Have a Few Bad Apples?
How do you confront underperforming teachers without stirring up controversy? Start with clear objectives, professional support, and honest communication.
Except for those educators who make headlines for outrageous behavior, when was the last time a teacher was terminated in your district? It’s a tough question to ask and a tough topic to talk about. Administrators looking for greater flexibility in dealing with underperforming teachers don’t want to be seen as anti-teacher or pro-firing. But let’s face it, with 70 percent of U.S. teachers covered by some sort of collective bargaining agreement and most gaining tenure in two to three years, educators from principals on up often feel their hands are tied when it comes to weeding out the few bad apples in the bunch.
While no one keeps meaningful statistics on this trend, the anecdotal evidence is overwhelming. Twenty years after the Illinois legislature passed provisions to improve the quality of teachers, in 1985, an investigation by the Small Newspaper Group revealed that an average of two out of 95,000 tenured teachers are dismissed each year for poor performance. Those fired for misconduct, which can include physical or sexual abuse of children, average five per year. And the average cost to fire a teacher? $219,000. It’s no wonder that in 18 years, 94 percent of Illinois school districts have never attempted to fire a tenured teacher.
There’s no shortage of passionate opinions about the pros and cons of tenure, teachers’ unions, or the myriad other issues surrounding teacher performance, but none of those help you in the day to day. So while you’re waiting for permission to revolutionize your district’s hiring and firing practices, try these tips that will focus your schools on finding and nurturing the best talent out there, starting right now.
Hire Smarter in the First Place
The desire to hire the very best candidates versus the need to put a live person in every classroom is a dilemma for districts around the country, especially those undergoing growth spurts. Principals at schools with burgeoning enrollments may balk, but hiring decisions should not be made in haste, says Phillip B. Wilson, vice president and general council of LRI Management Services, Inc, a firm that implements positive employee relations packages in union and nonunion environments.
“It’s difficult to hire well in shortage situations,” admits Wilson. “But it’s important not to get caught up in a desperation mentality and lower your standards. All you’re doing by compromising to solve the immediate problem is pushing that energy and effort further down [the line].”
While waiting for candidates who are a good fit, Wilson advises hiring full-time temporary teachers who have no immediate prospect for tenure and relying on retired educators and talented student teachers.
Offer Strong Support
At least some teacher performance issues can be traced to inadequate preparation and training, says Loren Ekroth, an interpersonal communications specialist who publishes a weekly e-zine called Better Conversations. These teachers often have full credentials in their specialty areas but have never learned to communicate that wealth of information to students in a way that encourages true learning or follows district guidelines.
Because few college education courses impart useful information about how to be an effective teacher, it’s up to school districts to identify best practices, adds Steve Peha, president of Teaching That Makes Sense, Inc.
Montgomery County (MD) Public Schools is one of a handful of districts that have successfully coupled professional development opportunities with performance standards that teachers must adhere to or risk being terminated (see story at right).
Challenge your most promising prospects
Best practices are just one way to support teachers in their quest to improve student performance, says John Mitchell, deputy director of the educational issues department of the American Federation of Teachers. New challenges for midcareer teachers can also keep educators motivated to help students learn, Mitchell says. “Schools need to work with the people they have and build their skills,” he says.
You may not be able to implement a bonus system for high performers without going to the board and the union, but you may be able to fund a summer education program for some of your most experienced and talented teachers. (You’ll find a number of exciting options on page 24.) But don’t leave it there, suggest they present their experiences to fellow teachers upon their return. It’s a great way to build the leadership skills your smartest teachers often crave.
Or group teachers into teams that work together to enhance curriculum in specific subject areas. A rotating chair will give all teachers an opportunity to lead and feel more connected to big-picture goals.
Have a clear vision
“Firing anybody is awful and a last resort,” says Peha. “Getting somebody out of your school does not have to mean firing them.”
Instead principals need to provide clear direction for their schools, offering strong leadership and a building-wide culture that is clear and understood by all staff members. Tenured teachers who don’t fit into that culture can then be subtly encouraged to transfer to a school that might be a better fit. In schools, says Peha, we tend to hire teachers to “teach” in the abstract. Instead, we should be hiring qualified educators to help children learn using the style and philosophy of the school. “If I hire someone to help students reach learning goals and to contribute to our school in a particular way, it’s easy for both employer and employee to determine whether or not the work has been done.”
Make Tenure a Goal, Not a Default
Once that hire is made, the tenure clock starts ticking. Even nonunion teachers in many districts get some sort of tenure in two to three years, an insufficient period of time to determine whether someone should get what can turn out to be lifetime employment, says Caprice Young, president and CEO of the California Charter Schools Association.
Other studies have found that a teacher’s performance during his first two years is a strong indicator of future performance, but that’s not the point. Whatever your feelings about tenure, no one should be pressured into giving it to a teacher they’re unsure about. If there are doubts about performance, lay them out clearly and communicate them with the teacher. Then revisit the tenure question the following year.
Hiring and firing is far from an exact science in education, or anywhere else for that matter. Communi-cation is your best friend. Be up-front about expectations, give teachers a chance to succeed, and intervene early if a teacher is not working out. “By the time a firing decision is made . . . it should not be a surprise to anyone,” says Wilson. He notes there is a fine line between supporting struggling teachers and gathering the documentation necessary to terminate them. “Life is yin and yang, and you have to be skilled at figuring out when to push or pull, motivate or start talking about discipline.” It’s always going to be a delicate balancing act, but it’s certainly one you can execute when you come at it with the right attitude. @
Matt Bolch, based in Atlanta, specializes in business and technology.