When a teacher’s behavior is erratic

Q: I’m an assistant principal, and one of the teachers I supervise is becoming a problem. He’s never been the most steady or organized teacher, but now he seems to have taken a nosedive. The kids go home and tell their parents that he can’t remember what he assigned, that he loses their papers and that he often seems dizzy in class. Sometimes a frightened child will come to the office for help because the teacher is so disoriented. Frankly, his erratic behavior has been unsettling for his colleagues, too. I’ve tried talking to him with no luck. He insists that he’s fine. The parent complaints are starting to pick up in frequency. They want to know what we plan to do about this situation, and why he’s still in the classroom. I’d like your opinion about how to proceed, please.

A: You’ve taken the first step, which is to talk to him. I don’t know what you said, or the tone of your message, or how often you’ve repeated yourself. However, since it hasn’t worked, let’s go back to Square 1. Practice what you plan to say ahead of time so you’re calm, and keep the conversation grounded in facts. Give him a chance to tell his side of the story. Don’t make any assumptions, because you have no idea what’s wrong with him. His problem could be progressive or reversible. He could be exhibiting signs of Alzheimer’s, or have a drug or alcohol problem, or be dealing with episodes of hypoglycemia, or be suffering from another problem entirely. You’re an administrator, not a doctor. Your job is to assess whether he’s a competent teacher and figure out if you can help him. If he’s ineffective, and reasonable accommodations don’t improve his performance, you’ll have to follow guidelines for documenting your concerns and removing him from the classroom.

Step 1: Take a nonthreatening tone, or you’ll shut down the discussion before it starts. Tell him you’re concerned. He may acknowledge that he’s worried, too, or that he’s been to the physician, or that a partner is making the same observations. Share the parent complaints and let him know that he’s exhibiting symptoms that are frightening to some children. Ask him whether he’s noticed any changes in his behavior. He may be in a different place from the last time you spoke to him, and he may even be open to taking leave or seeking help. If he needs counseling for addiction, be ready to offer resources. Make sure he understands the seriousness of the situation and that his job could be at risk. If you hit the same brick wall, your approach will need to change, and you’ll need to proceed to Step 2.

Step 2: Familiarize yourself with your school or system’s specific evaluation requirements. For example, you may need to provide the teacher with written copies of plans for improvement. The teacher may be backed by a union with its own expectations and procedures for due process. You may need to abide by specific deadlines.

Also, keep in mind that you need to treat the employee fairly and abide by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. According to the ADA, you need to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with physical and mental impairments that substantially limit one or more life activities, those with a history or record of the impairment, or those perceived by others as having an impairment. He must still be able to perform the essential functions of the job and meet normal performance requirements, and illegal drug use would not be a protected category.

Step 3: Once you’re familiar with all of the policies and evaluation requirements, you need to make sure the complaints are valid. Observe him in the classroom. Have others observe him, too. Stick to the facts, collect proof and keep track of incidents with dates and times. Be honest. If there are witnesses, document their insights. Keep track of any supports or accommodations you provide. The bottom line is that if a teacher can’t meet the standards of the job, he shouldn’t be in the classroom. Hopefully, he’ll get the help he needs so he can get back to work.

Have a question that you’d like Career Confidential to answer? Email to careerconfidential@pdkintl.org. All names and schools will remain confidential. No identifying information will be included in the published questions and answers. 

PHYLLIS L. FAGELL (@Pfagell; phyllisfagell.com) is the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C., a therapist at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, Md., and the author of the Career Confidential blog. She is also the author of Middle School Matters, available at https://bit.ly/2RNXVu3.

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