By now, you’ve likely heard the Jim Collins “bus” analogy.
In Good to Great, Collins suggests that leaders of great organizations make sure they have the right people on the bus before they figure out where to drive the bus.
"Look, I don't really know where we should take this bus,” Collins explains. “But I know this much: If we get the right people on the bus, the right people in the right seats, and the wrong people off the bus, then we'll figure out how to take it someplace great."
In theory, getting the right people on the bus - and the wrong people off the bus - sounds easy. “We’ll just hire, fire, and move people around until we get it right!” say private business owners.
However, school leaders understand things aren’t quite so simple. Unlike their business-world friends, school leaders are governed by bureaucratic policy and never ending red tape.
So this begs the question: How can school leaders ensure they get the right people on the bus while also following the litany of procedures that regulate their work?
Employee management is one of the most important - yet misunderstood - jobs of a school administrator.
Employee management is the effort to help employees do their best work each day in order to achieve the larger goals of the organization. Regardless of how talented they may be, leaders are only as good as the people they have around them. Therefore, leaders must constantly assess their employees to determine who is thriving and who needs support.
Despite its critical nature, many school leaders struggle managing staff. Some leaders use an authoritarian approach and are far too critical of employees. These leaders create a culture of mistrust and blame. Other leaders try too hard to be liked and are far too easy on their employees. These leaders create an environment of low standards and indifference.
Why is it so hard for school leaders to find the sweet spot where high expectations and strong relationships can coexist?
Much of the blame can be placed on lack of training. Rarely are practical, "real world" employee management skills explicitly taught educational leadership courses. Furthermore, few districts spend time training their leaders on this important topic. As a result, most school leaders learn how to assess staff through trial and error.
I can’t speak for others, but my personal experience with employee evaluation has been quite the roller coaster. While I have been regarded as an "expert" in this field, I have made plenty of mistakes during my 15-year administrative career. I have been named in multiple lawsuits, accused of "harassing" employees yet been too "chicken" to address toxic staff, grieved by teacher associations ... not to mention experienced many sleepless nights worried about this topic.
If this sounds familiar, understand that you are not alone.
Effectively evaluating school employees is the most important - and the most difficult - work of the school leader.
Two personal stories epitomize employee management missteps in schools.
The first story takes me back to when I was an assistant principal. As a novice administrator, I was clueless about classroom walkthroughs. Despite being one of the most common methods for determining teacher effectiveness, my training on the practice was limited.
It wasn’t until my fifth year in administration when I was given walkthrough training. The underlying philosophy of this particular training was to “push teachers to get better“ by posing “reflective questions” that would “improve instruction.”
To learn this process, a group administrators would spend ten minutes observing an ongoing class. When the walkthrough was done, the team of administrators returned to the office to complete one feedback form for the teacher.
I will always remember visiting the classroom of one of our strong math teachers. Whereas she was a little shy and at times lacked confidence in her abilities, she had a heart of gold, loved her students, and produced solid results.
After our group of six adults left her classroom, we returned to the office to type up our feedback. Given that I was the “tech savvy” administrator (or the most naive), I agreed to send to the teacher our collective feedback.
For the next 15 minutes, I recorded question after question from the group:
“What were your lesson objectives?”
“How were you measuring student understanding?”
“Why was the student at the back of the room sleeping?”
“Could you have given students more wait time?”
“How do you address cell phones in your class?”
Initially, I was a bit hesitant about posing so many questions. “Shouldn’t we be giving her more positive feedback?” I thought to myself. However - at the urging of the group - I documented question after question on the feedback form.
Once everyone had shared their questions, I took one last look at the form before pressing “send.”
Later that day, I visited the teacher to thank her for allowing us to visit her room. To my surprise, she was surrounded by three other members of her department. The teacher was in tears.
She had just read the walkthrough feedback, and was heartbroken. Whereas our group intended for the feedback to be “reflective questions,” she took the feedback as constructive criticism.
I could tell her colleagues were frustrated with how we had treated their co-worker. I tried my best to tell the teacher not to take the feedback too hard, but the damage was done. Her confidence was shattered … taking months to recover.
Unfortunately, this scenario is far too common in today’s schools. Thinking they are helping teachers by sharing constructive feedback, administrators are inadvertently crushing teacher confidence with ineffective employee management practices.
Whereas the first story illustrates the overcritical aspects of performance feedback, the second story speaks to the opposite end of the spectrum.
When I was a new principal, I immediately began having issues with one employee in our school. This individual was single-handedly killing our culture by constantly being grouchy toward students and staff.
Frustrated with this person's lack of professionalism, I went to our administrative team and asked for their opinions on this employee.
“Oh yeah, they’ve been like that forever,” said one assistant principal.
“We have these same conversations every year,” said another assistant principal.
After hearing this feedback, I was curious to see what has been written in this employee’s personnel folder. Certainly, this behavior had been previously documented.
When I pulled out the folder to read what was written, I was shocked to see there wasn’t a single comment critical of this employee’s performance. Instead, every evaluation said that this person was “exceeding" expectations on all teaching standards.
“This must be a mistake!” I thought to myself.
Hoping this was an isolated case, I went through my staff list and found another employee with whom I had already noticed significant classroom management issues. When I pulled the folder and looked over this person’s performance feedback, I again noticed that this “underperforming“ employee was “exceeding“ expectations on all standards.
Soon, folders for the five “worst“ employees were laying on my desk ... and I couldn't find one negative word written in any of them.
Absence of documentation is a major issue in many school districts. Whether it is a lack of training - or not having the backbone to address poor employees - school administrators are notorious for neglecting to document employee underperformance.
“Employee evaluation must be ongoing.”
Any discussion around employee management and “getting the right people on the bus” must begin with the idea that the evaluative process is not a one time event.
Rather than provide employees with annual feedback, effective administrators constantly let their employees know where they stand.
Performance updates can be given a variety of ways: summative meetings, formal observations, informal walkthroughs, email feedback, handwritten notes, and hallway/classroom conversations all being examples. Unfortunately, far too many school leaders rely on the annual performance evaluation as the only time to provide feedback.
I have spoken to countless employees from other districts who indicate that they “never” hear feedback from their direct supervisor.
“Oh, come on…” I respond. “Surely, you must get some feedback from time to time?”
“Nope,” they argue. “In fact, I can’t recall the last time I had a meaningful conversation with my supervisor about my work.”
So what exactly are leaders doing with their time?
As we have discussed at length, school leaders are often expected to spend a large amount of time engaged in “managerial” tasks such as student discipline, supervision, phone calls, email, and paperwork. While these are important parts of the job, they do not carry the same weight as engaging staff in performance discussions.
However, when leaders do have time, they assume performance feedback is unnecessary. “My teachers know where they stand,” some leaders will say. “Besides, they don’t want to hear from me.”
The data would disagree.
Whereas 96% of employees crave regular feedback from their employer, more than two-thirds of employees report not receiving enough feedback. Furthermore, research shows that the younger the employee, the more feedback is desired.
Truth be told, employees at all levels want to know where they stand. From support staff through administration, staff deserve to hear feedback from a supervisor. If a staff member is doing great … tell them! It pains me to see so many outstanding school employees questioning their effectiveness. Positive feedback is powerful for building employee confidence, workplace engagement, and strong relationships.
Alternately, underperforming employees also want to know where they stand. Many bosses shy away from constructive feedback because they don’t want to hurt the feelings of staff. What these bosses don’t realize is that providing immediate feedback on employee shortcomings gives the employee an opportunity to correct the problem before it’s too late. And while they might initially be upset with the feedback, employees who grow from the assessment feel closer to their supervisor.
Providing constructive criticism also eliminates the following cardinal sin: writing negative feedback in a performance evaluation the employee has never heard before. Not only is this unfair to the employee, this is a quick way for bosses to ruin employee relationships.
We can talk about getting the right people on the bus, performance evaluations, and ongoing feedback all we want ... but what does it look like to actually operationalize this approach?
Simply put: time must be committed to this work.
One of the best things I have done as a school superintendent is to engage our building leadership teams in quarterly employee work performance conversations. Four times a year, I sit in meetings with our principal, assistant principal, and Director of Curriculum to discuss the work performance of every employee under the principal's supervision.
To guide our meetings, we use a Google Sheet that has employees split into certified and support staff and is arranged by alphabetical order. As we go through each name, we record notes and work to come to a general consensus on the work performance of our employees.
“Woah, that sounds intense," you may be thinking. "You must be hard on staff!"
Before you start imagining Hunger Games and saying "may the odds be ever in your favor" … understand that these meetings are overwhelmingly positive and productive.
My experience is that 90% of school employees get the job done. While their abilities range from effective to highly effective, a large majority of staff are busting their butts for kids and deserve nothing but praise from their supervisors.
While I would love to spend hours discussing our "good" employees in these quarterly meetings, time constraints usually mean we only have a moment or two to discuss these staff members. However, we are clear during these meetings that the "90% must know where they stand" - meaning that our team of administrators must regularly communicate specific, positive work-related feedback to those employees.
So what about the other 10%? These staff usually fall into two categories: in need of informal coaching or in need formal intervention.
When it is determined that an employee is showing deficiencies that are harming students or the school in general, the our team will develop a plan for the employee to receive coaching. Typically, the coaching conversation will be started by the administrator. Once the deficiencies are identified, the administrator will line up coaching with an instructional coach, teacher mentor, or outside instructional supports. In some cases, the administrator will deliver the coaching.
Approximately half to two-thirds of the employees who receive informal coaching improve their skills to an acceptable level. However - for the employees who do not improve - our administrative team uses these quarterly meeting to discuss formal intervention. Formal intervention involves either an “awareness phase” or “plan of assistance” (both are explained in the next section).
Quarterly leadership team performance discussions are beneficial for a variety of reasons. First, these conversations ensure that employee performance conversations are ongoing. Too often, school leaders avoid these conversations and then wonder why they encounter the same employee issues year after year.
Second, these conversations ensure that the administrative team is on the same page about an employee. Rather than defer to the person in the room with the most power (or the loudest voice), all leaders are given equal voice when sharing perspectives on employees. This disagree and commit approach prevents administrators from sending mixed messages to low-performing employees when they leave the room.
Third, these conversations hold administrators accountable for addressing low-performing staff. By using the Google Sheet to document action steps expected to be done prior to the next quarterly meeting, administrators are held accountable for sharing their progress with employees at the next meeting.
Now that you understand the connection between “getting the right people on the bus," performance evaluation, and ongoing feedback, I want to share ten basic principles for employee coaching and intervention.
These simple, yet important tactics have received recognition by educator associations and legal firms and have 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, I feel compelled to share something specifically for superintendents and district leaders. Just because this article has focused on the work of principals, don't think you are off the hook.
District office staff must constantly provide performance feedback to the leaders they supervise. Similar to teaching and support staff, most administrators are doing a great job. Given the difficulties of the past few years, school leaders who have kept their school standing deserve a huge pat on the back.
However, I challenge superintendents to reflect on how often they give their building leaders specific, authentic praise. Unfortunately, most district leaders are terrible at providing positive feedback. Did you know that the most effective leaders give five positive comments for every one negative comment. If you tallied your comments, what would your ratio be?
Switching gears, how often have you heard the following: "Principals and directors are so hard to get rid of!"
Put simply, that's not true.
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 principals, administrators, and directors. Rather than address these employees using the steps I have outlined above, they make excuses such as, "They are retiring soon", "They are getting better," and "They aren't that bad."
Oh - I can't forget my favorite: "They are untouchable."
Listen. No underperforming employee is "untouchable." You simply have to possess the backbone to address the employee and the drive to do the work.
Superintendents: don't point the finger at principals for keeping ineffective teachers when you don't have the guts to remove ineffective principals.
And if you are unwilling to remove poor leaders, please don't complain about how "difficult" or "busy" your job is. In all likelihood, your job is "difficult" or "busy" because you are constantly cleaning up the messes left by the poor leaders you continue to employ.
High-performing schools create a culture where employees love coming to work every day. Furthermore, high-performing schools create a culture where employees adhere to high expectations.
Unfortunately, some school leaders believe you must choose between the two. They believe employee morale and high expectations are binary.
This mindset is misguided. Staff morale is at its highest when low-performing employees are held accountable.
From Good to Great:
“Letting the wrong people hang around is unfair to all the right people, as they inevitably find themselves compensating for the inadequacies of the wrong people. Worse, it can drive away the best people. Strong performers are intrinsically motivated by performance, and when they see their efforts impeded by carrying extra weight, they eventually become frustrated.”
Getting the right people on the bus - and the wrong peo