The Advice Booth: Supporting a Struggling Teacher
I have a teacher I’m concerned about for next year. I believe he’s capable of being a good teacher, but if he doesn’t improve soon, I’m not sure I’ll be able to keep him another year. He wants to do well, but sometimes he can’t even see the problems in his classroom. It’s so hard to find good teachers, and lots of turnover is both expensive and bad for morale. At the same time, parents are starting to complain and other teachers are taking notice. What can I do to set this teacher up for success next year without compromising the quality of student learning?
This is a difficult question, and you’re right that it is a critical one. It also sounds like you have taken the first important step by acknowledging that there is an issue here with this teacher’s performance. Now that you recognize the problem, there are a few ways you can respond.
You could pretend that it’s not a problem, maybe blame the complaints on some other factor and sweep it under the rug. Based on the fact that you’ve written for advice, it’s clear that some action needs to happen. Teacher quality is one of the most important factors in student learning. In fact, collective teacher efficacy—the collective belief of teachers in their ability to positively affect students—has been shown to be strongly, positively correlated to student achievement, which tells me that you are right to be concerned about the impact one teacher can have on his peers and his students. Ignore and deny are clearly not options.
You could simply let the teacher go. This could send a strong message to parents and fellow teachers about your high standards for teacher performance. Letting the community know that you demand excellence could boost parents’ confidence in their decision to send their children to your school. It will also send the message to other teachers that poor performance will not be tolerated. On the other hand, such volatility can contribute to a culture of fear and anxiety. A revolving door of teachers can undermine the stability that parents seek for their children. Furthermore, if teachers perceive that they could be released without opportunity for improvement, it could seriously undermine the trust and transparency that is so critical to a constructive school culture.
If you’re not going to ignore the issue, and you’d like to avoid immediate dismissal, the only thing left to do is to confront the problem head-on.
The first thing you need to do is to initiate an open and honest conversation with the teacher—right now. Even if it’s summer break, call the teacher in to have this conversation. Don’t let it wait until the fall. Open this conversation by naming the concern directly. You can use the prompt, “I have a concern about your performance.” When describing the concern, it’s important to ground it in relation to your school’s shared vision of good teaching: an explicit understanding of what good teaching looks like in your school. Be clear that you are calling out this concern because you want to work together to help bridge the gap between his performance and your expectations. Make sure to leave space for the teacher to respond. When he does, shut up and listen! You want to make it really clear that you value what this teacher brings and you are committed to supporting him.
If you don’t already have a shared vision of good teaching in place, the Teacher Learning Toolkit, a project of the Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis University, has a module on Creating a Shared Vision of Good Teaching. You can visit teacherlearningproject.com to create a free account and access this resource.
Now that you’ve confronted the problem, make a plan. Begin with a goal. SMART goals are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound. Then identify the supports that you will put in place. Will you make regular visits to his classroom, with meetings to debrief your observations? Are there other teachers in the building that he can observe?
You mentioned that “sometimes he can’t even see the problems in his classroom.” This may be a good opportunity to use video in the classroom. Ask the teacher to record one lesson per week, and then watch the video together. It’s easy to dismiss your observations when you debrief a classroom observation, but you can’t disagree with what you see. Perhaps this is an opportunity to create a peer coaching cohort of teachers using video to reflect on and improve instruction. This can go a long way to support the culture of teachers working together to improve their practice.
If you are genuinely committed to supporting this teacher’s improvement, the plan is going to require time and attention from you. Of course you are already stretched thin, but you are going to need to make this a priority in order to impact this teacher’s performance. Whether that means blocking time in your schedule to visit the teacher’s classroom or set meetings with him, you will have to figure out a way to make it happen.
Make sure that your plan includes frequent check-ins and touchpoints. This will allow you to monitor the teacher’s progress to determine early on if the trajectory looks promising or not. Remember, you may have to make a tough call later in the year. If you remain honest and transparent, it’s more likely that you will be able to have that difficult conversation without catastrophic impact to your school culture, or your conscience.