Dealing With Underperforming Teachers and Other School Employees
Jun 28, 2015 Other 2026 Views
How exactly are we supposed to handle a school employee who isn't doing the job?
Before answering the question, let me ask you to recognize the distinction between underperforming employees and those who might be misbehaving. There's a big difference. Here, I will be talking only of employees who are falling short on their performance, not those who might be breaking school rules, school committee policies, or the law.
In my decision-making, students always come first. They deserve the best instruction and support systems the district can provide. At the same time, I recognize that schools are staffed by human beings, and not by machines that can be easily replaced if a defective part is discovered. Decisions about an employee's career must be made with the utmost care, professionalism, and fairness.
That doesn't mean you should go easy on underperformers. Not at all. Good administrators must face the issues of underperformance head-on. Other employees expect it. Unions expect it. And students who want to be taught and inspired by the very best educators, families who entrust their children's well-being and futures to the school, and the communities which support the school with tax dollars deserve no less.
Every school district is different, with its own set of cultural norms and traditions so supervisors might need to alter their approach somewhat from one district to another. But I think the same guiding principles apply everywhere.
Here's how I generally would handle an underperforming employee:
1. Take Action. First and foremost, administrators cannot ignore the problem, hoping it will go away. It almost never does. Ignoring employees who are poor performers hurts students, is corrosive to the school atmosphere, and hurts morale. Administrators simply must take action when they have evidence that an employee is failing to do the job. In my experience, adult behavior rarely changes without active intervention.
2. Know What's Expected. Administrators must know what the district expects of its employees. Usually, that means being familiar with Job Descriptions, the Faculty/Staff Handbook, union contracts, and the evaluation system you are using. For the Superintendent, it means making sure that every administrator with supervisory responsibility fully understands what is expected of employees - and of them.
3. Follow the Rules. I always use the contract, the law, and School Committee policies - as well as simple fairness and common decency - as my guides. And I apply these to everyone. I would consult with district counsel if a question arises at any point along the way. One quick call could save many headaches later.
4. Tell the Employee What's Wrong. Underperforming employees need to know where their performance is coming up short. In many cases, they simply don't know. Prior supervisors may have overlooked their shortcomings - or simply failed to tell them. So I must. Depending on the employee, I might point to letters filled with spelling errors, failing student test scores or completion rates, poor or missing lesson plans, or classroom observations where I witnessed students being inattentive, disruptive, or sleeping. Whatever the problem, I would inform the employee in plain, respectful language.
5. Bring In the Union. No two unions are alike. And no two contracts are alike. But I have found that involving the union early in cases where employees are not performing is of great benefit and can head off bigger problems later. Union leaders want their members to be treated fairly and professionally, in line with the contract. Having the union take part early ensures a fair process - and no surprises later on.
6. Document, Document, Document. It is often said that: "Unless it's in writing, it doesn't exist." In personnel matters, this is especially true. Supervisors need to document all classroom observations, meetings, warnings, reprimands, suspensions, improvement plans, and the like. Failing to do so puts the district at tremendous financial risk in the event that a major personnel action is brought to arbitration.
7. Jointly Build, Monitor, and Stick to an Improvement Plan. Underperforming employees need a fair opportunity to improve. Working with the employee, I would fashion an Improvement Plan that addresses the problem, provides adequate supports to assist the employee, and includes a reasonable timeline consistent with the contract. I would inform the employee of the consequences if performance doesn't improve. Once a Plan is in place, I would monitor the employee's progress and hold the employee accountable for meeting the benchmarks and deadlines. If I ultimately decided to terminate the employee, that decision would have solid written backup, and it would come as no surprise to the employee or the union.
8. Keep It Professional. To ensure that the process is fair, I follow the contract step by step. But the staff wants more than technical, procedural fairness. Employees want to feel that their colleagues, even those who are underperforming, are treated with the utmost fairness, professionalism, and respect. I'm always mindful of this and act accordingly.
In summary, administrators need to address - not ignore - employees who are underperforming. We need to give employees fair notice of how their performance is lacking, work with the employee to develop an Improvement Plan that addresses the employee's specific shortcomings, provide adequate supports to implement the Plan, and give the employee a reasonable period of time in which to carry out that Plan. We need to carry out our duties in a manner that is respectful and professional and fair.