Evaluating Teachers Part I: Getting Rid of a Bad Teacher

My friend is being fired from her teaching job.

As sad and sympathetic as I am for my friend, I cannot say that I am surprised.  I’ve known this teacher for several years, and I’ve seen the burn-out coming for the entire time of our friendship.

This teacher has been using language like “those kids” and “the kids” for a long time.  Listening to her refer to students like this, as opposed to talking about “my kids,” is a red flag for me.  I know that when I stop referring to my students as mine, then I’m flirting with burn-out and with phoning in my job performance.

I was out to dinner with my friend this weekend, talking about the unsatisfactory performance reviews, and this teacher’s up-coming hearing.  While sitting there, I was torn.  I felt empathy and compassion for her.  She once was a fantastic teacher.  For the last two years, she has been facing constant scrutiny.  It would be incredibly hard for me to hear that I was not doing a good job.  I would feel defensive, too.  I would want to shift the blame to the kids, my principal, or the parents rather than face the shame of acknowledging that it was me who was the problem.  At the same time, we both knew that it was time for her to leave the classroom.

My friend had the services of a lawyer from our union.  However, even with that support, she was thinking about quitting and transitioning completely out of the education profession.

After a moment, I said, “This might be really hard to hear, but I wish you would fight.  I think that if you fight and lose, you could do a great service for your fellow teachers.”  In this new, post-Vergara California, I think it would be good to remind folks that the current system works.

Let me take a quick aside to talk about the current system.  Despite what I often hear in the media, teachers do not have “tenure.”  Rather, once we have moved past our two-year probationary period, teachers in California gain due-process rights.  After we start our third year, we cannot be fired unless the school district follows a process.  We certainly do not have “jobs for life.”

My friend is a great example of this.  If she doesn’t just quit… if she fights for her job and loses, the whole process would have taken two years.  During the 2012-13 school year, she received two unsatisfactory reviews from her principal.  At the end of that school year, she was given an improvement plan.  This past year, she didn’t follow through on the plan, and earned more unsatisfactory reviews.

If she fights and loses, she will show that the process works.

Too often, I hear from the anti-tenure camp that it is “impossible” to fire a sub-standard teacher.  Too often I hear that the teacher’s union is only interested in “protecting the worst” of my colleagues.

Next for my friend is a hearing.  I hope she goes through with it.  While it may be embarrassing for her, shameful even, to hear the case against her, if she has the courage, she could do a lot of teachers a great service.  She could stand up with CTA and NEA and say, “See?  The system works.  I burned out.  I needed to leave the classroom, but I didn’t know it at the time.  My school knew, and they had a way of transitioning me out.”

I doubt that she will though, and I can’t blame her.  If I were in her shoes, I don’t know if I would have the courage to stand up and open up about no longer being good at my job.

There but for the grace of God go I.

I hope I never burn out.  I hope that if I do someday, I will find ways to reconnect to why I love my job and reclaim my inner fire.  If I can’t, I hope I have the courage to do what’s best for the kids.

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  • terryjones

    Disagree completely

    In a very professional sense, I think your motives are selfish. We cannot and must not allow our self-serving motives get in the way of world class education.

    You imply that it is about the students, If so, we need to put actions to our words. It is time for your friend to step out of the picture. It could be that she just needs a break, a change, or a complete change. Regardless, our students deserve better.

    • DaveOrphal

      Thanks for the comment!

      Hi Terry,

      I’m guessing by “selfish” you’re referring to my desire that my friend goes through the whole process of dismissal rather than quietly step away from the classroom. 

      You may be right.

      Either way, she won’t be in a classroom next year.  In my next post, I’m going to talk about myself as well as another colleague to illustrate the point about why I think the dismissal process whould take a couple of year (with time for a teacher to improve.)  

      I think with all of the talk in the blog-o-sphere about it being “impossible” to fire sub-standard teachers is a lot of phoey.  I think we need to hear some stories about how the current system works, if administers are willing to work it.

  • Jan Ogino

    A Complex Issue

    I agree with Terry Jones to some degree.  The teacher needs the opportunity to leave with what little dignity she may have and it needs to be her choice.  However, we are fighting a very pervasive public perception that once a teacher has been teaching for awhile he or she has that job for as long as he or she wants regardless of his or her competency. The truth is there are teachers who shouldn’t be teaching and for the sake of the children and the profession they need to leave of their own accord or be let go. If the teacher has been identified as being at risk and put through a fair process of an improvement plan and then dismissed, if the interventions didn’t work, then that helps schools move forward and communicates to the public that we are not always self serving. It should be a win/win. For our profession cannot improve if we are self serving.  Our profession needs to improve the learning of our students for that is the only proof that matters. Our profession in the public school arena is on quicksand right now with charters and private school vouchers taking many of our best teachers, students and money and poor common core implementation has made matters worse. We are mired in tradition in many places and our system works from the top down and not from the bottom up, where the students are. We are slow to innovate. So although it is very hard to let people go that we care about, we need to care about students more. So I see the author’s point too. 

    • DaveOrphal

      Nail right on the head…

      Thanks Jan,

      That’s the point.  The process works.  

      The part I ahve a hard time figuring out is how to identify when good teachers are burning out and then what to do about it? 

      Could my friends love of teacher and dedication been renewed three years ago when I first noticed the change in her language?  Was there something I, of her school, could have tried?

      I honestly don’t know.

      • Jan Ogino

        Clue to Burnout

        I think that when a teacher stops talking about their students and what they can do to best meet their needs and begins to talk about how their students are making their job tougher and begins to complain about their work and their students more than come up with solutions, they are burning out.  They are off focus and need someone like you to help them refocus.  You know, there is much to complain about, but dwelling on them instead of their students and on the incredible responsibility to help them learn doesn’t help anyone.  Somewhere in their souls is hidden the lost desire to teach (which can be rekindled) and to see students learn.  It is why we are teachers.  Finding that desire again can help those experiencing burnout.  

  • DeidraGammill

    This is a tough topic!

    Your friend is lucky to have someone like you to encourage, support, and be truthful with her. I get where you’re coming from – what do we do when our once best and brightest grow dim and flicker out? I don’t know enough about your friend to judge (not that it’s my place to judge anyway), but it seems like she’d be much braver to admit that she is burned out and simply quit. It costs everyone involved if she fights. Why would she want to fight if she wants to leave the classroom?

    You wrote:
    “She could stand up with CTA and NEA and say, ‘See? The system works. I burned out. I needed to leave the classroom, but I didn’t know it at the time. My school knew, and they had a way of transitioning me out.’ I doubt that she will though, and I can’t blame her. If I were in her shoes, I don’t know if I would have the courage to stand up and open up about no longer being good at my job.”

    If she wanted to keep her job, why not work with her administrators and the improvement plan they gave her? Did she have any honest dialogue with them and request a change in placement or job duties? Braver to write a letter, explaining why she is leaving and exposing (if there’s anything to expose) a system that didn’t support her in a way that kept the flame burning brightly.

    Again, I’m limited in my understanding, but if she fights (whether she wins or loses), isn’t she perpetuating the stereotype that teachers who no longer want to teach can dig in and fight the system that is working to make sure kids have teachers who are invested in them, just because they CAN? What purpose is being served?

    Maybe the system that needs to be fixed is not “teacher tenure” but the system that evaluates and supports teachers in the classroom. I believe that all teachers have a right to due process, a right to know why their contract has not been renewed and a right to the same job protection other professionals enjoy. No teacher should fear being dismissed simply because an administrator doesn’t like them or wants to open the spot for someone they’ve handpicked. But when someone isn’t doing their job, when they have been warned and warned again yet make no effort to change, then I believe that person needs to be fired. It sounds like your friend hasn’t done anything but fight the system and drag her feet, and that sort of approach to education is bad for all of us, including your friend.

    I hope your friend is able to find her passion again, and that whatever path she chooses to follow, she will be renewed and energized in it.

    🙂 Thanks for sharing something that’s really hard to talk about within our ranks.

    • DaveOrphal

      Always so thoughtful and thought provoking!

      Thanks Deidra!

      You make a great point.  I’ve writting about the teacher drop-out rate several times before.  I agree, just like we need to find ways to support our struggling students, we also need ways to support our struggling teachers.  In my next post, I’m going to write about another colleague and the very difficult conversation our team had about his teaching and what we could do to help and support him.  Like I told Terry, this next post illustrates why I think the teacher-dismissal process should take a couple of years.

      Thank you!  This was a hard post to write.  It’s personal for me, as the next one will alos be.  It’s also a controversal topic.  I’m not surprised that this post is drawing some strong comments.

  • Jennifer Maria

    Should we take away tenure?

    I am a teacher in New Jersey.  After three years and one day, teachers are granted tenure.  Although that does not guarantee our job for life, it comes pretty close to it!  A new evaluation system was put into place last year.  This system ranks teachers into four categories.  If you are ranked as ineffective or partially effective, you need to create a corrective action plan with your principal.  The language of the system seems fair and reasonable if the teachers are evaluated correctly.  This year my principal waited until June to complete his observations and then gave every teacher effective or highly effective scores without any comments as to why.  There are first year teachers in my school who good teachers; however, like many first year teachers they could use some improvement.  Now on their evaluation, they have a score of highly effective.  These evaluations are what determine tenure.  Many teachers have “earned” tenure even though they are partially effective or ineffective teachers.  I feel that we should get rid of tenure.  Many people are shocked when I say this.  Why would I not want job security?  However, it is not that.  I feel if you are a good teacher, then you will have job security without the tenure laws.  I agree with you that sometimes teachers become burnt out.  Those teachers need to know when to leave.  As you mentioned in your post, I am not sure how to determine when that time is.  Maybe the evaluation process should cover that.  We, as teachers, are in schools to inspire.  We should be role models to our students.  If our hearts are not in our job, the way it once was, then it is time to leave.  I wish your friend the best of luck.  Maybe this will inspire her and help her to relight the fire!  

    • DaveOrphal

      Teachers should have due-process right

      Great Questions, Jennifer, and so much a part of the education debate right now.

      I’ve had a bad year teaching.  Over my seventeen years, there is one year (that I’ll discuss in more length in my next post) that was clearly my worst.  I’m glad I didn’t get fired because of that year.  Take a look at some of the projects that my kids have been doing over the past three years…

      • Children’s book for a village in Africa
      • Peer Partners
      • Being teachers themselves at a local elementary school
      • School-reform project
      • Workplace learning

      Now, that’s not to say that another teacher couldn’t have facilitated those activities for my kids.  I’m not saying I’m irreplaceable.  However, I am saying that my one bad year (please, God, let it be the only one) is not, and should not be, the sole measure of my worth as a professional.

      In a world without due-process rights (often called “tenure”) I could have just been fired after that bad year…

  • BillIvey

    Here’s what I don’t quite get.

    As I read this post, it seems as thouigh the system did work and no further proof is required. She was burning out. She got several unsatisfactory reviews and was put on an improvement plan. She ignored the improvement plan. She is on her way out. I don’t see why that story can’t be told as is to people who are cynical about the system; I don’t see how it makes it a better story if she continues to fight and is fired rather than resigns.

    Do you see what I mean? Am I making sense?

    • DaveOrphal

      You are making sense

      I hear you , Bill… 

      However, the anti-tenure rethoric I hear is, “Teachers can’t be fired.” That’s the statement I would like my firend to help disprove.

      Teachers can be fired – it’s just a process.  The process works, if the admin is willing to work it.

      • BillIvey

        Thanks, Dave

        I appreciate your answer. I would still like to think that some people would accept “This teacher would have been fired had she not resigned.” as a solid counterargument to the bluntly absolute statement that “Teachers can’t be fired.” But I concede some people would not accept that, and I do see your point as well.

  • misstori

    Support Rising, Shining and Burning Stars

    I am hoping we can find some solutions to preventing burnout in the first place.  Easy to say when I’m only six years in, right?  I’ve felt mighty crispy a few times already.  But it seems that districts are spending more resources to coach new teachers, lateral entry teachers, and then PD and support appears to be “on your own” after the first few years.  Rightfully so, to support us out of the gate.  I’ve come to teaching as a second career and definitely appreciated the hands on deck to help me navigate my newly adopted profession.  It faded away though after an initial period and I was left to my own devices to seek out support.  So what can I expect by year 26? 

    Escambia County in Florida presented information on their START (Successful Teachers Assisting Rising Teachers) program at a Teacher Union Reform Network (TURN) meeting in 2012.  It was modeled on a Peer-Assistance plan from Toledo.  It seemed to support beginning teachers. 

    Also at TURN, but in 2011, I heard Doug Prouty from Montgomery County, Maryland present about a Professional Growth System that was a joint venture between a union committee and the school system.  Part of the larger PGS was a Peer-Assistance Review component.  A separate CT (Consulting Teacher) component worked with novice teachers. 

    Are there more peer-programs that are not perhaps as “adversarial” as top-down approaches to improvement plans?  Would we be more receptive to colleagues who don’t have punitive power?  Why aren’t they in more widespread use with our colleagues who need a different type of support, be it rekindling a fire or otherwise?