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Five Tools to Improve Teacher Performance

Thanks to its partnership with publisher Eye on Education, EducationWorld is pleased to present this tip from What Great Principals Do Differently: Eighteen Things That Matter Most, by Todd Whitaker. This article identifies the qualities and practices that distinguish great principals and provides five tools that school leaders can use to improve teacher performance in the classroom, and deal with negative or ineffective teachers.

As principal, it's your job to improve teacher performance in the classroom. As we have seen, this takes time. The principal’s toolbox contains many options, from walkthroughs and performance feedback sheets to mobile device reporting printouts and so on. Many of these look like attempts to mandate effectiveness, which of course we know is not possible. But we do know that improving performance depends on regular classroom visits. Let’s take a look at the basics of what that means.

Out from Behind the Desk
Consider what happens when a teacher tends to sit behind the desk most of the time. For the first week of school, the students still behave fairly well. Kids haven’t figured out the dynamic of the classroom yet. However, the honeymoon usually doesn’t last. By the end of the first month, many of the students in the back third of the room have begun to take advantage of their location. By Halloween, behavior in the back two-thirds of the classroom has slipped. And by midyear, none of the students is fully engaged. By staying behind the desk, the teacher has lost their attention.

The same thing can happen with the adults in our schools when the principal isn’t “out and about.” For the first week of school, all of the teachers do their best. But if a month goes by without our dropping in for classroom visits, some teachers may slack off a bit. If we don’t establish a pattern of informal observation and support, by Halloween the energy level in many classrooms will have flagged. And by January, believe it or not, even the very best teachers may no longer be at the peak of their game.

The Walkthrough
Think of it this way. Which teachers are most comfortable when a principal comes into their classroom? The best ones. Which are least comfortable? The worst ones. Effective teachers love it when the principal drops in regularly, while their less effective colleagues would just as soon be left alone. Remember, we want to make our good teachers comfortable, and we want to make the others uncomfortable so that they will change.

Not every visit needs to be an occasion for assessing performance. Part of the purpose is to build a relationship of trust and respect. Another part is to visit so often that the principal becomes “a piece of the furniture” and is able to drop in without everyone snapping to attention.

Nicely Done
Rather than using a structured checklist, the principal might take a more informal and personal approach to supporting professional growth. You might catch a teacher standing in the cafeteria later that day, or stop back by the classroom after school for a quick chat. You may want to write a short note or send an email highlighting a specific technique or approach you appreciate.

Of course, we should never deliver in writing what might be perceived as bad news. If a situation involves suggestions for change, we need to handle it with care, and email is not the best medium for communicating nuances, even to someone we know well. Good coaches know that “constructive criticism” can seem like just plain criticism. All principals are aware that summative testing of students has its limitations, especially when a more formative approach is really needed. The same applies to performance feedback for adults. We certainly don’t want to damage a relationship that can be very difficult to repair.

There Isn't Anyone Else
Faced with an ineffective employee, we often hope that eventually they will just “get it.” However, the ones who could figure it out on their own have probably already done so. We may wish a negative teacher would attend a “Make Me a Great Teacher” revival over the weekend. However, even if they do, come Monday, it never seems to stick. Recognizing the presence of a domineering staff member, we may wait for a peer to stand up and blunt the negativity. We might see that happen, one or more times, but then we see the “bully” simply find someone else to intimidate.

Just as the classroom teacher must intervene to stop unwanted behavior among students, the school leader must effectively address negativity among adults in the building. It really is up to us. We must find a way to change their behavior—or their employment status. Great principals know full well that their primary obligation is to the students in the school, not the adults.

"Avoid" is Not a Strategy
When I conduct leadership workshops on this issue, I ask participants to reflect on what they are currently doing to deal with their least productive staff members. Consistently, they discover that their most common “strategy” is avoidance. They avoid dealing with them, avoid giving them responsibilities, avoid interacting with them—the list goes on. Then I ask how well that approach is working. Nobody has ever convincingly reported that the problem has melted away. Clearly, “avoid” is not a strategy!

If we do nothing to intervene, our job never gets any easier. Instead of providing proactive leadership, we are forced into the reactive mode of trying to repair the damage. This consumes time and energy that we should be spending on school improvement. It is unfair to other staff members and to the students under our charge.

One of my favorite quotes comes from John Wayne. He said, “Courage is being scared to death—but saddling up anyway.” Faced with negative and ineffective staff members, great principals saddle up. They do it for the morale of the caring and competent teachers. Even more importantly, they do it for the students. They are determined to ensure that all students and teachers have the positive experiences they deserve.


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