Growth or Dismissal? Choosing Your Evaluation Path for Each Teacher


In a recent article, I argued that an “unsatisfactory” teacher evaluation should lead to either improvement or termination.

Too often, we give people a hard time in the evaluation process, but the situation doesn’t change. (If anything, it often gets worse.)

Most teachers, most of the time, deserve the positive evaluations they get.

But when an “unsat” is called for, it’s our job to execute it rigorously and professionally.

Unsats Aren’t Symbolic

If you’re going to give an unsatisfactory evaluation, whether it’s in the next few days or at the end of the year, do it for the right reasons.

And know this: “sending a wake-up call” isn’t the right reason.

Yet it’s the most common reason.

If we think managerial aggression is the way to help teachers shape up or ship out, we’re in for a rude surprise when:

  • The teacher fights back, and wins
  • Other teachers close ranks, fearful that they’ll be targeted next
  • We’re asked to produce evidence of our concerns, the steps we’ve taken to communicate them, and the supports we’ve put in place…and don’t have much to present
  • Whomever is responsible for the school’s legal fees discourages us from issuing unsats in the future, or
  • School climate takes a nosedive

…or all of the above.

So what’s the right reason to pursue an unsatisfactory evaluation? To leave a seriously underperforming teacher no choice but to improve or leave.

That’s it.

But harassing a teacher, and burdening her with ridiculous requirements, turns the process into a fight in which everyone loses.

The solution, as I said in my last article, is to be prepared. Have your ducks in a row. Collect the evidence you need, have the tough conversations, and take the steps you need to take.

(On Wednesday, we’re doing a webinar on tech tools for teacher evaluation. If you want to make sure your documentation is rock-solid, but not a lot more work, make sure you join us while you can.)

But how can you tell which teachers you’re going to need reams of evidence for? 

It’s like RTI: Cover the basics for everyone, then differentiate as needed. But be careful with this second step.

Instructional Supervision: Bases To Cover for Every Teacher

I’m getting too old to be wishy-washy on this, so I’ll just say it:

If you supervise teachers, you need to be in every classroom at least once every two weeks.

If you do formal observations, and have any concerns at all, you need to do more than one formal. (And never rely only on scheduled formal observations…my colleague Kim Marshall is right to call them “dog-and-pony shows” even if they do serve a useful function.)

And when you’re doing these basic instructional supervision activities, you need to keep good documentation as a matter of habit. (More on this in Wednesday’s webinar.)

But we all know that negative evaluations require a ton of documentation. Do you just go all-out for every evaluation?

The Pareto Principle for Principals

Again, I’ll be direct: No, you don’t have time to collect reams of evidence for every single teacher evaluation.

Do your best, of course. The more evidence you collect for every eval, the less targeted and harassed your teachers of concern will feel, and the more defensible your actions will be, even when you’re just pursuing hunches.

But the reality is that you’ll spend 80% of your evaluation time on 20% (or even less) of your teachers. You’ll get the other 80% of your evals done in only 20% of your total evaluation time. (The Pareto Principle, or 80/20 rule, in action.)

If you have a serious case, you may spend fully half your total eval time on a single teacher, and that’s OK—even if it feels ridiculous.

It’s not ridiculous if that’s what students need you to do.

But it is ridiculous if you don’t know why you’re doing it, or what outcome you want.

Put Every Teacher On The Growth Path Or The Dismissal Path

Most teachers, most of the time, should be on what I’ll call the “growth” path. They have goals, they’re committed and skilled, and they want to get better at their craft.

Put a good eval process in place, do your part, and it’ll mostly take care of itself.

Everyone else—let’s say 5-20% of your teachers—should be on the “dismissal” path.

Wait, what?!

No, you can’t and shouldn’t dismiss 20% of your teaching staff in any given year. Show me a principal who does this, year after year, and I’ll show you someone with no leadership capital who’s six months away from a heart attack.

But you need to be prepared to dismiss any of your lowest quintile of teachers, should the situation demand it.

But doesn’t this contradict what I just said? Won’t you find yourself in all-out warfare with your staff if you’re prepared to fire a fifth of them?

You need to be in those classrooms frequently. You need to be providing specific, expert feedback, and holding teachers accountable for improving in response to your feedback.

(Notice that I didn’t say “jumping through hoops”—I said “improving.”)

You need to be in regular contact with your supervisor (and perhaps HR person and legal counsel) about your progress with each teacher on the dismissal path.

And whatever you do, don’t tell teachers they’re on the dismissal path. This is about YOU being clear in your mind, so you know what actions you need to take.

When you take those actions, they’ll speak for themselves. When you initiate a formal improvement plan after it’s become clear that your feedback alone isn’t prompting the necessary improvements, the message is clear.

You don’t need to make people feel like they’re on your naughty list.

Uncertainty and Unkindness

So why does everyone need to be on either the growth path or the dismissal path?

Because…uncertainty. If you’re not sure who’s going to make it and who isn’t, you don’t want to guess wrong.

You need to be prepared for any of your situations of concern to turn south—prepared to provide intensive support, and prepared with the evidence you need.

That way, you can hope for the best for everyone, without falling victim to unfulfilled hopes.

Or rather, allowing your students to fall victim.

If someone isn’t definitely on the growth path, they need to be on the dismissal path, completely and definitively, until you can clearly move them back onto the growth path.

(Again, this is all in your head, so you’re clear on the level of action you need to take.)

If that feels mean or unduly harsh, here’s an idea: be kind and supportive even to people who are on the dismissal path.

Every teacher—even one you’re working hard to fire—should feel the support and professionalism in what you’re doing. Never meanness or arbitrariness.

Again, you don’t know who’s going to make it and who isn’t, so bullying the people you don’t like is a guaranteed way to destroy the culture in your school, and a totally ineffective way to get them to leave.

Support. Hold accountable. Follow the process. Collect LOTS of evidence. And be kind.

You Can’t Half-Fire Someone

As educators, we want to believe in everyone.

We want everyone to grow, achieve, and succeed—even people who are truly struggling.

And while we can usually muster the will to throw the book at someone who’s harming kids’ futures without any serious effort to improve…that’s not most of our dismissal-path teachers.

Most of them will make it. They’ll improve.

They’ll get better. And you’ll be thrilled with that outcome. (NOT having to fire someone is a great feeling.)

But remember the uncertainty problem: We can’t know, ahead of time, which of our struggling teachers are going to make it and which aren’t, so we can’t afford to be under-prepared, should we find that someone just needs to go.

If you want to help someone make massive improvements in their practice, it’s just about impossible to overdo it. Help away.

And if it works out, no harm done.

But the opposite isn’t true: you can’t half-fire someone. That’s called harassment, and it doesn’t work.

Nor can you decide at the last minute that things have taken a turn for the worse and write a scathing evaluation, out of the blue. It doesn’t work, because you can’t marshall the necessary evidence.

Choose your path for each staff member. Figure an 80/20 split between the growth path and the dismissal path.

Then, do what needs to be done.


I’m fully aware that what I’m advising here is hard.

It’s very hard, because it requires time in classrooms, a keen eye for professional practice, a deep understanding of your evaluation framework language, and rigorous adherence to your organization’s dismissal process.

Fortunately, you’re amazing. (Look at you…you’ve read almost 1,400 words of an article on doing it right! That alone sets you apart from the crowd.)

And technology can help with certain parts—not every part, but the parts that tend to make the workload of rigorous evaluations unmanageable for most school leaders.

Join me on Wednesday, January 28 for a free webinar:

High-Performance Tech Tools for Teacher Evaluations


Join me live if you possibly can. 5pm EST / 4pm CST / 3pm MST / 2pm PST

I know schedule conflicts are a fact of life, so we’re offering a limited-time replay in case you can’t join live, so register either way. I’ll have the replay out by Friday at the latest, so if you do register planning NOT to attend live, go ahead and block off time on your calendar to watch the replay, or it won’t happen.

Register here. See you Wednesday.

And thanks for all you do on behalf of students. It’s an honor to work with such incredible instructional leaders every day.

How to Keep an Unsatisfactory Teacher Evaluation from Failing

Most teacher evaluations—I’ll conservatively say 98%—are “satisfactory” or better. (Here are some numbers from 2013).

That doesn’t mean that nearly all teachers are doing a great job; it just means that we as administrators very rarely go to the trouble of marking a teacher as unsatisfactory.

Why? Because it’s a lot of work, and it often doesn’t “work.”

What’s A Successful Bad Evaluation?

If you have a teacher who isn’t getting the job done, and hasn’t improved despite being urged and helped to do so, an unsatisfactory evaluation may be in order.

But what is this supposed to accomplish?

(And no, this is not a rhetorical question—we do need to give unsatisfactory evaluations when they’re called for).

We should be looking for one of two outcomes when we give a negative evaluation:

  1. Improvement. It’s a wake-up call, yes, but a negative evaluation should also result in a great deal more attention and support to help the teacher improve.
  2. Termination. If a teacher has repeatedly demonstrated that they aren’t going to improve to an acceptable level any time soon, an unsatisfactory evaluation should lead to that teacher’s termination.

But too many principals rely on a deeply flawed assumption.

Evaluation Is Not Harassment, and Harassment Is Not Evaluation

A lot of administrators try to combine a little bit of evaluation with a little bit of meanness, thinking:

“If I give them a hard enough time, they’ll leave.”

No, no, and no.

Time and time again, I’ve seen that backfire on administrators.

Your options are:

  1. Help the teacher improve to an acceptable level.
  2. Do whatever it takes to have the teacher terminated.

You cannot cause a voluntary resignation. You just can’t, and if you try, you’ll end up with a mess.

Do a half-hearted job of documenting and supporting, and throw in a hefty load of meanness for good measure, and you’re going to have your whole staff mad at you, instead of thanking you for holding their underperforming colleague accountable.

You can only do negative evaluations right if you have your ducks in a row, and far too many negative evaluations “fail” because we, the evaluators, don’t have our stuff together.

The solution, as any Boy Scout could tell you, is to be prepared.

What Unprepared Looks Like

Not Knowing What’s Happening
Final evaluations are usually due in May or June in the US, and we usually start thinking about them when certain deadlines—for goal-setting, for observations, for written reports, for renewal decisions—are approaching.

Too often, though, we’re unprepared for these deadlines because we don’t know enough about what’s actually taking place in classrooms.

We rely on proxies like collegial behavior, orderly students, or a lack of complaints for parents, and we have no idea what’s actually taking place during lessons.

(If you want to make sure this isn’t the case in your school, join us for the free 21-Day Instructional Leadership Challenge).

When we reach the end of the year and realize things aren’t going well in a particular teacher’s classroom, we’re left with a terrible choice: pretend everything is fine (since we don’t have enough evidence to submit a solid negative evaluation), or give an anemic unsat that will neither help the teacher grow nor result in their dismissal.

Lacking Evidence
It goes without saying that an unsat requires loads of evidence, and that evidence needs to be in writing (or in some cases, documents, photos, or other artifacts).

We keep far too much in our heads.

If you want to help a teacher improve, you need evidence of their current practice so you can identify specific steps for them to take. And you need evidence of their improvement.

If you want to make sure a teacher doesn’t come back next year, you need evidence of what’s going on, what you’ve done to improve the situation, and how the teacher has responded.

This evidence needs to be outside of your own head, and it needs to be organized so you can pull it together easily.

(Keep stuff in Evernote if in doubt.)

Failing to Decide What Outcome We Want
The third way we can be unprepared is to be unclear about what we want to happen.

If you don’t know whether you want the teacher to improve or be fired, your actions to make that happen are going to be scattershot.

Of course, we should want all teachers to improve. But sometimes we also want people to leave, because we can tell it’s not going to work out, at least not without many more years of sacrificing students’ learning in the faint hope that the teacher will improve.

(If you want someone to leave because they aren’t a good fit, that’s another issue. Bad evaluations are for bad teaching, period.)

You never have to be mean, but at a certain point, you do have to decide which way it’s going to go, and proceed accordingly.

If you’re going to fire someone, you can’t pull any punches. And if you’re going to help them improve and stay on your staff, you have a relationship to maintain—one that involves very clear expectations for continued improvement.

But let me be very clear on this point: You should never simply hope that someone will leave voluntarily because you gave them a bad evaluation.

That may well happen—in fact, it probably happens a hundred times more often than an actual termination—but if a voluntary resignation is your goal, you’ll get sloppy about collecting evidence and supporting the teacher’s improvement, and you can’t afford to do that.

It’s just as likely that it’ll backfire, and you’ll end up with an angry staff, a very angry bad teacher, and nothing to show for it.

Be Prepared

Know what’s going on in your classrooms.

Gather evidence, even if you’re not sure if you’ll need it.

Be nice, but be diligent in preparing for all of your evaluations.

Why is it so hard to be prepared for all of our evaluations? Simply put, it’s a lot of information to manage.

Fortunately, technology can help. You still have to make all the professional judgments, but you can let your tech tools do the “dumb stuff” like:

  • Scheduling observations and meetings
  • Organizing your notes
  • Remembering the exact wording of your evaluation framework, standard-by-standard

To help with this, I’m offering a free webinar this coming Wednesday, January 28 at 4pm CST:

In High-Performance Tech Tools for Teacher Evaluations, you’ll learn:

  • How to schedule every teacher observation and evaluation meeting, for the entire year, with a single email—while preventing double-booking (hint: it doesn’t involve your secretary)
  • How to make sure you have exactly the documents you need, at your fingertips, for every observation and meeting—without letting them clutter your desk or inbox
  • Why most of the time spent on evaluations goes to waste, and what high-performance instructional leaders do differently
  • How to capture more information during observations—with LESS typing—and how to turn that information into evidence
  • The #1 tool for managing all of the different kinds of information and documents you gather throughout the year—so you can write each final evaluation in a single sitting, no matter what system you use

If you can’t join live, we’ll have a reply available for a short time, but only if you register.

Click here to register for free »

Instructional Leadership and “Other Duties As Assigned”

Do you want to be an instructional leader or a building manager?

Instructional leadership vs mgmt

Faced with this question, most of us know the “correct” answer (especially in a job interview): instructional leader, of course.

But do we really have a choice? Can you choose to be an instructional leader and not a building manager?

You can certainly hold an administrative position without exercising instructional leadership. Look around—plenty of people do.

But if you really want to be an instructional leader, can you disregard the organizational management work that’s often written off as “administrivia”?

An important and fascinating study of Florida principals found that leaders spent only about 10% of their time on instructional leadership work, such as classroom observations and PD. Meanwhile, they spent about 20% of their time on organizational management.

10% doesn’t exactly denote a top priority.

The more surprising finding: Spending more time on instruction did not correlate with higher student performance.

To investigate this weak link between student learning and instructional leadership, a report commissioned by NAESP and NASSP, the two largest associations of US school administrators, looked beyond narrow definitions of instructional leadership and focused on the role leaders play in organizations.

They suggest “broadening the definition of instructional leadership to include organizational management skills” (p. 5). Why?

Principals devoting significant time and energy to becoming instructional leaders in their schools are unlikely to see improvement unless they increase their capacity for organizational management as well. Effective instructional leadership combines an understanding of the instructional needs of the school with an ability to target resources where they are needed, hire the best available teachers, provide teachers with the opportunities they need to improve, and keep the school running smoothly.

effective administrative leadership provides a stable, predictable, and supportive foundation for a high-performing school…[and] that effective administrative and instructional leadership are inextricably intertwined and interdependent processes.

—Grissom and Loeb 2009; Blase, Blase, and Phillips 2010; in Leadership Matters: What the Research Says About the Importance of Principal Leadership, p. 5-6

In other words, teaching isn’t the only thing that has to work right for a school to be effective. Instructional leadership involves creating the conditions for instruction, not just directly supervising it.