Look at any principal job posting and you’re likely to see the following essential duties: Manage the supervision and evaluation of employees.
While most will gloss over this statement, understanding how to effectively manage dozens (if not hundreds) of employees is a school leader’s most important - and most difficult – responsibility.
Employee management is the series of activities that ensure supervisors provide employees with clarity about job expectations, as well as regular feedback about whether or not those job expectations are being met.
While this process sounds straightforward, my experiences have proven otherwise.
I have made countless employee management mistakes during my administrative career. I have been accused of "harassing" some employees and "playing favorites" with others. I have been told I’m “too liberal” by some staff members and “too conservative” by others. Throw in several teacher grievances and multiple lawsuits … and one might wonder how I still have a job.
At first, I felt alone in my struggles: “Do I really have what it takes to effectively manage adults?” I wondered as another “fierce” employee conversation went sideways. However, the more I discuss this subject with other administrators, the more I realize I am not alone: employee management is a universal issue.
This begs the question: Why is employee management so difficult?
The first reason why employee management is so difficult is lack of training. Despite their best efforts, college instructors struggle creating scenarios wherein students feel the emotional weight of navigating a prickly personnel matter.
Second, very few districts support their leaders with this important work. Rather than train principals on effective employee management, most districts use administrative professional development time on new initiatives, theoretical frameworks, and flavor-of-the-day programs.
Finally, modern society makes employee management nearly impossible. Today's school culture expects principals to "play nice" with employees while also holding them to high - if not unrealistic - levels of accountability. However, push too far in either direction and stakeholders are suddenly holding pitchforks while calling for the principal's resignation.
Like a tightrope walker tiptoeing high above the city skyline, school leaders must walk a fine line when it comes to employee management … as one small misstep could end in disaster.
“I have more than 50 employees in my building,” you may be thinking. “How can I possibly manage every employee?”
Enter quarterly employee performance conversations.
Quarterly employee performance conversations are administrative team meetings where the work performance of every school employee is discussed. The word "team" is intentional because – as was discussed in the previous chapter – performance conversations are much more objective when multiple evaluators contribute to the discussion.
As a high school administrator, our administrative team (principal, assistant principals, and athletic director) used these quarterly conversations to manage our 100-plus employees. To guide our meetings, we used a Google Sheet where employee names were split into two groups (certified staff and support staff). As names were read, team members discussed strengths and weaknesses for each employee. After everyone shared their ideas and notes were recorded, we labeled each employee as a Tier 1 (highly effective), Tier 2 (effective), or Tier 3 (ineffective).
“Wow, that sounds intense!” you may be thinking. “There’s no way I could ‘rate’ our employees.”
While this practice may sound cold-blooded, understand that these meetings were mostly positive and highly productive. My experience was that 90 to 95 percent of school employees fell into the Tier 1 or Tier 2 category. While their abilities ranged from capable to highly effective, we found that an overwhelming majority of staff were dedicated, hard-working, and passionate about helping kids succeed.
While we could have spent hours discussing our effective employees, these conversations were limited due to the large number of employees we needed to discuss. However, our administrative team made a commitment to ensuring our Tier 1 and Tier 2 heard consistent, positive feedback from our team.
So, what about the Tier 3 employees? These individuals were placed into two categories: in need of informal coaching or in need of formal intervention.
When our leadership team determined an employee had professional deficiencies, the first step was for that individual to receive informal coaching. This support was provided by an instructional coach, teacher mentor, administrator, or instructional supports outside the building.
Approximately two-thirds of the employees who received informal coaching improved their skills to an acceptable level. However - for the employees who did not improve – the next step was formal intervention (more on this in the next section).
The primary benefit of these conversations is to ensure administrators are keeping employee work performance top of mind. Whereas busy school leaders could go months without considering the job performance of employees, this process ensures that school leaders are constantly coming back to this all-important topic.
Another benefit of these conversations is that they ensure the administrative team is in sync with their feelings about individual employees. Far too often, employees receive mixed feedback from a principal who tells them they are doing “great” while the actions of an assistant principal suggest otherwise. This process helps ensure that employees know where they stand with their administrative team.
Finally, a third benefit of ongoing performance discussions is that they hold administrators accountable for addressing low-performing staff. Far too many school leaders avoid putting in the hard work on underperformers and then wonder why they experience the same personnel issues year after year. By documenting agreed-upon action steps, colleagues are held accountable for addressing the employees they have been assigned.
Speaking of low-performing staff, at some point in their career, all leaders will supervise an underperforming employee. While never fun, having the courage to address these individuals is what separates great leaders from the rest.
The following are ten basic principles for dealing with subpar employees. These methods have been endorsed by educator associations, referenced by legal firms, and been featured in School Administrator Magazine.
Let me be clear, by no means should the following be considered legal advice. When dealing with employee issues in your district, consult with your human resources department or district legal counsel.
Documentation: Documenting employee concerns is a critical responsibility for school leaders. Unfortunately, many administrators lack the awareness and patience to summarize and record specific actions related to employee underperformance. In today’s overly bureaucratic world, school districts must collect evidence to justify employee coaching and dismissal.
Patterns: Supervisors must focus on patterns of underperformance as opposed to single events. Aside from severe ethical and safety concerns, supervisors are required to document a series of infractions before jumping to formalized intervention. The cumulative nature of the infractions provides evidence needed to justify further remediation.
Working File: Typically an electronic file maintained by the employee’s direct supervisor, the working file is used as a temporary holding file to archive coaching conversations and document minor employee violations. When the employee’s performance or behavior warrants formal intervention or discipline, documentation should be moved from the working file to the personnel file.
Personnel File: Typically a physical file found in the district’s human resources department, the personnel file is the employee’s official work record. Significant employee concerns should be placed in this folder. Keeping documented paperwork in one location not only supports future discipline-related decisions, the file also becomes valuable during changes in leadership.
Coaching Conversations (Step 1): Leaders must offer continuous support to all employees. When supervisors notice deficiencies in performance, they (or a designee) must engage employees in coaching conversations. The purpose of these discussions is to develop new skills, refine existing skills, and help employees meet performance standards. Coaching documents should be placed in the employee’s working file.
Awareness Phase and Verbal Warning (Step 2): An elevated notice of employee performance or behavior, the awareness phase and verbal warning are secondary intervention steps. The awareness phase addresses competency-related employee issues, while the verbal warning responds to behavior-related employee issues. Both documents should be placed in the employee’s working file.
Plan of Assistance and Written Warning (Step 3): When employees are non-responsive to coaching or their conduct is serious in nature, the plan of assistance and written warning serve as the most severe types of intervention. The plan of assistance is an official notice of persistent substandard performance while the written warning is used to document extreme behavioral misconduct. Both documents should be placed in the employee’s personnel file.
Annual Evaluation: Annual evaluations reflect a complete picture of employee performance, meaning uncorrected below-standard performance must be identified in this document. As previously discussed, the annual evaluation should not be the first time the employee is made aware of deficiencies. Annual evaluations should be placed in the employee’s personnel file.
Signature: Do employees need to sign corrective documents? While there is no “legal” requirement, best practice is to have employees sign and date remedial documents to establish a clear record of receipt. In the event an employee refuses to sign, the evaluator could write the following: “On (Date), I handed this document to (Employee) who refused to sign acknowledging receipt. (Evaluator Signature/Date)”
Dismissal Hearing: As the “victim mentality” continues to pervade the modern workplace, leaders must be methodical in keeping accurate documentation of employee intervention. When personnel issues reach dismissal hearings, schools must establish the employee did not respond to coaching despite being afforded several opportunities. Furthermore, schools must prove the employee is likely to continue underperformance in the future.
Before we finish, let’s discuss district-level leadership. Just because this chapter has focused primarily on building administrators, please understand that these lessons also apply to superintendents and other central office leaders.
Similar to teachers, a large majority of administrators do a terrific job. Not only do they pour their heart and soul into students and staff, most school leaders work endless hours to ensure their buildings run at high levels.
Despite their heroic efforts, it is common for school leaders to go months without receiving positive feedback from a supervisor. District leaders: how often do you deliver specific, authentic praise to principals? Did you know that the most effective leaders give five positive comments for every one negative comment? If you were to track the positive and negative feedback you deliver, what would be your ratio?
Switching gears, how often have you heard the following: “Bad principals are so hard to get rid of”?
Put simply, that’s BS.
Sure, administrators have bigger egos, larger paychecks, and are more likely to seek legal action. But when compared to teachers, school leaders are actually easier to remove thanks to limited contractual protections and multi-year probationary periods.
Unfortunately, many district leaders lack the courage to address underperforming administrators. Rather use the steps outlined on the previous pages, they use excuses such as, “They aren’t that bad”, "They are retiring soon", and – my favorite – "They are untouchable."
Listen, no underperforming employee is "untouchable." Quit trying to justify your lack of action and do the work.
Superintendents: Please don't complain about how "difficult" or your job is when you don’t have the courage to remove poor leaders. Your job is “difficult” because you’re always cleaning up the messes left by the poor leaders you continue to employ.
Superintendents: please don't complain about how "difficult" or your job is when you don’t have the courage to remove poor leaders. Your job is “difficult” because you’re always cleaning up the messes left by the poor leaders you continue to employ.
Katheryn Minshew, CEO and co-founder of The Muse, said the following: “Done right, a performance review is one of the best opportunities to encourage and support high performers and constructively improve your middle- and lower-tier workers.”
Effective employee management provides school leaders with an opportunity to recognize the strengths of high-performing educators, while developing plans to support underperforming employees.
Administrators who stay focused on employee performance create a culture of continuous improvement within their faculty.