Working with ineffective teachers

Trimble, Susan

Learn how to recognize ineffective teachers and choose strategies to improve their skills or remove them from your school.

Legislation demanding highly qualified teachers in all classes has brought teacher accountability for student learning to the forefront of educators’ concerns. Within the context of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), administrators have increasing responsibility to address ineffective teaching and deal with marginal teachers. Numerous negative factors-unions, lengthy and cumbersome legal procedures, and loss of reputation-loom as negative consequences for dealing expediently with an ineffective teacher and such difficulties might cause administrators to be reluctant to take action. To address this concern, administrators should have a repertoire of techniques to deal with the various types of ineffective teachers.

The Problem

Research on the strong connections between classroom practices and student academic performance (Wenglinsky, 2002) support the importance of quality teachers in all classrooms. Incompetent teachers, however, continue to teach. In a poll by the Consortium on Chicago School Research, more than two-thirds of principals in Chicago said they would dismiss 20% of their staff if they could avoid the hearings (Weele, 1994). Don Fuhr (1998) cites national surveys idicating that 10-15% of teachers-or 360,000 out of 2.6 million public and private school teachers-are marginal. He points to the administrators’ role in addressing teacher quality, “I staunchly maintain that school systems with administrators who assume responsibility for the quality of teaching that goes on in their schools by remediating or dismissing their marginal teachers and rewarding and affirming their outstanding teachers will have the greatest impact on educational reform” (1998).

Legal complications and other difficulties, however, may entice administrators to avoid taking action with ineffective teachers. Administrators’ reputations are subject to public scrutiny. Administrators open themselves to the task and difficulties of defending a non-renewal, and in the process they may face teachers unions whose lawyers defend the rights of teachers to remain on the job. Within their own schools, they may experience a change in morale when placing a teacher on probation. According to Mary J. McGrath, a California attorney who works with school boards to dismiss marginal teachers, less than 1% of all teachers receive critical evaluations from principals (Coeyman, 2000).

There is little doubt that the dismissal process in most states is cumbersome, costly, and time-consuming. For example, the process of firing a teacher in Connecticut was estimated to cost a district between $100,000 and $200,000; in 1997, in New York State, a dismissal with an appeal cost approximately $317,000 (Chinni, 1997). The average cost and time of a teacher dismissal in a New York school district is $200,000 and 476 days on each dismissal hearing (Week, 1994).

To help schools build a quality teaching force, states are passing legislation that addresses the evaluation and retention of teachers in the classroom (Coble, 2002; Education Commission of the States, 1997). Many states have new criteria for teacher’s evaluations. New Jersey, New York, and Florida are proposing laws to eliminate tenure and replace it with renewable contracts. Other states are narrowing the scope of tenure protections. Minnesota and Michigan are increasing the years of probation from three to five years, while others are shortening the time to improve performance (Minnesota, Oklahoma, Florida, and Texas). Some states also include unsatisfactory performance in addition to incompetence as criteria for termination.

Despite state mandates and national reports, the major responsibility for a quality teaching force at each school remains with the principal. This role of teacher supervision and evaluation is increasingly important as teacher shortages and alternative routes to certification prompt a variety of types of teachers to enter the classroom. Recent literature about administrative practices for working with ineffective teachers, however, is sparse. One example is O’Neil and Adamson’s (1993) description of procedures at a Salt Lake City school district to help administrators implement just cause, due process, and progressive discipline for problematic personnel.

This Study

Because of the importance of this topic, we interviewed a variety of principals at both middle level and high schools about their practices with marginal teachers. From an analysis of the principals’ responses to our questions, predominant themes emerged about the connection between types of ineffective teachers and techniques for working with them.

Three types of teachers emerged from the interviews: the contrite teacher, the cocooning teacher, and the coaster.

Contrite: The contrite marginal teacher meekly asks, “What did I do wrong?” They are generally well-meaning people who have a real desire to do their job. They are either unable to take directions or lack the skills to do the job. In some cases, their talents could be better used in another profession.

Cocooner: This type of ineffective teacher projects the attitude of “Trying to trap me? Just come and try to get me.” They feel no system, person, or process should constrict their behaviors. They are offended by criticisms and respond in a confrontational manner.

Coaster: The coaster exemplifies the ostrich with its head in the sand, responding to any comment about the need to attend to neglected duties, with the innocent remark, “Really? I was supposed to do that?” They put forth minimum effort that may originate in a lazy, don’t-care attitude; burnout; or other causes.

Three Approaches

These types of ineffective teachers call for leadership approaches that are appropriate for each type of behavior. All approaches by the administrator include the district’s standard evaluation procedures and criteria in compliance with state statures and regulations. Although each approach described below may be suitable for any teacher, in general, the following approaches work best with their associated teacher type:

* For the contrite: the standard procedure plus the professional improvement plan and guidance

* For the cocooner: the standard procedure plus systematic collection of multiple performance evaluations, including peer reviews and observations by district personnel

* For the coaster: the standard procedure plus early identification of laziness or burnout in addition to counseling for job changes.

Standard evaluation procedures are applicable to all types, and teacher orientation to the district’s standard evaluation processes is necessary to ensure that all teachers are aware of the procedures, criteria, and content of the district’s evaluation policy. These standard procedures encompass the following components in writing, usually following a face-to-face meeting. All documents are signed by both the teacher and the administrator:

1. Notify the teacher of the specific unsatisfactory performance in writing; use the district’s valid and reliable instrument.

2. Describe the desired change in behavior, attitude, or performance and how the change will be measured.

3. Provide a timeline for correcting the weakness.

4. Explain the consequences if no improvements are made.

5. Observe and meet with the teacher on a regular basis. Subsequent observations and review meetings, usually in two- to three-week intervals, are all followed by a written confirmation at the end of each meeting that is signed by the administrator and teacher.

6. Maintain the teacher’s file and keep records of behavior, parent calls, and student comments.

Working With the Contrite

The contrite marginal teacher may be ignorant of his or her areas of need, unable to follow directions, or lack the abilities to teach well and work with students. This type of teacher is sincere and makes every attempt to teach. Carl Waterbrook, a middle school administrator in Savannah, GA, described such a teacher. The teacher was a veteran teacher with an attractive classroom, well-planned lessons, and lots of training. However, she couldn’t identify what was happening with her students; she had no perception of their learning. Her frustrations with the job were destroying her health and hurting the students. As a result of the techniques described below, she realized that leaving the profession for a more predictable environment of a travel agent was a better match for her abilities and interests.

The techniques that work best with this type of teacher are used in conjunction with the district’s standard evaluation form that provides a record of the teacher’s strengths and weaknesses. The administrator can provide additional support by assigning a mentor teacher, organizing peer observations, or structuring team study groups that examine innovative teaching strategies. Each of these techniques is designed to promote discussion and self-examination about effective teaching that affects student learning.

The administrator can also make use of the pre- and post-observation conference to generate dialogue about specific teaching areas before and after each observation of the marginal teacher in the classroom. In a pre-observation conference, the teacher articulates his or her intentions for the class during the scheduled observation period during. The administrator, likewise, is able to articulate the teaching behaviors he or she would like the teacher to demonstrate. The post-observation conference can likewise provide a vehicle for teachers and administrators to voice their perceptions of the observed lessons. The pre- and post-observation conference sheet (see figure 1) provides a written record of teacher behaviors and the subsequent discussion. If the contrite marginal teacher continues to exhibit areas of need, the next step is the professional improvement plan.

Professional Improvement Plan

While the district’s standard evaluation form is used for overall formative and summative evaluations that record areas in need of improvement, the pre- and post-observation conference sheet records details of specific classroom teacher behaviors and discussions between the observer and the teacher. The professional improvement plan is a follow-up document that addresses the areas of weakness by identifying the desired goals and the required change(s) in the teacher’s specific attitudes, skills, or behaviors. This format also documents performance criteria, evaluation procedures, and the timeline for the completion of specific actions. For example, a professional improvement plan for a marginal teacher who has difficulty engaging students may read, “You will observe three teachers once each month in September and November and write a paragraph summary of how they engaged students. Three November lesson plans are to include two specific ways you will engage students. During December, you are to demonstrate teaching strategies that engage students, as observed in the classroom by two different observers on two separate occasions.”

The professional improvement plan may include other teacher-specific activities such as:

* Participating in a staff development activity and demonstrating its new skills in the classroom

* Conducting a survey of parents that asks them to respond to questions such as, “How can I involve you more?” and demonstrating the incorporation of these responses into the classroom

* Conducting a survey of students that asks for their reactions to a lesson and providing evidence of new teacher behavior based on their responses.

Working With the Cocooner

A strong mental attitude for dealing with the cocooner type of educator is paramount to the effectiveness of any set of procedures. A firm conviction that an ineffective teacher is harmful to both the students and the school’s atmosphere is the foundation for making and sustaining the decision to address ineffective teaching. The administrator has to “have the guts” and the willingness to carry out the process in a methodical manner. There will be a problem if any administrator thinks that the process will not be successful or that there are too many problems.

Ed Davis, principal of a rural middle school in southern Georgia, describes a teacher who had wrapped himself into a cocoon. When initially informed that he was deficient in his teaching responsibilities, Mr. W responded in a very negative manner. He rebuffed any strategies for improvement offered by administrators. When he was ultimately placed on a professional improvement plan, Mr. W contacted the local teacher’s union representative and asserted that he was being treated unfairly. A series of meetings followed in which the principal essentially was called upon to defend his evaluation of Mr. W’s performance. He was required to demonstrate what remedial efforts had been offered on Mr. W’s behalf. Finally, after weeks of discussion, it was apparent to everyone who was involved in the situation that Mr. W was, indeed, deficient and in need of assistance. Rather than follow the guidelines included in the professional improvement plan, however, Mr. W requested and was granted a transfer to another school within the district. The principal of the new school was informed of the prescribed professional improvement plan, but Mr. W petitioned for and was granted the right to begin teaching in his new position without the requirements of the professional improvement plan. After only one year of teaching in the new school, the principal determined that Mr. W was deficient and in need of assistance. Thus, the process began anew.

Systematic Procedures

Teachers can file a lawsuit over a negative evaluation only on the basis of procedures. The administrator therefore has to systematically follow every procedure with precision. A series of steps with a corresponding timetable carries the process forward in an expedient manner. The following suggestions serve as a general guideline to the steps involved:

1. Get training on the district’s evaluation instrument. Documentation requires a valid and reliable instrument. Often local instruments lack the statistical support that renders them valid and reliable. Check with the district office about the statistical testing that has preceded the use of your district’s instrument. Georgia’s teacher evaluation instrument emerged from more than 10 years of data collection and field tests in the 1980s and ’90s, and all educators are trained in the use of the instrument. All regional education consortium personnel were trained in the use of the Georgia Teachers Evaluation Instrument and had to pass a test before counseling administrators about the instrument. The use of a valid and reliable instrument means that the recorded data can support your decision in a court of law.

2. Mark your calendars with all due dates for teacher evaluations and contract renewals.

3. Become aware of district support for nonrenewed contracts and termination. Look at the history of cases in your area and note the stance of the current district administration. Be in contact with the appropriate district personnel who can provide guidance and support. Use them throughout the process and add their written comments to your documentation file of multiple sources.

4. Provide clear descriptions of expectations to teachers in their orientations and consider having teachers sign to acknowledge that they received the information about their job descriptions and the evaluation instrument. Leaders often erroneously assume the faculty is familiar with the evaluation instrument.

5. Follow the district’s standard evaluation process, with the initial notification conference of a problem with the ineffective teacher by Oct. 1 or by a specific date early in the school year that allows time for remediation, documentation, and conferencing. Document details of the problems and provide a copy to the teacher to be signed. The signature means he or she has received the copy, not agreement with the contents.

6. Train master teachers and instructional specialists in observation procedures, mentoring behaviors, and conferencing skills to enable them to collect data on the ineffective teachers progress. They will provide data that contributes to the file of multiple sources of information. One of the principals interviewed for this study stated, “Do not do it all yourself.”

7. Instigate two processes at this time: documentation of provided support and documentation of performance. Call in other people to observe the ineffective teacher.

8. Have multiple sources of help given to the teacher using district- and school-level specialists, professional development workshops, and counselors. Provide sample lesson plans and videos of effective practice. Assign a mentor. Abundant support must be provided and documented.

9. Have multiple sources of evidence of performance. Record the span of grades given by the ineffective teacher if appropriate. Keep all records of comments by parents and students and file all written observations by other educators. Personally conduct at least two observations of classroom teaching by Jan. 1 and include a witness, such as an assistant administrator and or any person who has a right to know, while conducting a conference about the teacher’s performance.

10. Use the district evaluation instrument to document problems and refer to them during the subsequent observations and conferences. For example, a documentation of behavior related to lesson plans may include the notation, “see item c.1 in Standard Evaluation Form (dated mm/dd/yy) that lesson plans were incomplete, lacking objectives and standards for the week.”

11. Be systematic and nonemotional. A supportive attitude that maintains rapport is essential to keeping open communication.

Claxton concluded, “If three factors are present-scheduled procedures, onsite observers, and district support-dismissal is not a problem.”

Working With the Coaster

A teacher who is failing to meet standards because he or she is coasting presents a unique challenge to new and veteran administrators alike. The coasting teacher is very often a teacher who has been marginally or even very successful as an educator in the past; however, years of teaching may have diminished the initial enthusiasm. An administrator must first determine if the desire can be restored to its former level. In view of such a possibility, the capable administrator can often accomplish much by having a direct discussion with the teacher in question, outlining the perceived concern and calling on the teacher to exercise professional responsibility in the best interest of the students.

At times the coasting has occurred because the teacher is bored or “burned out.” In this case, a new instructional responsibility can often breathe new life into the veteran teacher. Professional development opportunities are often important in providing veteran teachers with appropriate training for accepting new areas of responsibility. In cases where no offers of assistance are accepted by the teacher, it may be necessary for the administrator to become more directive and actually begin the process that will lead to a professional improvement plan.

Growth Process for the Administrator

Facing the issue of ineffective teaching is a growing experience for the majority of administrators. Initially, hearing of the untruths that are being spread throughout the school and community about the principal can be shattering. Incompetent people often do not know they are incompetent, and they are offended when an administrator says they are. For example, some teachers may react negatively to an observation and notation that criticizes their actions and statements to students. Such teachers may accuse administrators of being a biased or bigoted or join other marginal teachers to verbalize untruths and perpetuate negativism.

The strength that is needed by an administrator to sustain a personal attack can be acquired over time. Experience soon helps him or her realize that quality teachers on the faculty appreciate any effort to rid the school of ineffective teachers. Further support is gained by asking the most compelling question, “Would I want my child in that room?” The answer “No!” provides the most reassurance that dealing with an ineffective teacher can be one of the most worthwhile endeavors of the school year.


* Chinni, D. (1997, January/February). Teachers’ pets. Washington Monthly, 29(1/2), 22.

* Coeyman, M. (2000, February 22). It’s not always so easy to say you’re fired! Christian Science Monitor, 92(62), 17, Op, 2c.

* Coble, C. R. with J. P. Piscatelli. (2002). Teaching quality: A national perspective [Electronic version]. State Education Leaders, 20(3). Retrieved August 11, 2003, from

* Education Commission of the States. (1997). Teacher evaluation. Education Commission of the States Information Clearninghouse. Retrieved August 11, 2003, from

* Fuhr, D. (May 1998). Where’s the accountability in education reform? School Administrator Web Edition, Retrieved September 8, 2002, from

* O’Neil, I. R., & Adamson, D. R. (1993). When teachers falter. Executive Educator, 15(1), 25-27.

* Weele, M. V. (1994, November). Why it’s too hard to fire bad teachers. Washington Monthly, 26(11), 12

* Wenglinsky, H. (2002, February 13). How schools matter: The link between teacher classroom practices and student academic performance. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 10(12). Retrieved September 10, 2002, from


* Writing Year-End Teacher Improvement Plans-Right Now!; Cornelius L. Barker & Claudette J. Searchwell; London: Paul Chapman Publishing, 2000.

* The Marginal Teacher (2nd edition); C. Edward Lawrence, Myra K. Vachon, Donald O. Leake, & Brenda H. Leake; London: Paul Chapman Publishing, 2001.

* Teacher Evaluation (2nd edition). Kenneth D. Peterson; Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, 2000.

Susan Trimble ( is an associate professor at Georgia Southern University, Statesboro, GA. Ed Davis ( is principal of Southeast Bulloch Middle School in Brooklet, GA. Marsha T. Clanton ( is currently principal of the Savannah (GA) Arts Academy and has worked with four different teacher evaluation instruments over the past 12 years.

Copyright National Association of Secondary School Principals Nov 2003

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved

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