My high school chorus teacher, Tony Bethea, always used to tell us to “remember who you are and what you represent.” That task has never been hard for me. Since age seventeen I have dedicated my life to the practice of education. This year marks my eleventh as a teacher in North Carolina. I hold a master’s degree and have pursued continual professional development, both at home and abroad. Since coming to Durham, I have also held leadership roles including Lead Theatre Teacher for DPS, Vice President of the North Carolina Theatre Arts Educators, and NC A+ Schools Fellow. In short, I am a highly qualified educator with a clear record of dedication and professionalism.
On Friday August 28th, 2015 I was pulled from my classes without warning and told that the school board had not approved my contract. After having taught in DPS for nearly four years, and teaching nearly a full week of classes at Riverside this year, I was told that I had to leave my job, no reason would be given to me, and I should not apply for a position in DPS again. When I received my personnel file from HR, there was not a single negative statement in it that would offer an explanation for my not being rehired.
That’s where the Durham Association of Educators stepped in. Multiple concerned friends and colleagues, who are also DAE members, put me in touch with DAE President Bryan Proffitt, who listened to my story and promptly agreed to help me to organize a response. A week later, a dozen or so friends, colleagues, former students, and concerned community members gathered together at the public library to develop a strategy. Bolstered by Bryan’s organizing experience and encouragement, these individuals became “The Team” and served as my sounding board and ground troops in the work ahead.
In less than a week, an online petition at Change.org asking for the reinstatement of my job and due process for all educators in my situation had garnered over 500 signatures and many affirming comments from supportive community members. I knew then that I wasn’t alone in this fight and that we were on the right track.
In the several weeks that Durham Public Schools remained unresponsive to my requests for more information and due process, members of The Team worked behind-the-scenes gathering information and helping me remain positive and committed to receiving answers and fair treatment. Without the support of all of these individuals, especially Bryan’s reaching out to the Superintendent, I highly doubt that I would have ever been given an explanation as to why I was forced to leave my job.
On September 24th—nearly a month after being dismissed—I was invited to voice my concerns directly to Superintendent L’Homme, who informed me that he would have a new recommendation about my hiring to take to the School Board within the next week.
In the meantime, members of The Team, along with several former students and parents, took the issue to the Board of Education and filled the open comments portion of the September meeting. For nearly half-an-hour, speaker after speaker offered personal comments affirming my character and my skills as an educator. The board was also made aware of the confusion and worry that spread among DPS teachers as they feared something like this could happen to them, despite the due process protections that the Board instituted locally after the NC General Assembly eliminated them state-wide. Together, we urged the board to examine the potential gray areas in the current policies and create additional guarantees that will provide transparency and due process for all teachers. The combined power of our voice resonated throughout the room, and left our spirits high with the feeling that we had really made a difference. A half-page article in the Durham Herald-Sun the following week confirmed our power and brought our cause to a wider audience.
Thanks to the hard work and bravery of a lot of colleagues, parents, students, friends, and family, I returned to work as theatre tech director at Riverside High School on Wednesday, October 7th.
This is a true moral victory for DAE and for each and every individual who added their voice to the effort. I am deeply grateful for the community, without whom this would never have been possible. As Bryan texted me during the ordeal, “Organizing, it seems, works.”
All that said, I am not ashamed to say that the decision to return to the classroom in Durham Public Schools was not an easy one. I still feel trepidation about re-entering a system that has such capability for undocumented action against teachers. I am choosing to live with this uncertainty because my desire to be a teacher and to make a difference in this community is greater than my fears.
There is still much work to be done. I now have to contend with the effects that six weeks without a qualified theatre teacher have had on my students. Members of The Team and other educators are still worried about potential backlash and other less-than-transparent decisions within our school system. This is why I will continue to advocate for change from within the system as a concerned educator and DAE member. As a teacher who cares first and foremost about the success of my students, I would never invest energy in keeping unfit teachers in the classroom, and I know DAE wouldn’t either. But I do believe, like DAE does, in fighting for fairness. All educators should have the opportunity to hear concerns about their performance and to get support and a chance to improve before any action removes them from their chosen vocation.
In the end, this fight is not just about me. I now understand how the personal is political, and how our power comes from working together. I encourage all teachers to vote wisely, join their local union, to listen to their gut when they feel that something isn’t right… and seek out others who feel the same. Together, we are better and stronger than any one of us could ever be.
Tom Nevels is Theatre Tech Director at Riverside High School and a proud new member of the Durham Association of Educators.