Friday, May 20, 2016

Advice for Superintendents

This is for the superintendents out there who are concerned about the bad teachers on their staff, the superintendents who are afraid that they are either awash in a sea of incompetence or watching the rising tide or terror that comes from a few bad apples spreading their blasting blight through the district barrel. For those of you who are worried that you have some teachers who just aren't doing the job, here's some simple advice.

Fire them.

Seriously, I feel some days that superintendents have simply forgotten that they have some powers with their job, that they feel helpless in the face of terrible, terrible teaching. So to those of you in these dire straits, I want to remind you what you can do.

You can fire them.

You do remember that, right? You have the power to fire incompetent teachers.

Yes, yes, I know. It would be hard. You would have to fill out papers, and probably have meetings and somebody might even object and make you explain yourself. You might have to actually prove that the teacher really is incompetent and not merely annoying or irritating or refusing to play a board member's kid on first string.

But you can do that, right? Provide proof that the teacher is actually incompetent? You went to superintendent school and took Filling Out Superintendent Paperwork 101?

Hell, in some states, it's not even that hard any more. Just stack the offending teacher's classes so that the test scores will come back just the way you want them. Boom! You have your "proof" that the teacher sucks.

Document. Collect information. Observe. Hell, even attempt remediation if you like. And then.

Fire them.

I repeat this because to hear some superintendents talk, you would think they were expressly forbidden to fire anybody ever. They need their state to pass new laws, to scrap tenure or seniority or both because, somehow, they believe they have no power to fire bad teachers. So I want to remind you-- you totally have that power. Hell, I've watched some of you use it. So if there are bad teachers in your district,

Fire them.

Now, maybe what you really mean is that you want to be able to fire them easily. Just a wave of your hand and some teacher that has been a pain in your butt will just vanish. Maybe you imagined that being a superintendent would look more like being the CEO of some major corporation and you could just snap your fingers and people who irritate you would vanish without so much as a peep and you wouldn't have to explain anything to anyone. Well, that's not your job. You answer to elected officials and you spend tax dollars and the public is entitled to know why you do things and whether or not you are pursuing the best interests of the public or whether you just axed Mrs. DeWhipsnot because you'll be damned if you'll have One of Those on your staff.

I know it sucks. Hell, I was hoping that being a teacher would be more like being a rich, famous rock star. Looks like we both missed out.

But if you want to get rid of a bad teacher, senior or not, just do your homework. Collect the paperwork. Build your case. Do your homework. Do your job. And then, once you've done your job, well, then-

Fire them.

Yes, I know in some districts (particularly the big urban ones) the hoops you have to jump through are considerable. I blame your board which negotiated a bad contract in the first place. But this is your job. This is why you get the big bucks. And really-- are you saying that you should be able to fire a bad teacher without being able to substantiate the charge that she's a bad teacher? You should be able to fire her just because you want to and you say so? Think back to some of the people you worked for early in your career. Heck, think about some of the building principals who work for you right now. Does the "because I say so" approach really sound like a good idea?

And yes, you could just rank your teachers and always furlough the bottom of the stack every time the state cuts your budget. I suppose it's easier than actually pressuring the state to fully fund your school. But how will you ever recruit and build a staff? Yes, young teachers will initially think, "This is great. I won't have to worry about losing my job in the first few years that I'm least senior." But eventually it will dawn on them that they will have to worry about their jobs in that same youngest teacher way for the rest of their entire careers-- particularly when we're using a teacher ranking system no more reliable than the roll of the dice.

So sure, we could come up with some new set of laws that would upend the profession and incite thunderdome amongst the staff and make life really easy for the poor, beleaguered superintendent.

Or, when you determine in your considered professional superintendenty opinion that a teacher is incompetent, you could collect the data, do your job and then--

You could fire them.And if you didn't want to do the work to fire them, you could stop whining about it.


  1. Right on! I am so sick of hearing about how the "bad" unions are protecting "bad" teachers. 25 years ago, I was a lowly department chair who inherited a BAD teacher. He had been at the school longer than I had...and everyone from parents to the administration to the kids to the custodians knew he didn't belong in the profession. When parents came in to complain, the principal transferred their kids out of his class instead of facing the issue. Why? Because he was the union rep! Once I became department chair, I started the "due process." It took two and a half years, and no, it wasn't pleasant. But I'm proud to say I did my job because his students were more important. If it takes a superintendent to do the same thing now, then so be it...that's why they get the big bucks...not to wring their hands and say "Oh my, I can't do that because of the unions." Baloney!

  2. Behind every truly inept teacher stands an administrator who vetted a pool of candidates, then hired "him", observed him, evaluated him, tenured him, then ignored him. Never blame the truly "bad" teacher, they certainly won't fire themselves.

    1. It seems to me that blaming an administrator who tenured a teacher perhaps 50 years ago is to blame because the teacher is now not fit to teach. This comes up all the time in post secondary education with the end of mandatory retirement.

    2. Huh? TE, I think the rules regarding post secondary (college/university) tenure are quite different than for K-12 public schools. Blaming our unions for protecting "bad" teachers is simply wrong-headed, yet it is a long running meme.

      My point is to include principals to the mix of school managers that are definitely the ones to point fingers at - not the teacher unions. Principals tend to be non-confrontational and non-supportive when it comes to truly "bad" teachers - often nice people that are clearly in the wrong line of work. Most principals I have worked with will move a "bad" teacher into a classroom assignment where they can do the least harm, rather than go through the hard work of documenting and dismissing. Fortunately for students, most really bad teachers get out on their own. Teaching is not a casual line of work and if you can't manage a classroom of kids, your day to day work life can become a living hell. The bottom line is that, like virtually every other work place, schools are filled with most very ood to competent teachers, a small hand full of truly excellent teachers, and a very, very, very, small number of truly damaging, incompetent teachers. The people that continually harp about bad teachers do so thanks to selective memory. In the K-12 school experience, you might have had 50 or more different teachers. People tend to remember the on bad teacher over the rest. Imagine if you had 50 different dentists; which one do you think you would remember?

    3. Wow, a teacher that has been teaching for 50 years and is no longer fit to teach? 50 years?

    4. The tenure rules do differ in post secondary education. For example, financial need is a reason a college or university can dismiss a tenured professor, and seniority can be ignored in deciding who stays and who goes.

      You might well want to include principles into the mix, but saying that a teacher should not have been granted tenure is to ignore the fact that people change over the decades.

      One interesting point you make is that teachers who are poor managers of the classroom are unlikely to continue to teach, but isn't that just one of the possible ways a teacher could fail their students? Would the teacher who does a great job at classroom management, but does not actually do a good job of teaching students, also be likely to leave on their own?