’t know what she weas doing when she was a Kindergarten teacher– I mean, their kids wouldn’t have known enough to complain, and my 5 year old would call a whole day doing nothing but coloring and eating snacks without any interruptions “A great class!”

    It’s the HARD stuff she hates, not the hours spent drawing! (We’re homeschooling her— and if I told her that she never had to do phonics again and could spend all day drawing with crayons, she’d be in heaven! 🙂 )

  11. Don Bemont says:

    Allen said, “You may now continue your slide into the dismissive cynicism that’s your substitutes for a worthwhile response.”

    Is this something that has been said to you to great effect, and you think that it thus applies to anyone who implies disagreement? I was honestly surprised that a person who takes a dim view of public education would take a dim view of moving against an incompetent teacher.

    “On the larger scale, is this a widespread phenomenon? Are lousy teachers being dismissed on a larger basis then before? I rather doubt it since the underlying dynamics of public education are still firmly in place.”

    The underlying dynamics of public education include an almost paranoid response to new threats, whether it is the flu or type of lawsuit. Endless resources are wasted avoiding obscure risks. This time, one can hope that the threat (embarrassment if an incompetent but well connected teacher is allowed to continue for decades) might actually push some schools to do the right thing.

    “if it results in getting rid of a principled principal then it’s a net loss” Have I missed something in the original story? I see nothing about getting rid of any principal. While I may be accused of allowing my optimism to cloud my assessment of possible benefits in this case, surely your pessimism is making you jump to conclusions.

  12. As always, there’s more to this story than meets the eye. I would suggest all follow the link to the original story, for it makes for interesting reading. I was quite surprised by the fact the district had removed this teacher from the Teacher Intervention Program in December of 2008, with no action taken against her.

    In addition, I’m surprised one of the “experts” called to testify for the school district claimed there’s not much difference between teaching Kindergarten vs. 4th grade. As a 4th grade teacher at a K-5 school I can tell you this is not the case.

  13. In my children’s school the kindergarten teachers send all of the completed worksheets and projects home at least once a week. So we knew what was going on at school even if our children couldn’t explain it all.

  14. I don’t take a dim view of firing an incompetent teacher but a single robin doth not spring make. The reason we’re discussing this incident is because of its novelty not its ordinariness. That’s what I take a dim view of.

    And what possible reason could you have for your hope that this incident might push other schools to do the right thing? It’ll play out exactly the same way everywhere else which is to say it’ll be a noisy, unpleasant, expensive process that’ll call into question the value the board and the administration put on providing a quality education. Other lousy teachers will fight to hang onto their jobs just as hard as this teacher, and I don’t fault them for doing so, and unions will go to bat for those teachers and I don’t fault them for doing that either. Neither party, the lousy teacher or the union, can reasonably be expected to do anything else.

    The reason you don’t see anything in the story about getting rid of the principal who instigated the termination proceedings is because it’s implied and potential. The parade of principals who saw the same incompetent teacher over the years but chose to ignore her incompetence ignored her incompetence for a reason. Far easier, as I wrote, to protect/ignore an incompetent teacher since the attempt to terminate her results in drawing unflattering attention to the school and the district.

    It’s just easier to placate parents and make excuses for the teacher’s valuelessness then to do the right thing.

    Principals are human beings and will quite often take the less courageous course. It is not to the credit of the public education system that doing the right thing is an act of courage. Doing the right thing, such as terminating a lousy teacher, ought to be a procedure in which educational considerations are paramount and thus not an act of courage.

  15. Margo/Mom says:

    allen–I would suggest that this will prove embarrassing not only to the school and district, but to the union as well. Workers should have reasonable protection against willy-nilly loss of employment. Most, in fact do not. Teachers have a far higher level of protection than many. The tide, however, is turning. With increased public acceptance of the possibility of ongoing teacher evaluation based on something quantifiable–including the possibility of student test scores–I think that we are likely to see more rational policies and practices in place. If the unions are smart, they will lead the parade.

  16. Richard Aubrey says:

    Unions will reflexively protect the teacher the first time, the second time….
    Eventually, even the union will try to enable a change.
    I happened to be at a local school board meeting when the district was having a budget issue or six.
    The EA prez got up and complained loudly that teachers shouldn’t have to start paying $3 for the better seats at football and basketball games.
    Afterwards, I commiserated with him, being professionally required to say such things in a how-do-we-keep-from-going-broke meeting.
    “No!”, he said, “it’s important!”
    That was a shock.
    But when the leader of the EA gets there because he’s pro-labor, pro-union, and anti The Boss,(and being nuttier than your opponent is how you get elected) which you can get in areas with lots of heavy manufacturing and consequently a lot of organized labor, you get jackasses like this.
    I could imagine him in a competence hearing.