By ALEX HOEFT & BECCA LOUX | Moonshine Ink

There was a steady drip of water leaking onto Emma Shaffer’s head as she taught her seventh grade class at Alder Creek Middle School.

It was Feb. 14, 2019 — Valentine’s Day — and a carnation one of her students had anonymously sent her rested in a trash-can-turned-vase, capturing water from a different leak from the ceiling. The carpet was soaked, as were the numerous towels the custodian had provided.

But her students were dry, so Shaffer trudged on, despite the urge to cry. Besides, she was looking forward to finishing out her second and final year as a probationary teacher for the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District and becoming tenured. Her formal reviews had been positive, she’d already joined some committees, and she says her students adored her.

The next day, determined for a better (or at least drier) outcome, Shaffer requested a different room until the leaks were addressed. Her morning classes settled in the library, where she was warm and dry, yet unaware that shortly after the lunch bell tolled, she would find herself without a job the following fall.

The call came: an innocent request that Shaffer come to the front office. She rushed her students off to lunch, prepped the library for afternoon classes, and, after arriving at the office, was directed to a small room.

“As soon as I walked in the room and saw the union rep, the principal, and the HR lady, I was like, I’m getting fired,” Shaffer said. “All they did was hand me a paper and said you need to sign this. I looked at it and said, ‘What is this?’ They’re like, ‘It’s a paper about non-reelection. You just need to sign it.’ So, I signed it and they left.”

THE IDES OF MARCH

The single sheet of paper, given to nine district teachers during February of this year, stated the following:

“Please be advised that, pursuant to Education Code 44929.21 (b) … the Governing Board of the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District has determined that you will not be reelected as a certified employee for the next school year, 2019-2020. Your employment with the District, therefore, will end at the conclusion of the 2018-2019 school year.”

Education Code 44929.21 (b), officialized statewide in 1987, essentially states that school districts can choose to let go of (non-reelect) a probationary teacher without reason or for “no cause,” and it must be done by March 15 of the teacher’s second school year; as of March 16, probationary teachers that remain are considered tenured, which Superintendent Chief Learning Officer Dr. Rob Leri points out makes it much more difficult to remove them from their position.

Locally, the looming date is publicized early and often to its new teachers, beginning with the new educator academy held before the start of each school year.

“I do an overview, an orientation personally with all the new educators,” Leri explained. “I say, ‘This may be a downer, [and] it’s not our intention to non-reelect anyone, but I do want to tell you that we do follow the state law and that you may be non-reelected before the end of your probationary period.’”

The intention is to hire highly successful teachers, echoed Joan Zappettini, director of human resources for the district.

“We do that through the process of application, and then interview, and then background,” she said. “But really, it’s a speed date. How well do you know anybody through those three things?”

If the speed date goes well for the applicant, he/she then enters two years of probation, which include formal and informal evaluations by principals (the decision-makers in tenuring teachers), mentorship, and other opportunities for review and support. Alignment with the six standards from the Commission on Teacher Credentialing are also considered for success.

“It starts from the beginning, from the time people are hired,” Zappettini continued. “If a week goes by or two weeks go by that I don’t talk to a principal, that’s unusual. We’re always working on things, always touching bases.”

For the district representatives Moonshine spoke with, this ongoing review process means one thing for probationary teachers: It shouldn’t be a surprise if they’re recommended for non-reelection.

SURPRISE PARTY

The thing is, it was a surprise for many of the teachers at the end of the 2018/19 school year. Not that the education code itself was fulfilled; but that they themselves were selected. Moonshine Ink spoke with five former TTUSD teachers who were recommended for non-reelection last school year, including Shaffer, an anonymous teacher, and three others who asked to remain off the record completely so as not to jeopardize future teaching opportunities, within the district or outside of it.

The news was delivered identically to these five teachers: a request during the school day to come to the front office; a small room in which sat a representative from the Tahoe Truckee Education Association (TTEA), the principal, and Zappettini; a brief statement sharing the teacher was being recommended for non-reelection; a form to be signed acknowledging this; and the departure of the principal and Zappettini.

The remaining commonality: shock for each.

“Up until the day the news was delivered, I had no clue that anything like that was going to happen,” said the anonymous former teacher, who had many years of teaching under his/her belt. “I had great evaluations. [But] it should always be in the back of your mind, this March 15 deadline. You’re not safe until March 16.”

SCHOOL DAZE: Emma Shaffer, a former probationary teacher with the TTUSD, said she enjoyed teaching at Alder Creek Middle School. Shaffer spent her spring 2018 on an ancient Egyptian STEM project with a class. Photo courtesy Emma Shaffer

If reviews are supposed to be telling for probationary teachers, Shaffer thought she was safe, too, despite the pressure of performing as a new teacher.

“I was nervous about the [reviews] because teaching is one of those professions where you walk on the job and you have the same job expectations as someone who’s been doing the job for 30 years,” she said.

Her first year on probation went well. Evaluations were done by her assistant principal, and the feedback was positive, especially her January 2018 reviews, after which the assistant principal told Shaffer there was exponential growth and Shaffer should be proud of herself.

Good reviews weren’t the teachers’ only defense; others accomplished different types of notable achievements (grants, awards, or potential new programs) and were still discontinued.

“If there’s consistent poor evaluation, poor feedback, that seems relatively straightforward,” Leri said. “But essentially, it’s underperforming or other factors [that are also part of the decision] … Emotionally, mentally, how do you necessarily document that? In some cases, you can, in some cases, the observation and experience of the principal comes into play to make those decisions.”

Leri has the opportunity to overturn recommendations should he feel it’s appropriate but has yet do to so; he made it clear he has the utmost trust in the district’s principals. He can’t foresee a situation in which he would overstep a principal’s decision (after all, he hired all but two of the current TTUSD principals, both of whom he also fully supports).

Zappettini credits the teachers’ surprise to an unwillingness to be reflective.

“As much as you might provide feedback, there are many times when people can’t hear feedback,” she said. “And when you’re emotional, when you’re caught up, it’s even harder. It’s easier to go to, ‘But I have all of these great qualities, so why is this?’ In reflecting and looking at the whole process, besides knowing it, I have confusion over why people can’t sit back and be reflective on why.”

THE CHOICE

Recommendation for non-reelection is the tip of the iceberg.

After the probationary teacher is made aware, and once the principal and Zappettini have left the room, the union representative steps in to offer a form of solace, “an option called resignation in lieu of non-reelection,” explained Jess DeLallo, president of the TTEA and teacher at Truckee Elementary. “This is an option where instead of saying that my district asked me not to come back, I chose to leave the district.”

The school district cannot legally present the option of resignation in lieu of non-reelection, and has the right to reject a teacher’s resignation (something Leri says he’s never seen and Zappettini witnessed twice in another district in what she described as extreme cases).

HEADQUARTERS: The TTUSD district offices are located close to three district schools, with Cold Stream Alternative offering classes in the building incorporated around the offices (which themselves were once a middle school) and using the still-active gymnasium there for school sports and activities. Photo by Wade Snider/Moonshine Ink

By remaining non-reelected, teachers’ names are public information and they must make future school districts aware of their non-reelection if asked. Alternatively, though the resignation option still means a departure from the district, the name of the teacher is not announced, and if future employers call the TTUSD for history, the district reports only the resignation decision.

Yet choosing resignation does have its downside. Some of the teachers recommended for non-reelection met with a teachers’ union lawyer, who explained that by resigning, the teachers waived all rights to go after the district for anything. From the teachers’ points-of-view, resignation is also a gag order.

“The condition of resigning is I don’t let it get out in the community what happened to me exactly as far as future job recommendations, so that’s why I have to be really careful,” the anonymous former teacher explained. “I know other teachers who have left and gone on, so they’re not necessarily looking for a new job, but I still am.”

THINK OF THE CHILDREN

To the district, the hinge upon which the aptitude of future teachers hangs is the students themselves.

“We have a year and a half to determine whether this teacher should receive tenure and the impact is huge if you make the wrong decision,” Leri said. “If you think about it, if you’re a 30-year career elementary teacher, that’s 25 kids a year, 750 over the course of your career, that could be significantly, negatively impacted. If you’re a secondary teacher, it could be as many as several thousand kids who are having to perhaps have a teacher who doesn’t meet standards or other issues.”

LABOR OF LESSONS: TTUSD Superintendent Chief Learning Officer Dr. Rob Leri is no stranger to making tough staffing choices, including the non-reelection of probationary teachers, which he and the district made clear to Moonshine Ink is done always with the students’ best interest in mind. Photo by Wade Snider/Moonshine Ink

This thought was reiterated by Kelli Twomey, coordinator of parent and community relations for the TTUSD.

“We have a vision, we have 13 belief statements,” Twomey said. “The number one belief statement is students are the focus of all our decisions. The board rules by that, that is their mantra, and Dr. Leri does, [too].”

Jason Flesock, previously a long-time charter school teacher and administrator in San Diego, got his tenure at the TTUSD as a North Tahoe High School chemistry teacher, and mostly agrees with Leri and the district that the expectations are clear and fair for the two-year probationary period. He knows it’s hard for teachers facing that decision, but he “also understand[s] that it is a right that a district has … It’s part of being a teacher in this state.”

Shaffer, along with the other unnamed teachers Moonshine spoke with, doesn’t feel Leri’s concern about students applies to her; she mentioned her bond with students multiple times, noting many letters from parents and students thanking her for teaching, including one that read, “If I had to write a description of what a good teacher is, it would look like Miss Shaffer.”

She’s still in touch with many of her former students, even teaching summer school in Truckee post-resignation. “I just care about them so much. I go to Truckee High football games and I get hugs and they sit down and tell me about their classes and who they danced with at the dance and [they say], ‘We miss you, Miss Shaffer, why aren’t you my teacher?’” Shaffer said. “I want to hug them back and tell them why, but I can’t. Because HR said I’m giving you this gift of being silent about it.”

“NONA REELECTA” AND THE NINE PROBATIONARY RECOMMENDATIONS

An ominous, anonymous email slid unceremoniously into the inboxes of probationary teachers in the district on Sept. 24. Subject line: “Greetings from the TTUSD Non-Reelection Fairy!”

The fairy, who’d signed off as “Nona Reelecta,” said he/she was an aide to probationary teachers “invested in seeing the culture of non-reelection become more transparent in the district.” Nona claimed that a third to half of probationary teachers are recommended for non-reelection each year (this is refuted by the TTUSD).

Leri quickly became aware of the message.

“Based on the inaccuracies and the concerns, we actually blocked that email address,” Leri told Moonshine Ink. “The [TTEA] president and I sent out a joint message to everyone who received it, saying we are the people you should ask if you have questions related to the non-reelection process.”

He further explained that the district places a significant investment in its probationary teachers, meaning there’s no incentive to release anyone.

In the last six years, a total of 19 teachers have been recommended for non-reelection in the TTUSD. Nine of those were from the 2018/19 school year from an original cohort of 42 new teachers; one of the nine decided against resigning, and chose to be non-reelected.

NO CAUSE

Leri gets that the no-cause reasoning is difficult to cope with, but his pro-argument considers the larger picture: “The cause component can be troublesome. If you go into specific causes, you have to defend those causes, and the intent of the law was to streamline this process when it had to be exercised.”

The California Teachers Association (CTA) doesn’t take a position on probationary status itself, but does have a policy regarding reasons. Jon Halvorsen, regional Uniserv staff with the CTA, shared the organization’s mindset that an “adequate” probationary period is necessary for new teachers, but that schools should be required to state a reason for recommending non-reelection so that the teacher may learn from mistakes.

That mindset falls in line with TTEA president DeLallo’s perspective; she explained that without a reason, teachers are left wondering about their deficiencies.

“… As an educator … we would never do that to a student,” she said. “We would always want to give them the opportunity to do better, and you have to know what was wrong in order to get better.”

Jonathan Mendick, information officer with the California Department of Education, declined to comment on the no-cause reasoning, stating in an email, “In general, the CDE is not in a position to comment on all Education Code — nor this specific personnel practice at the local public school district level.”

For many new teachers, anxiety comes in the form of knowing that following a non-reelection (or resigning in lieu of), they must start the probationary process anew. Shaffer is now under two more probationary years with the Sierra-Plumas Joint Unified School District, teaching fifth grade in Loyalton. She doesn’t want the TTUSD to think she’s out to get them, but she considers going on record with her experience to be the right thing.

“I want the district to know that people are watching and people are knowing what they’re up to,” she said. “I know they really want to have a good image, and if they want to, they’ll fix this and they’ll be more transparent … I don’t want anyone to be treated like I was treated. That’s really my ultimate goal.”

Even if non-reelection for no cause is legal, Shaffer said she doesn’t think it’s ethical.

The Non-Reelection Fairy agrees, though no new emails had been sent out as of press time. Moonshine itself received two physical letters, one of which held similar complaints to the fairy’s original emails, both anonymous and with the return address of Truckee High. There is no solid evidence that these were sent by the same person, though the original emails did mention reaching out to the local press.

Perhaps the fairy is just shy because Leri responded directly after the second email, sharing his disappointment at the person for not coming to him directly, as well as the correct number of teachers recommended for non-reelection: nine in 2019; none in 2018; four in 2017; and five in 2016. He attributed the number of recommendations in 2019 to the large size of the cohort.

“You still seem to be operating from the premise that there is a plan or conspiracy afoot to non-reelect or recommend non-reelection of some number of teachers for arbitrary or capricious reasons,” he wrote to the fairy. “While the law allows that no reason needs to be given, all recommendations for non-reelection were made by principals for sound reasons. That someone would be surprised is a concern that probably underlies a part of the reason for the recommendation.”

Leri said he feels pretty sure of who the person is, but didn’t want to speculate publicly.

 

Main Image Caption: FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS: California education code dictates that for a teacher’s probationary period, the first two years at a new school, even with other experience, that teachers can be recommended for non-reelection with no cause stated. It can be a stressful time until March 15 when teachers must receive notice of whether they’re being recommended, or entering tenured teacher status, which provides a lot more job security. Photo illustration by Wade Snider