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Teacher of the year rewarded with pink slip

Three weeks ago, I was selected as teacher of the year at my school. The following week, I was told — because of budget cuts — I no longer have a position there.

I came to the Clark County School District in 2004 as a charter corps member for Teach for America in Las Vegas. My assignment was in an at-risk school with an extremely low-income student body. It was exactly the challenge I was looking for.

I was honored with my first teacher of the year award during my second year on the job. I decided to leave the school district after my third year to try a new opportunity in a charter school. I thought I could learn innovative and engaging techniques and continue to develop as a teacher. After spending two years at the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy, armed with a deeper knowledge of curriculum development and renewed awareness of what was possible from students, I returned to a new school within the Clark County district.

I was appointed grade-level chairman to facilitate data-driven discussions, and I participated in many school improvement efforts. After two years, I was once again honored with a teacher of the year award at the school. Five days after this, however, I was told that because of my recent hire date, there was no longer a position for me at the school. In Nevada, that’s how the system works — layoffs are determined by who has the least time in, not who makes the most difference in the classroom.

A roller coaster of emotions swirled through me in the ensuing days. I am losing my job. Students are losing an effective teacher, one who is at school way before the bell rings in the morning and well into the afternoon and evening. They are losing a teacher who gives up lunch to practice and produce plays that boost literacy skills and instill confidence in kids. Students will lose a teacher who has missed one day of work in seven years. The school is losing a voice for reform and innovation and a mentor to new teachers.

So what’s not being lost? Students will still have teachers who arrive and leave with the bell. They will still have teachers who aren’t helping kids demonstrate progress on tests. They will have teachers whose classrooms have the decorum of a circus or boxing ring. There will be teachers who do not agonize over an achievement gap that is staring them in the face every day. Those teachers will be there because they have always been there. Their jobs are protected simply because of the time they’ve spent in the building, not by the quality of the work they’ve done.

During tough economic times, certain concessions must be made. Some teachers may need to be cut. But not effective ones. The students and families want me to stay. My current principal wants me to stay. My colleagues want me to stay. The system says I must go. Lawmakers should do something to change the system.

Justin Brecht is a teacher at Mendoza Elementary School in Las Vegas.

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