A teacher’s promotion to leadership doesn’t work out

Q: As principal, I try to promote staff when they have done a good job and show potential. I recently hired one of my teachers, Kelly, to be a department chair. It was well-deserved. She’s an enthusiastic and hard-working teacher, the kind of person who gets the best work out of her students and consistently earns her colleagues’ respect. Kelly was eager for a new challenge and had a strong interview. No one second-guessed my decision, but here’s the crazy thing — she is terrible in her new role, and she knows it. I think she is as overwhelmed as I am concerned. The teachers she now supervises are frustrated and want me to intervene. It would be easiest to just reassign Kelly back to her old job, but I don’t want her to end up demoralized and leaving the school. I also need to factor in the morale of the teachers in her department. Is there a way to make all parties happy here, or should I just accept that the hiring was a mistake and deal with the fallout?

A: Unfortunately, it’s hard to predict which exemplary individual contributors will be effective managers, and easy to forget that leadership skills need to be taught. It’s a common problem across industries — the most qualified person gets promoted but lacks team player or supervisory skills. If Kelly ends up feeling like a failure, she may not be successful in her current or her former position. You also don’t want to be too hasty or reactive. So what now?

Start by having an authentic, nonconfrontational conversation with Kelly. She may welcome the opportunity to share her concerns. There is still a chance you can turn this around, especially if you let Kelly lead the discussion. In what ways would she like you to support her? Can you suggest specific books or offer mentoring, possibly by another highly regarded department chair? Perhaps you can provide funding for online training or a seminar.

At the same time, clearly communicate where you see her struggling. Is she failing to provide teachers with performance reviews, training, or resources? Is she too overwhelmed to be a presence in their classrooms? Do teachers feel that she unfairly throws them under the bus when parents complain? Does she bark commands at meetings or let deadlines slide? Does she shut down when teachers offer critical feedback? Different problems require different solutions.

Once you’ve identified the issues and her skill deficits and implemented appropriate interventions, try to measure improvement at regular intervals. You can look at objective data, such as whether Kelly is holding meetings on schedule, along with informal assessments by her colleagues. If other teachers know their complaints are being addressed and you’ve put a plan in place, they’ll feel heard and validated. And because Kelly has accrued respect and good will over time, they may be patient and willing to give her time to improve.

Throughout this process, be cognizant of Kelly’s feelings. She is used to success, and this has been a difficult transition. Remind her that you hired her because you respect her skills and believe she can be an effective department chair. Own your own missteps, whether it was dropping the ball on training or failing to explain the role and expectations. Emphasize that you want her to be successful and that stumbling is part of growth.

If you exhaust all intermediate options and conclude that Kelly is a poor fit for the job, ideally you’ll be able to counsel her out of her position. You can explain that you need everyone to be successful in their role, whether they are a teacher or an administrator. Ideally, you would come to the decision together that she is happier and more effective as a classroom teacher. Make sure her prior successes don’t get lost in the fray, and without being patronizing tell her how much you appreciate her. You also can discuss how she wants to publicly handle the news to minimize the humiliation factor. Be thoughtful about how you inform your staff, because the decision may make other teachers feel insecure.

Despite all your efforts, Kelly may still feel resentful or embarrassed about being demoted. There is always the risk that she’ll become unhappy or leave, but there is no reason to be defeatist yet.

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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