Removing Underperforming Teachers: Navigating Dilemmas and Challenges

Barbara Gereboff

Heads of school know that outstanding teachers in every class is a hallmark of excellent institutions, yet most of us have kept on, or inherited, staff who are not outstanding. Sometimes, we find ourselves defending a subpar teacher even as we know that they are not performing to the level that would be a standard in the industry.

We may have several very good motivations for retaining these teachers. Sometimes they are highly entrenched in the school community; they are the ones who always make a cute card for other people’s birthdays or are frequent guests at a family’s personal events. We see sparks of goodness amidst the qualities that are not so wonderful. Perhaps we think that under a previous administration they did not perform well because of poor morale. We hope that under our direction that will change.

Sometimes our defense of these teachers revolves around a desire not to be perceived as being influenced by parental pressure. Other times, we fear the inevitable legal wrangling that happens all too often in this business. Justifiably we fear a decline in morale when a colleague is asked to leave. Even when many staff members complain about a poorly performing peer, they will often rally around this person when the person’s job is in jeopardy.

The ethical dilemma derives from our very real belief in the dignity of all and our desire to refrain from putting this teacher and his or her family at risk by losing a job. The other side of the issue is the dignity of each child and the health of our school. Ultimately, the latter concerns should guide our actions, since our primary responsibilities rest with the school and the students. We can and should make attempts to mitigate the teacher’s loss, but each child in our charge stands to be greatly damaged by retaining an underperforming teacher. We jeopardize enrollment and fundraising efforts as well if we fail to appropriately staff our schools.

So how do we decide which teachers need to be coached to a better place and which need to be asked to leave? Todd Whitaker (Dealing with Difficult Teachers) classifies teachers as superstars, backbones and mediocres. He notes that superstars are somewhat rare, backbones make up the majority and need continuous coaching and mediocres are the ones that need to be removed. I would argue that in a Jewish day school, we cannot afford to give our children less than superstar teachers. They are indeed the essence of an excellent educational institution. We need to coach our “backbones” to superstardom and if they cannot get close to that, then we may ultimately need to coach them out of the school.

Superstars are not all cut from the same cloth. Each teacher may have strengths in particular areas and varying and even quirky characteristics. But in addition to pedagogic knowledge and ability, all teachers must embrace the concept of each person created betzelem Elokim. The dignity and deep regard of the students, their parents and all members of the community must be observable as a core value of every teacher. Additionally, each must score high on the following standards: a strong work ethic, enthusiasm for their own learning as well as that of each of their students, a well developed reflective practice, superb interpersonal skills, outstanding communication skills and a positive outlook. This list looks quite different from the one that we often use to evaluate staff, but these are the very qualities that schools that focus on character as much as on content knowledge need to embrace. If we really want to teach children the concept of betzelem Elokim, then this needs to be their lived experience with each of their teachers.

When measuring each staff member (this pertains to more than teachers) against these standards, one needs to take stock of staff members who may have become negative or disgruntled during the uncertainty of leadership change in an institution. We do need to give them the chance to turn themselves around (teshuvah), but if there is no movement on the core values listed above, we need to begin the process of moving them out of our school.

Every step along the way in this process presents further dilemmas. We must meet with the teacher early to begin a formative process to present our observations. But these meetings will inevitably change the dynamic of the relationship. While we want to maintain a warm welcoming relationship, we need to remember that these conversations need to describe observations that are not positive. We should include a written document with the information that we’re sharing, and the presence of a document that we want signed will change the dynamic of the relationship.

Generally, the teacher in this situation will argue or try to justify his or her behavior. The teacher should write reactions on the document that you’ve provided and/or email you a response. In the event that the teacher refuses to sign the document, the written responses to yours will serve as an adequate record that he or she was presented with performance information from you. There should be subsequent meetings to chart progress or lack thereof.

If there has been little or no progress, than the conversation needs to shift to counseling out. The most positive outcome is the teacher deciding on his or her own that he or she will leave at the end of the year. To maintain the person’s dignity, the head of school may give the teacher time to interview elsewhere. The next outcome, which is where the rest of our dismissals should fall, is that the staff person does not agree with your assessment but knows that the process of remediation and documentation was fair and universally applied. In this situation, the head of school may be able to maintain a mentoring relationship whereby the teacher is coached into a more suitable job somewhere else.

Mentoring a staff member into a more suitable setting presents an interesting opportunity. In this case, the head of school has determined that the person is not suitable for the school, but may be able to brainstorm with the teacher some career options that might be more suitable. It could be the case that the teacher is gifted in one-on-one tutoring but is not effective in a classroom. Or the teacher may have valuable talent or skills (in technology, web design, the arts, writing, for example) that could be parlayed into a career. If these efforts are successful, this could be a win-win for the school and for the teacher.

The worst outcome is the staff person who thinks he or she has been wronged and attempts legal action, perhaps engaging in some sort of negative campaign. At this point (or earlier if the head anticipates this), the head needs to contact the school’s insurance carrier and a labor attorney. The board of trustees should also be alerted. In this scenario, the fair and well documented process will protect you and the school, and the goodwill that the head has cultivated among the school leaders (parents, teachers and board members) will assist you in combating any derogatory messages.

Removing staff members is probably the most disliked task of any school head, and the task for which most of us receive the least training. But it is a necessary part of the job, and it is one of the key factors in the success of great schools. Understanding the task within the context of an ethical dilemma of the countervailing needs of employees and children helps us navigate these waters.♦

Dr. Barbara Gereboff is Head of School at Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School in Foster City, California. She can be reached at

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HaYidion Ethics Autumn 2011
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