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March 1, 2019
Vol. 76
No. 6

The Instructional Leader's Most Difficult Job

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Instructional Strategies
The Instructional Leader's Most Difficult Job (thumbnail)
Credit: Jing Jing Tsong / the i spot
When we hear the term instructional leader, all sorts of positive, exciting images flood our brains. Throughout my career, I've met and supported thousands of school administrators who are thrilled at the idea of emphasizing instruction, leading professional development that impacts what happens in classrooms, and lifting the heart of our work—teaching and learning.
What's shocking is how disparate our responses are to the other side of instructional leadership: handling concerns with a teacher's performance. What's the best course of action when a teacher struggles in the classroom? Why, oh why, can't all teachers just use the strategies we've discussed and learned about? Disruptions to the teacher-quality element can truly interfere with our equilibrium as instructional leaders.
Given their reluctance to deal with this side of instructional leadership, the ways that school leaders respond to performance concerns can vary widely—and may not always be effective. Let's look at five examples I've encountered recently in my work (all names have been changed). See if you can guess which response actually has a chance of being constructive.
  • Carole, an instructional coach in Iowa, told me that the principal of her school, after learning about one teacher's performance problems, directed her to make frequent, unannounced visits to the teacher's classroom. The principal asked Carole to provide regular coaching support, to document it in detail, and to report back on the teacher's struggles and progress—or lack thereof.
  • Darnell, a principal in North Carolina, walked with me in and out of classrooms on his campus during a mentoring visit. When I pressed him about the quality of classroom instruction and possible performance concerns, he told me, "Our climate is fragile right now. We've had a lot of changes in leadership, a lot of new initiatives, and the staff is already on edge. I'm focused on relationships, not firing people. I'm here to protect them."
  • Elise, a principal in California, emphasized the value of a strong teacher-evaluation document. "Some of my teachers are subpar," she stated. "And over the course of the year, I've seen enough that I can downgrade their final evaluations. This gives them a target for growth next year, and if they don't show sufficient progress before the next evaluation is due, there will be grounds for removal." When I asked if she had talked with the teachers about the concerns, she told me, "The document speaks for itself."
  • Todd, a principal in New York, had grown frustrated by the time and energy it takes to help a teacher "grow or go." When discussing performance concerns with me, he outlined his strategy: Reassign the teacher to another grade level, subject, or classroom. In that new position, the teacher would either have a fresh start or would become so uncomfortable that a job outside of schools might be more desirable. "We find out what people are truly made of when they're experiencing change and discomfort," he said. "Usually they sort themselves out, one way or the other."
  • Amanda, a principal in Florida, confronted a performance-related concern head-on by clarifying expectations with the teacher, offering descriptive feedback, explaining the specific concern, providing helpful resources, and repeating that process as many times as necessary. "Almost every teacher has it in them to do well, to improve, and to make a positive impact," she said. "And if they can't do it, ultimately we must share the responsibility to either fish or cut bait. That's not an easy decision, but when we've traveled the path openly and honestly for so long together, there really is no argument or hard feelings when we part ways."

When Your Approach Doesn't Help

By now, you've probably guessed that Amanda's approach, which is probably the most difficult of the five, is also the one that's most likely to solve the problem. Unfortunately, however, the first four examples do commonly happen in our schools—far too often. Let's take a closer look at why those approaches are not good solutions, before we examine the virtues of the last example.
"It's not my problem." In the first example, Carole's principal wanted to send her in as the coach to "fix" the teacher. The principal may have been thinking that a coach could help the underperforming teacher improve, that the coach and the teacher would work together to make the teacher better, and that if it didn't work, then the principal could just fire the teacher.
There are many reasons why this approach doesn't work. First, it destroys the relationship between coaches (or mentors or department chairs) and their teachers because it sets up the premise that coaches are somehow spies sent out into the field to collect information and rat on their teacher colleagues to the administrator. It also ruins any chance the coaching program might have had to impact all teachers across the building because it positions coaching as something only bad teachers need and receive.
If you want to know what's going on in classrooms, you've got to get out of your office and see the action for yourself. And if you're convinced that teachers teach differently when you're in the room and you'll never see their underperformance, stick around. The longer you stay in the room, the greater the likelihood you'll see the struggles eventually.
"I don't want to rock the boat." Darnell is the type of principal who wants to preserve a positive climate and working relationships, so he routinely looks the other way. He's worried that if he calls out a teacher's underperformance, word will get around that he's out to get people and no one will trust him. Instead, he builds people up, grows relationships, and tries to work on offering occasional professional development throughout the year.
Relationships, climate, and culture are important, but they are a means to an end, not the end itself. The goal is higher levels of student learning that prepare students for future pursuits. An underperforming teacher can short-sheet your ability to reach that end.
Another problem with this avoidance approach is that the struggles of underperfoming teachers are not unknown to their colleagues. Teachers know who their stronger colleagues are and who among them is having issues. When a leader looks the other way, those stronger teachers become anxious ("Why isn't the leader doing anything about this person?"), start worrying ("Are we lowering the bar for professional teaching?"), begin griping in the parking lot ("I'm working my tail off, and for what?"), and strip your impact as a leader ("This person obviously isn't here to make sure kids are learning, so we can ignore just about everything we hear about "kids first" and "we have to improve our outcomes.""). Leaders who think it's easier to just look the other way are actually making things much more difficult for themselves.
Passive-aggressive sneak attack. Elise's approach is to "put it down on paper" so the teachers can see a record of their performance issues. She may discuss her concerns with the teacher a little bit throughout the year, or maybe not at all. But she makes sure to document the underperformance on the final teacher-evaluation document—dodging a face-to-face conversation with the teacher to avoid a possibly ugly, uncomfortable confrontation.
Two of the hallmarks of effective leaders are transparency and trust. This approach has neither. In fact, it goes in the opposite direction. Teachers will feel undercut by the "ding" on the final evaluation document, even though—or perhaps because—it was never something that arose to the "we really need to talk about this" level of importance in prior conversations. Elise runs the risk of becoming the leader that teachers have to watch their backs around, wary of a gotcha. The downside here, of course, is that the teachers won't take chances. They won't be honest with her about their fears, their worries, their areas of need. They won't come to her for help or support. The evaluation process will become one of bland compliance and heightened fear.
Remember: Your role as an instructional leader, including in teacher evaluation, is meant to accomplish dual goals—ensure teacher quality and provide opportunities for professional growth. That can only happen when we have face-to-face conversations, whether they are difficult or not.
Dance of the lemons. Another approach that's doomed from the start is reassigning an underperforming teacher. I can see the temptation. Leaders think, "Maybe this teacher just needs a fresh start in a different classroom. Perhaps being surrounded by different teachers and students, in another grade level, is in order." If a teacher is moved to another position, the thinking goes, she will either succeed and thrive or verify that there's a performance concern.
But haven't you already verified that there's a performance concern? And do you really want to expose a different set of students to this teacher, knowing that she's not advancing learning? Putting this teacher in a different setting will simply exacerbate the problems—for the teacher and for you. When the time comes for you to finally confront the performance concern, the teacher's response will be, "Well, you kept changing my assignment and moving me around. I never even got a chance to get settled, learn the curriculum, or gel with my teammates. This is your fault!" And, in many ways, she'd be right.

Doing It Right

While there are many ways to respond badly to teacher performance issues, there is also a clear path to doing it right. And that brings us to Amanda, who confronts issues head-on by clarifying expectations, offering descriptive feedback, stating the specific concern, providing helpful resources, trusting the process, and ultimately sharing the responsibility to either fish or cut bait. Let's look at the components of this approach and the steps we could take as instructional leaders (as Amanda did) to effectively confront a performance concern.
  1. Set a clear understanding of what high-level performance is. Make sure you've reviewed with the teacher what effective teaching performance looks like and that you have an agreed-upon rubric to show the varying levels of excellence. Identify the highest leverage, most important elements of effective performance first. Then review the research, watch video clips of model lessons and describe their components together, ask the teacher to tap into his experiences and expertise to build the expectations alongside you, and agree to what students' experience in class ought to be like when teaching is done well. As the late instructional expert Rebecca DuFour used to say, "Clarity precedes competence."
  2. Give frequent, descriptive, and focused feedback. Most teachers I've met want to do a good job, and once they have a target, they're interested to learn how their performance measures up. Am I on track? Am I doing a good job? Am I meeting this expectation? What can I do to improve? By getting into a teacher's classroom, observing teaching and learning in the wild, and looking specifically for the elements you've defined with the teacher, you have better opportunities to offer the sort of feedback that helps her see where she is and how to progress toward expertise. Since the teacher knows what you're looking for, there's less anxiety about the process. And after your targeted visit, have a chat! Feedback is an interactive process, so while leaving a note or sending a single email may be convenient and effective at times, it's not enough. You must set aside time to have a face-to-face chat.
  3. When there's a concern, name it. Use these words: "I have a concern with your performance." Then state exactly what it is, positioned directly against the rubrics you've reviewed together previously. Make sure the teacher understands that you will be holding him accountable for improving this aspect of his teaching and determine together what steps they are going to take to improve. To keep the conversation going (because that first bit tends to result in silence), use this phrase, taught to me by the Harvard economist Ron Ferguson: "Help me understand [why this is the case, the difference between our expectations and your performance, your perspective on this, etc.]." Then let the teacher talk. Listen intently. Remember communication is two-way.
  4. Offer consistent support and resources. Addressing performance concerns requires two elements: High expectations and high levels of support. My former supervisor and colleague Tammy Campbell refers to these as the "twin pillars." The expectations are set by the rubrics, and they're reinforced when you state what your expectations are for growth, progress, and in-class performance. When you explain the concern and set a target for improvement, be prepared to offer a couple of ways the teacher can engage in this growth. Use Ron Ferguson's follow-up phrasing: "Let me help you [by offering some support, by providing some ideas, by connecting you with some resources, etc.]." We can't expect teachers to improve without giving them the tools they'll need to do so. Make it very clear what options are available. Instead of saying, "Perhaps it'd help you to read an article about questioning strategies," give the teacher a copy of (or a link to) the article and suggest he set up a time with the instructional coach to discuss its contents and how the strategies are applicable. It's the teacher's responsibility to reach out and use the resources. Then schedule a time to follow up with the teacher to discuss her progress, answer questions, and set up additional observations. Remember, change isn't likely to happen overnight. Give the teacher time and space to improve.
  5. Trust the process. Because professional growth takes time, leaders must ensure their teachers have ample opportunities to access supports, utilize coaching, practice strategies, and build their skills. This may require multiple cycles of intervention, as outlined above. If, after an appropriate period of time, the teacher isn't making the gains you've established together, you need to connect with your human resources division for guidelines on how to let him go.
Be honest with the teacher about this new reality. This will obviously be an unpleasant conversation, but it's absolutely and wholeheartedly necessary. Say something like this: "As you know, a while back we surfaced a concern with your performance. [Name the concern.] We worked hard together to create a plan and an avenue for you to improve that performance. [List the steps you took together.] Unfortunately, as you also know, the time and opportunity to demonstrate sufficient growth has passed, and you haven't met the expectations we've set." Then clearly explain the consequences and next steps. That's you being transparent, honest, forthright, and prioritizing what's best for your staff and your students.

Take the Right Path, Not the Easiest

As instructional leaders, we know the quality of the instruction occurring in our classrooms is the defining characteristic of our influence—and it is the determining factor of our students' success.
When teacher performance concerns rear their ugly heads (and they will), we must embrace the responsibility of addressing them directly and attentively. The work, the effort, the emotion, the toil, the stress of dealing with these issues—those are temporary. The outcomes are permanent: for students, for our schools, for our communities. So let's take a lesson from Amanda and lead with transparency, integrity, and precision. The results will be worth it.

Guiding Questions

› Do you recognize your instructional intervention style in any of the examples that Hall writes about? What might you do differently in the future?

› What does a highly effective teacher's performance look like at your school? Are those expectations communicated clearly and frequently to staff?

› Why do you think it's so difficult for leaders to directly address teachers' struggles in the classroom?

Veteran school administrator and educational consultant Pete Hall channels his experiences as a school principal, life coach, and small-business owner into manageable lessons for continuous growth, personal improvement, and positive mindset.

Hall served 12 years as a principal in three Title I schools, each earning awards for academic performance, growth, and student achievement. He currently works as an educational consultant as a member of the ASCD faculty and trains educators worldwide with a focus on the continuous improvement of our education systems.

Besides partnering with Alisa Simeral on three ASCD books, Hall authored over 20 articles on leadership and 11 books, including The First-Year Principal and Lead On! Motivational Lessons for School Leaders.

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