Teaching is among the noblest of professions, that much is clear. Effective teachers are a commodity any society, school district, or neighborhood school would be wise to revere. We should heap praise on our best teachers, offer substantial financial remuneration, and carve giant statues of them to place in front of City Hall.
As principals, our responsibilities range far and wide, but right at the center is to inspire, motivate, and maximize the impact our teachers have on student learning. That is all well and good when the teachers conduct themselves with professionalism, utilize best practices in instruction, and keep their hands clean. But what happens when it all goes awry? How do we respond to substandard performance?
Inadequate performance in teaching is not always easy to define. Sure, sometimes a teacher earns national notoriety by having an affair with a student and sneaking off to have his baby in Acapulco with the money she siphoned from the soda machine sales, but those are special cases. Most teaching indiscretions are subtle. The trick for administrators is to identify the issue, then to grasp it head-on in the most appropriate manner. Let's have a look at the three layers of performance concerns:
Caught With the Pants Down
This one's easy: the teacher violates a law or is observed doing something so stupid it's hard to imagine anyone would do it -- until we read the newspaper and see that this isn't the first time someone's been this stupid, either. These folks need personnel discipline, and the course is clear-cut.
A Slip of the Lip
We're all entitled to a mess-up. Golfers call them mulligans. These are uncharacteristically bad moves: a frustrated teacher uses sarcasm in the classroom; a tired teacher omits an entire morning in her lesson plans; a harried teacher inadvertently checks out 25 copies of the wrong book and decides to just show a video instead while she pulls herself together; a confused teacher forgets it's Monday and spends the day at Sea World instead of in his sixth-grade classroom. Unless this becomes a weekly habit, all these folks need is a wake-up call and a little nudge back in the right direction.
The Silent Assassin
More likely than the isolated incidents that are listed above, however, are the common, repeated abrasions of Teacher Y outlined below. And, sadly, these situations repeat themselves far too often.
See if this sounds familiar: Teacher Y (as in, why does he still come to work?) arrives at school just a few seconds after the contracted start-time, but before the kids come in. The daily routine is filled with unimaginative lessons, perhaps scripted instruction with no ties to any specific learning outcomes, and dispassionate relationships with his students. There may even be times when the kids are working but the teacher is at his desk. Teacher Y sits with his colleagues at lunchtime, but only to complain a bit and to shovel some leftovers hurriedly. When he's invited to stay after school to discuss the results of the math assessment, he declines (again) and hurries off with a stack of papers to mark (with no helpful feedback, mind you).
The teachers complain about his lack of collaboration. The parents complain about his lack of communication. The students complain about his lack of personality. He complains about whatever the topic du jour may be. And the student achievement in his class is, well, it's okay. Nothing special, but nothing out of a Quentin Tarantino movie, either. You're the principal. What do you do?
Often, we do a lot. Okay, that's a lie, and you know it. We don't do much. We sit and close our eyes to it, with a grimace, yes, but still feeble and hapless. Technically, there's nothing Teacher Y is doing that qualifies as neglect of duty, that violates the teaching contract, or that would earn him a trip in the back of the sheriff's cruiser, cuffed and stuffed.
Morally, ethically, and realistically, though, Teacher Y is committing educational malpractice. We need to admit it: We have tons of research to support the best practices of instruction that he's ignoring; we have decades of qualitative and quantitative data to defend the cultivation of a nurturing classroom environment that he's disregarding; and we have reams of evidence to endorse the cultivation of true collaborative professional relationships that he's snubbing.
When will we take a stand against this malpractice? I say that time is now. Right now. If there are children in that classroom, or if there are going to be children in that classroom tomorrow, we have an obligation to provide the best possible learning environment -- and to insist upon excellence from those in the noblest of professions.
Like I wrote several hundred words ago, our responsibility as principals is to inspire, motivate, and maximize the impact of our teachers on student learning. We can't wait until the teacher's performance evaluation is due and then submit a blind-sided scorcher. That wouldn't be right, and it wouldn't help.
Instead, do this: Get courageous. Invite the teacher into your office to chat. Right now. Immediately, as in What are you waiting for? Find out what's going on. Share your concerns. Talk about the specifics of what you've observed in that classroom. Get Teacher Y to talk about what's going on. Discuss. Argue. Exchange ideas. Converse. Reason. Get a real row going. Only when it's out in the open can we even begin to put a dent in its shell of artificial harmony.
Then, and only then, we can tackle a solution together. Lay out the specifics. Create a plan. Enlist Teacher Y's suggestions and ideas. Isolate an approach that will inspire, motivate, and maximize the impact of this teacher on student learning. This is the noblest of professions were talking about -- it's worth that discomfort, that effort, and that openness. We can't shy away from our conscience.
Always strive to be a better you,
Article by Pete Hall
Copyright © 2008 Education World