Educators are nice.
We assume the best in others and believe anyone can be successful. This attitude is desirable. We want people with this mindset working in our schools.
At the same time, we must be honest in our assessment of employees.
Are our employees a good fit for our school?
Are our employees performing at high levels?
Are our employees best for kids?
Unfortunately, educators are notorious for allowing poor employees to stick around for too long.
Educators are too nice.
“All of our employees are amazing!”
When I discuss employee performance with school leaders from other districts, they often contend that all their employees are outstanding.
A little suspicious, I press a bit harder. “All employees?”
“Oh yeah! We have a top-notch staff,” they insist.
"You must have employees who are receiving extensive coaching or formalized assistance?" I ask.
"Nope. No one. Everyone is doing great!" they assure me.
Ok, so maybe they are just protecting their own. That's fine. There is nothing wrong with defending one's staff. However, my experiences indicate there is often more than meets the eye.
When new leaders arrive in a building, at some point they will take a peek at employee evaluations from previous years. Often, they are curious to read what a prior evaluator wrote about an employee with a reputation for underperformance.
When the new leader scans the subpar employee's evaluation, many times they are stunned to discover there isn't a single comment critical of the employee's performance. Instead, the employee is marked as "exceeding expectations" on all teaching standards.
Hoping it's a one-off with that employee, the new leader searches for a folder of another employee with noticeable deficiencies. Flipping through the evaluation, the evaluator is dismayed to see that this employee is also marked as "exceeding expectations" on all teaching standards.
Soon, folders for the school's five worst teachers are pulled from the cabinet. Not a single teacher was marked as below-standard by the previous boss.
Given that the lowest performers in this school were categorized as high performing, one must assume this is a world class school with extraordinary student performance. However, this school is far from world class. With ordinary student achievement scores, pedestrian student participation rates, and declining graduation percentages, this school is mediocre at best.
How can a school full of "rockstars" produce below-average results?
Superintendents - don't think you are off the hook since thus far we have focused on teachers.
When asked about their administrators, district leaders are quick explain that they have "high performing" employees at all levels. And rightfully so - you wouldn't expect them to throw top employees under the bus.
However, looking closer at the these district leaders, you can‘t help but notice their high stress levels as they run around putting out fires en route to 50-plus hour workweeks. "This is what I signed up for" they tell their families as they head out the door to solve another issue.
When examining the root cause of these issues, a striking pattern begins to emerge: Many district leaders spend time on issues that are the direct result of ineffective leadership elsewhere in the district. That's right, district leaders need not look any further than their direct reports as the reason for their busyness.
"But principals and directors are so hard to get rid of!" these leaders complain.
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 backbone to address underperforming principals and directors. Rather than have the courage to take on these employees, they make excuses such as, "They are retiring soon", "They are getting better," and "They aren't that bad."
Superintendents: Don't point the finger at principals for keeping ineffective teachers when you don't have the guts to remove ineffective principals. And please don't complain about how "difficult" your job is when in reality you spend your day overcompensating for the poor leaders you blindly employ.
To be clear: employees must be given every chance to succeed. This means districts are required to provide staff with targeted coaching and intervention prior to removal. Assuming school districts have sound hiring practices and a strong support system, few employees should ever be forced to leave a district.
But in the event it's determined team members are not the right fit - either because they are not open to coaching or because their skills will never rise to an acceptable level - the leader must have the courage to dismiss those employees.
Allowing poor staff to hang around is especially unfair to high-performing employees. When strong performers see their efforts hampered by ineffective colleagues, they become frustrated and irritated. They may even leave.
Rather than sit idly by and let their team erode, school leaders must hold all team members accountable by establishing performance and accountability standards.
In education there is a rule of thumb for determining teacher effectiveness which reads, “Would you want your kid in their classroom?”
Unfortunately, we can all think of leaders who - if given the chance - would avoid placing their children in certain teachers' classrooms. Yet, these same leaders do nothing to address those underperforming teachers.
Educational Leaders: stop being so nice and start doing what is best for kids.
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