Q: I’m the principal of an elementary school. Last August, when we still didn’t have a 3rd-grade teacher, it was slim pickings. Still, I felt pretty good about the person I hired. I thought I got lucky. He was relatively inexperienced, but he was energetic and had a glowing recommendation from his last employer. He had taught 3rd grade in another district that uses different reading, writing, and math programs, so I knew we’d have to get him up to speed. Very quickly, it became clear that he wasn’t a quick study. I’d sent him for summer training, but it wasn’t enough. In fairness, our district doesn’t do much when it comes to training.
He’s hard working and good with students, but he’s been overwhelmed and stressed all year. Our staff development teacher has worked with him, and I’ve observed him and given consistent feedback. In all honesty, I think he has a learning issue. I was a special education teacher earlier in my career, and he seems to struggle with processing information. He really tries and cares, and I feel terrible because I also feel like this is my fault. I hired him knowing he had a steep learning curve that would be tough for anyone, let alone an inexperienced teacher. Would it be ethical to let him go? There’s nothing legal stopping me. He’s a probationary teacher. I could still let him go at the end of next year without having to show cause, but if I keep him in the classroom I’d like an action plan. A repeat of this year isn’t going to cut it. Parents of our rising third graders are already concerned and raising questions.
A: I understand your conflicted feelings. You hired this teacher knowing he wasn’t an ideal candidate. You overcame your reservations by focusing on the positives — his energy and his positive reference. Given the limited training, it’s perhaps not surprising that he’s struggled to adapt to the reading, writing, and math programs you use. This situation would be a lot easier if there was a moral issue involved, such as leaving kids unattended or spending class time surfing the Internet. Instead, you have a subpar teacher who works hard and really cares.
For me, the main question is whether you think you can get him up to speed before the start of the next school year. Would an intensive summer program focusing entirely on the curriculum get the job done? You’ve lost one year already. Presumably, the students in his 3rd-grade classroom will be showing up to 4th grade unprepared. Your 4th-grade teachers are probably aware and anxious. Those teachers will need to make up lost ground before their students enter 5th grade, or the 5th-grade teachers will be affected, too. Your teachers might accept the situation temporarily, but if it continues you’ll create a morale problem and may start losing staff. Strong professionals want to be surrounded by other strong professionals.
Similarly, you have an obligation to the students. They need to be able to meet benchmarks, and you can’t knowingly keep an underperforming teacher in the classroom. Parents also have made legitimate complaints. That said, there are plenty of instances where a struggling teacher has managed to turn things around with the right supports.
Which leads to my second question. You say he’s a slow study, but you also say your district’s training is inadequate. When you assess the supports you’ve put in place, do you think they should have been enough to get this teacher up to speed in one year? You mention that you sent him to summer training workshops, observed him and gave feedback, and that your staff development teacher worked with him. What did that coaching entail? How much of it was designed to address his main challenge (learning to teach a new curriculum)? Has he been making consistent improvement? Have you presented clear standards? Does he know there’s a problem and is there a professional growth plan in place? Just how poor are his student outcomes?
I’d factor in his strengths, too. To what extent do his skills in other areas — such as relationship building or classroom management — counterbalance any of his deficits? If you decide to keep him an extra year, would you be able to put more supports in place? You could try pairing him with a retired teacher mentor or a consulting teacher based in another school who could be an “on call” source of support. Trainings are great, but they don’t have the same immediacy as someone working with him as soon as issues crop up. Some teachers feel more comfortable working with a trainer who doesn’t report directly to the principal unless there’s a safety or morality issue. That person also could work with him on demo lessons or analyze videos of his teaching. He could also spend time observing other teachers using the same curriculum. You mention a possible learning issue, so I’d ask him how he likes material to be presented. But, of course, there’s only so much you can do, and if you devote too much of your own time to his development, other teachers will feel neglected.
I don’t view this as an ethical dilemma yet. Yes, you hired him knowing he had deficits, but you had no way of knowing how he’d respond to training. I also don’t view keeping him one extra year as ethically problematic if you provide extra supports and believe he can meet expectations. That said, you do have some practical considerations. If you keep him, you still need to ensure students are prepared for 4th grade. Can you send reinforcements into his classroom if it becomes clear they’re needed? I’d also document everything related to his performance and your interventions.
If you don’t keep him, you need to start looking for a replacement as soon as possible. I’d evaluate your hiring processes so you don’t repeat the same mistake. Are there safeguards you can put in place, such as involving extra people on the interviewing committee or forcing yourself to press the “pause” button when you know you’re most likely to feel desperate?
If you don’t invite this teacher back, I’d give him a chance to resign. I’d also offer to give him a good reference for jobs that would be a better fit, such as teaching in a district that uses a curriculum he’s taught in the past. I’d also assure him you’ll speak to his good qualities, such as his empathy, positive attitude, and willingness to work hard. And I’d own your mistake. Tell him you underestimated the ramp up time he’d need to master the content. I’d be upfront with your other teachers, too. It’s OK to admit you acted hastily and have regrets. If you take responsibility for your mistake, they’ll be more likely to forgive the imposition on them.
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