Failing teachers: Whose incompetence?

I’ve been following this story from Oakland with interest, and a some relief that it is Oakland Unified’s PR headache and not SFUSD’s. Apparently a group of parents at Lazear Elementary, a school serving a high percentage of low-income students and English Language Learners, became very frustrated after their efforts to get a teacher out of the classroom was met with very little response by administrators:

They alleged that the veteran teacher had left children unattended in the classroom to take a cigarette break, briefly locked a girl in a dark classroom because she was moving too slowly, frequently told students to “shut up” and, most recently, grabbed a boy’s collar, leaving a mark on the student’s neck.

Administrators failed to remove the teacher from his teaching job despite months of meetings with administrators, petitions, phone calls and a laundry list of documented problems, parents said.

Finally, last week, almost 80 percent of parents at the school kept their kids out of school and instead picketed at district headquarters. The absences cost the school district up to $9,000 in lost revenue, and the pickets got a lot of high-level attention (I happened to see a TV clip of Superintendent Tony Smith inviting the parents upstairs for a face-to-face meeting).  Yesterday, the teacher was put on leave.

Is it too hard to fire incompetent teachers? I’ve been thinking a lot about this question, because it periodically comes up in our own school district, and it is being widely discussed nationally. New York finally got rid of its much-reviled “rubber rooms,” where teachers facing disciplinary action were sent to sit, sometimes for years, with full pay and benefits, as an agreement to get them out of the classroom. Recently, in an email to an acquaintance of mine (which he agreed to let her post on a public listserve), UESF President Dennis Kelly weighed in:

I’d like you to know that we resent being tagged with blame for rubber rooms and lemon dancing [the practice of moving a teacher to another school in order to avoid disciplinary action has been dubbed “the dance of the lemons.”]. After all, we do not hire incompetent teachers, nor do we have the responsibility for evaluating them. The first two years that they are in a district, teachers can be let go for any reason at all. After that they have to be evaluated every two years at least. At UESF we think that the blame lies with administration for failing to do its jobs.

No one wants an incompetent or downright awful teacher to ruin even one day of a child’s education, and I have to say that in every case of teacher incompetence I’ve seen in our own district, years went by with no action being taken by administrators to address the teacher’s problems.  In most of the cases I can think of, action was only taken after parent complaints became loud and organized. In other words, though parents have no power to evaluate or take disciplinary action against school staff, somehow their attention is the necessary spark to real action. Why is that?

I have a few ideas. Schools are by their nature pretty close-knit places, where everyone knows everyone else’s business. In such an environment, I think it is very difficult–sometimes impossible– for principals to come down on individual employees without feeling that they are harming the collaborative and close-knit nature of the working relationship they must have with their teachers in order to be successful. It takes a very specific kind of personality to maintain both the professional distance and warm interpersonal relationships to be effective in such an environment, and I think this is a rare combination.

Does failing to take immediate and progressive disciplinary steps against a problem teacher mean the principal is incompetent? Sadly, no, because that would be the easy answer. Principals bear part of the responsibility, to be sure, because they must realize that their responsibility is to the children and not the staff members they supervise (even when this is an excruciating choice). But district administration must also bear part of the burden, because assistant Superintendents must support principals when they take the incredibly difficult step of disciplining a member of their teaching staff. Similarly, colleagues of problem teachers must step up too, and realize that they also have a greater responsibility to students than they do to co-workers.

I don’t know the answer. I don’t think it should take years to notice that a particular teacher isn’t getting the job done;  it certainly shouldn’t take parents picketing district headquarters in order to get adequate instruction for their children.  The rank and file teachers I know are offended by the idea of protecting incompetent teachers, and are similarly offended when their principal doesn’t take necessary steps to keep incompetence out of the classrooms at their schools. But at most schools I visit, everyone knows who the “problems” are on the staff, from teachers to aides to parents. Why doesn’t anyone feel it is their responsibility to step up?  After all, when Mr. Kelly states it, it sounds so simple: principals should just evaluate the teachers and write up the incompetent ones.  But in practice, this appears to be very hard, and we need to shine a stronger light on the reasons why.  Any ideas?

Update: UESF President Dennis Kelly discusses teacher quality issues with Senior Dad Stan Goldberg.


2 responses to “Failing teachers: Whose incompetence?

  1. Wow! I am a relatively new teacher – still in the private school system. I never heard about this whole “rubber room” system. It’s appalling! I am shocked that people are paid to do nothing because they did something wrong…What kind of educators are we anyway?

  2. Principals have told me that, unless what they are doing wrong is egregious and well known throughout a school, it can be difficult to get rid of poor teachers when teachers as a whole get to vote whether principal contracts are renewed or not. As you correctly note, principals want to promote unity among their staff and not rock the boat.

    The system doesn’t reward them for doing better, nor does it hold them accountable if they fail (with the notable exception of the bottom 10 percent principals that are being painted with too broad a brush.)

    What is being done to really help and support principal leadership in a significant, meaningful and visible way in SFUSD? Here is another thing that research shows can make a difference, but I’m not aware of any change of direction or significant emphasis on seriously growing principal leadership development and accountability in SFUSD as a policy direction.

    It may be there, I’m just unaware.