Take Us to Your (Education) Leaders

I understand focusing on firing poorly performing teachers. But I think a greater accountability has to fall on administrators. As much as we need high-quality teachers, we need high-quality leadership at the principal and above levels.

A couple of nights ago, I called my mom, a supplemental reading teacher who was formerly an elementary classroom teacher, and asked about firing bad teachers: the ease of it, the process, the general end-results, etc. I wanted the view of someone currently on the ground who dislikes bad teachers as much as anyone.

She confirmed the difficulty. It takes a lot of paperwork (likely gathered after informal counseling) – a long paper trail spanning at least over a year before proceedings can begin. Then, in her district, a poorly performing teacher is put on an improvement plan for a year. He or she can resign. Or the teacher can work the improvement plan under heavy scrutiny and improve, or work it and fail to improve and be fired or resign. Most resign so a firing isn’t on their record. Many end up leaving the field altogether, indicating they were unhappy in the first place (and a teacher’s salary isn’t worth the amount of work they’re expected to put in to improve).[1] But, as my mom gives credit, the fact this even happens is thanks to the principal. Her principal pays attention to teachers and students alike, and uses a much more nuanced lens to view the quality of a teacher than anything being offered as a solution to bad teachers by those outside the field.

There seems to be a belief that one can just fire someone the first moment they show a failing. That doesn’t happen in the corporate (or public) world. (Heck, in the corporate world, accountability seems to be lacking far more than in public schools. Recession, y’all?) Let’s be honest. There’s never any good way to fire an employee who isn’t flagrantly violating policies or laws – in the private or public sector. Sometimes, it’s the cumulative of repeated failings and lack of improvement that determines whether an employee is kept or not.

This is a leadership issue. Good leaders notice poorly performing employees, try to help them improve and terminate them only as a last resort. Certainly we don’t want bad teachers in our classrooms for years, but how else do you judge their abilities than by allowing them to work and improve before running straight to the pink slip book?

Equally as important is realizing the immense influence principals have on the retention of high-quality teachers. Case in point: My friend Heather left Austin ISD after a year because her principal was not only a bad leader who frustrated her every attempt to improve as a first-year teacher but was also allegedly playing El Paso-style funky business with TAKS and testing day attendance. Heather is now receiving her Ph.D. in pure mathematics. (So much for STEM, huh?)

Let’s face it: Better leadership brings better talent. Teachers race toward excellence, not away from it. Teachers want their “kids,” their students, to excel. Even I remember the happiness my grade school teachers showed when former students came back to visit as successful young men and women (myself included).

There are bad teachers. There are bad mechanics. There are bad bakers. There are bad investors. There are bad employees in every field. There are bad managers. Leaders weed them out. They also try to help employees grow. And they get rid of consistently poorly performing employees. Maybe it’s time we focus on high-quality leadership – principals and administrators – instead of just teachers.[2]


[1] Let’s quickly do away with this BS argument some use to justify the low pay teachers receive. I’ve heard seemingly otherwise reasonable people argue that if we pay teachers more, we will begin to attract more poorly performing teachers. Their reasoning is that teachers willing to work for such low pay are passionate, whereas increasing pay would attract those who aren’t passionate but want money. Using this logic, American C-suite executives should be among the lowest paid employees in the world.

[2] I understand principals are under the gun when it comes to accountability ratings as well, but teachers tend to catch the brunt of public criticism. Principals also have responsibility for an entire school’s performance, and, thus, must be good leaders to ensure the morale, productivity and excellence of the staff, faculty and students allow them to perform at their best.

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