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 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.

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.

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?

In a word, 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.

They should never be made to feel that you're being mean or arbitrary.

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 this long 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.

For starters, I recommend using our app Repertoire when you conduct observations—formal or informal—so you can capture more evidence with less typing.

Generating solid evidence for teacher evaluations is a major focus of our online course, High-Performance Teacher Evaluations, which is included with Pro Membership.

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