Fit to teach? Here's a rare look at a teacher defending her job

He was a former Tampa Bay Buccaneer and high school assistant principal who was tapped to run McLane Middle School. She was a nurse and mother of three who went into teaching to introduce young people to careers in health care.

Franklin Oliver and Kim Bearison agree that her first year at McLane was a difficult one. But she said she learned to control her classroom. He said she did not.

In a school struggling with discipline issues, he wanted her out and did not renew her contract. She fought back and asked for a hearing.

The two faced each other recently before a three-member panel of Hillsborough school officials. Usually closed to the public, the "nonrenomination" hearing provided a rare glimpse into the painful process of choosing who is, or isn't, fit to teach.

It's a system the Hillsborough County schools are working feverishly to improve with the help of the $100-million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The old system relied on years of service and the principal's opinion. Now, peer observers sit through classes and grade teachers on how well they meet their objectives. These grades, student test scores and the principal's assessment determine career path and, eventually, pay.

But for all the millions spent on point systems and rubrics, mentors and observers, there's no escaping the crucial relationship between a teacher and principal; and how badly things can go when the relationship fails.

"She realizes herself that things are out of control," Oliver told the hearing panel.

Said Bearison: "I do feel that there is learning going on in my classroom."

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There are about 100 nonrenomination cases each year, said deputy superintendent Dan Valdez, who presided at Bearison's hearing on May 18.

"We were doing this long before Gates and we will do it after Gates," he said.

Bearison, 50, joined the district shortly before the district landed the Gates grant, using her background in nursing to land a part-time job teaching nursing assistants at Bloomingdale High School.

She earned a satisfactory rating from her principal, she said. Wanting something full-time, she applied at McLane in Brandon to teach health sciences, a vocational elective.

Oliver, 59, hired her.

It was the second year at McLane for Oliver, who had been an athletic director and vice principal of several high schools.

"McLane is a tough school, has been a tough school, and we've put things together where the culture has changed," Oliver said at the hearing.

State data show McLane had 33 percent more crime and violence than the district middle school average in 2008-2009. Other statistics suggest Oliver, once nicknamed "The Hammer," made a difference. A 2009 survey showed 26 percent of students felt safe at McLane. That number was 71 in 2010.

But it was an adjustment after Bloomingdale, where Bearison said she never saw a fight. At McLane there were two in her classroom in September, she said.

Administrators cited other problems too: Kids roaming the halls, playing music or talking on phones in class, and not getting a full 50 minutes of instruction. Bearison said these allegations were exaggerated, and that no one ever observed a full class.

She said the problems were almost entirely with her 6th graders, who sampled her elective in a system known as "the wheel."

Advised to go for training, she enrolled in programs through the district. Trainers helped her write class rules and arrange her seats to maintain eye contact.

A printout of test scores shows her students performed 12 points above the district average. She has letters of support from supervisors in the district's career and technical education department.

The peer evaluators who were sent under the Gates system, while critical, offered helpful suggestions that she followed, she said. A March report listed her as "developing" in most areas, better than the "requires action" marks she'd had before.

By then, Oliver had started the nonrenomination process. Memos by Oliver and his staff say Bearison's class remained noisy and unruly, with too much wasted time.

"I've had a lot of requests from parents that students be taken out of her class," Oliver said at the hearing. "Things are just totally disruptive, things have become dangerous. ... It's a constant thing that we have to go there."

Bearison said she knew of no requests to move children from her class. She acknowledged her file looks terrible, but said it amounted to a smear campaign.

"There are so many inaccuracies, misrepresentations and half truths that it makes me look like an idiot," she told the panel. "And if this employee file was true, I would not be here today trying to defend myself."

Sure, she said, she sometimes returns confiscated cell phones at the end of class. But so do a lot of teachers, in case the kids need to call their parents after school.

Did an administrator see her students toss a tennis ball back and forth? He did, she wrote in a letter to the principal. "I was using the 'Kagan strategy' to engage the students to ask a question on a medical issue when they caught the ball."

If students are often out of their seats, she said, it's because hers is a hands-on curriculum that has them moving around the room to examine medical displays and learn about first aid. Did a parent complain about a child who was hit in the head? Maybe, she responded in a letter. But that injury happened in physical education, the class before hers.

There was a dispute over whether Bearison was given a "buddy teacher," or in-school mentor. Oliver named one such mentor at the hearing. A memo from the assistant principal names another. Bearison said neither of them helped her.

"Back in October, they knew they were getting rid of me," she said. "And they spent their year trying to build their case against me while I spent the year getting better, more confident, improving."

She remarked later on the power principals have when a teacher does not have tenure.

"To trash my career," she said. "When I have done nothing illegal, nothing immoral and nothing unethical. I crossed no boundaries. This might not be the right school for me. It is not a good fit with me in that administration. But I did nothing wrong, to be fired."

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Under Gates, new teachers are given mentors who work more closely with them than the peer observers who go to seasoned teachers.

"We want it to be a developmental evaluation system," said David Steele, who oversees the Gates project. "We want the support piece to be ingrained in it."

Because of Bearison's year at Bloomingdale, she said the district did not consider her new enough for a mentor. Starting next year, Steele said, first- and second-year teachers will get mentors.

Any dismissal or nonrenomination can be painful, he said. As a principal, he sometimes advised struggling teachers to try a different subject or age group.

But "there are some people in teaching who are better off in another profession," he said. "And we will be counseling some people about that."

Usually the panel upholds the principal's recommendation instead of overturning it.

They have a third option: a transfer to another school. And that's what they decided for Bearison.

"I feel vindicated," she said, not knowing where she will go after she winds up her year at McLane.

"Right now I want to finish up the next two weeks."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or sokol@sptimes.com.

Fit to teach? Here's a rare look at a teacher defending her job 05/30/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 31, 2011 8:17am]

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