Bad teachers get push toward door

Principals rely on unappealing duties to drive out the 'duds'
By SCOTT PARKS, 02/03/2002, The Dallas Morning News

School principals can recite the bloodless bureaucratic procedures and paperwork for evaluating, disciplining and firing bad teachers. In candid moments, they also can share stories about the practical methods they use to get rid of bad teachers. You won't find these stories in a college textbook.

"It may not be nice, but it'll be legal," said Robert Ward, principal of Madison High School in Dallas.

Some principals use ostracism. Others put out-of-favor teachers on hallway duty or make them serve on marginal committees that meet after school. Others take away a teacher's permanent classroom. Principals have never felt more pressure to increase student test scores, and everyone knows that the single biggest factor is teacher quality.

The vast majority of their teachers are hard-working, committed and competent, principals say. But an unknown number stifle learning. The extreme measures are saved for them. "Sometimes you just have to humiliate them out the door," said one principal, who asked not to be associated with that comment.

Teachers and their union representatives say principals often target teachers for personal reasons. Maybe the teacher stands up to disagree with the principal at faculty meetings. Or the teacher is politically the polar opposite of the principal.

Education experts say bad teachers share one or more of the following traits: disorganized, mean to children, unwilling to team up with colleagues, a shrinking violet incapable of maintaining classroom order. Some are just burned out.

In all cases, their students suffer. Classroom researcher, Dr. Robert Mendro, assistant superintendent for research and evaluation at Dallas public schools, has developed "Classroom Effectiveness Indices" on 6,000 Dallas Independent School District teachers. His research, which is based on their pupils' standardized test results, indicates that 30 percent to 40 percent of those teachers could be labeled as "ineffective."

Dr. Mendro doesn't mince words about the principal's job. "To date, there is little evidence that principals turn around the performance of teachers, " he wrote in April in a memo to DISD personnel. "Rather, effective principals do not tolerate having ineffective teachers on their staffs."

The stakes are high when children land in a teacher's classroom, Dr. Mendro said. Declines in achievement can last up to three years after a student leaves a bad teacher's classroom, he said. "It is a myth that if a kid has an ineffective teacher, you can make up the difference the next year," Dr. Mendro said.

Principals say they can't afford to work with low-performing teachers year after year. Documenting a case for termination can take one or two years and can result in costly legal proceedings if the teacher files an appeal. A termination hearing can air out a school's dirty laundry in a courtroom-like setting.

"We're not lawyers," said Mr. Ward, the Madison High School principal. "We don't know what an airtight case is." Madison High School, a classic red-brick school that sits on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Dallas, employs 62 teachers. By the principal's estimate, 10 percent are "superstars" and 10 percent are "duds."

Often, principals employ an arsenal of psychological weapons to run off the duds. The relentless pressure causes the targets to retire, transfer to other schools or go into another profession. Take the experienced high school chemistry teacher who wears his white lab coat to school every day. He lives to pour chemicals from test tubes into beakers. He knows his subject thoroughly, but he's an introvert, cannot relate to children or teach them what he knows. The teacher's students suffer. A high percentage fail. So how does the principal eliminate the problem as quickly as possible?

Here's one solution, according to some principals. The principal assigns the chemistry teacher to another subject in science and then ratchets up the pressure. The teacher is unhappy with the new assignment. The subject is unfamiliar, and he struggles to write good lesson plans. The principal's classroom observations and criticism become relentless.

"You make it so uncomfortable for them, they beg to get out," Mr. Ward said.

Firing isn't easy. Texas employment law and teacher contract provisions make it difficult for principals to get rid of experienced teachers. They can rarely be fired on the spot unless they become criminals or blatantly derelict.

Debbie Crick, principal of Hopkins Academy, an elementary school in Victoria, Texas, once fired a music teacher after an emotional outburst.

"Her kids were lined up outside her classroom one morning, and she was nowhere to be found," Ms. Crick recalled. "I found her sound asleep in the nurse's station and woke her up, and she jumped up and started cussing me. She was terminated immediately, but that is rare." Typically, bad teachers pop onto a principal's radar screen after a rash of complaints from parents, children or fellow teachers. Johnlyn Mitchell, principal at DISD's Franklin Middle School, said teachers who dislike children trouble her the most.

"They have the attitude 'You learn the way I teach. I'm gonna tell you this one time, and if you don't get it, tough.' You have kids telling you that she won't answer their questions or that she's calling them stupid. It's teachers who are too punitive with kids."

'Floating' teachers:BR> Ms. Mitchell came to Franklin five years ago and began assessing her staff of 65 teachers. She targeted six for improvement or removal. Like most principals, she pursued her problems on two tracks: providing struggling teachers with the resources to improve (mentors, workshops and counseling) and increasing her presence in their classrooms. "I had a couple of teachers who were mean as junkyard dogs," she recalled. "They had classroom management problems on a daily basis." Four of the targeted teachers transferred to other schools. Two resigned before they could be fired.

Ms. Mitchell acknowledged that some principals will assign problem teachers to "float" through the day. This means the teacher has no permanent classroom. She floats from classroom to classroom, wheeling her belongings down the hallway on a cart. "Space problems in some schools make principals float good teachers, but it's also something you can use to send a message," Ms. Mitchell said.

Pressure is on:
Joy Barnhart, principal at W.T. White High School in Dallas, said she gives questionable teachers six weeks to shape up before she writes them off as unsalvageable. "Then it becomes a documentation process," she said.

Ms. Barnhart, a principal for 27 years, said she uses concerned parents to exert pressure on bad teachers, encouraging them to visit their teenager's classroom and write down their observations. "Some teachers can't take the scrutiny," she said. "They don't want to come into conference after conference to hear about parents negating their performance. I always give them the opportunity to resign before I terminate."

Mary Smith, a principal at Emerson Elementary School in Midland, Texas, says she has fired only three teachers in 13 years. But others have resigned, she said, because they could not meet her high academic standards.

"Sometimes, to ratchet up the pressure, I'll transfer them to an unfamiliar grade level knowing, say, that they see themselves as a sixth-grade teacher and would never want to teach first or second grade."

Ms. Smith said the hardest teacher to get rid of is the one who wants to do the minimum and draw a paycheck. She tells this story: "One was very disorganized. Her classroom was drab, and there was nothing on the walls. She had no tolerance for kids. Often, the lights in her classroom weren't on. She wanted to sit at her desk and read her books while the kids read something else silently.

"It took me two years to get rid of her. I got her on her lack of lesson plans and on my personal observations."

Principals' motives:
Jesse Lopez, president of Classroom Teachers of Dallas, can recite what he calls horror stories of teachers suffering at the hands of vindictive principals. A teacher struggling with discipline gets two or three difficult-to-manage special education students in her class. On top of that, she gets marginal committee assignments that keep her after school on a regular basis.

"In one school in North Dallas, the principal has pitted the whole faculty against one teacher," Mr. Lopez said. "She encourages other faculty to make complaints against this one teacher."

Mr. Lopez said the pressure to raise student test scores causes principals to go after some teachers who are doing a good job. "It's not a bad teacher," he said. "The principal just has in mind someone he thinks is better, and all he wants to do is find a way to get the teacher out of the building so he can bring in the new one." All of this has created a defensive environment in some schools where teachers feel the principal will target them for no good reason. Mr. Lopez said he has begun to encourage his members to protect themselves against the charges that principals typically make against them.

Teachers should photograph their classroom to refute the allegation that they provide a drab, colorless learning environment for their students, Mr. Lopez said. Teachers should write memos to each other to document the instances in which they cooperate with each other. Principals often allege vague charges that a teacher is not a team player, he said. "There is so much pressure on these principals to perform," he said. "I think all of this is getting worse."

Jerry Jesness: Bad teachers aren't the only ones pushed out
By JERRY JESNESS, 02/11/2002

I read with interest the recent Dallas Morning News article "Bad teachers get a push toward the door." You see, I was one of those bad teachers 17 years ago.

I like to think I was a better teacher than my principal reported me to be. There are those who agree. Six years later, I rose to the top of the Texas career ladder, and I recently was profiled in Elaine McEwan's book, Ten Traits of Highly Effective Teachers. Even though my principal thought my command of written English merited a mere "1" on a scale of "5," I went on to write about education issues for Harper's, Reason, Teacher, Principal and Spectrum magazines.

But in 1985, I was a pariah. My principal and I had had a number of disagreements that year, and I was paying the price. As contract renewal time neared, he managed to find his way into the classroom to observe me once or twice each week, and each visit was followed by a severe tongue-lashing. Assistant principals who once had given me decent appraisals suddenly became less kind. Students whom more favored teachers couldn't handle were transferred into my class, and when there were discipline problems, I was blamed. Teachers who had been my friends suddenly shunned me when administrators were present. Of course, I left after that unpleasant year.

Fortunately for me, that school wasn't my first assignment in Texas. My former school district welcomed the prodigal teacher back, and I went on to spend many happy years there.

I certainly am not the Lone Ranger. I know a former Air Force officer who holds master's degrees in chemistry and physics but who resigned at midterm after meeting with harassment at the hands of his principal. He was replaced by a teacher who was certified in neither field.

I also know a woman who was harassed into resigning after doing a fantastic job of getting barely literate high school students to read and understand novels, something that few of them ever had done before. In the process, she gave too many failing grades, the kiss of death for teachers in most schools. Her principal ordered her to change several grades and apologize to some of her students and their parents. I understand that her replacement has the students reading sample test passages instead of books, and the administration is delighted.

Even famed calculus teacher Jaime Escalante, who has nothing but praise for his former principal, Henry Gradillas, had some unpleasant brushes with administrators. Early in Mr. Escalante's tenure at Los Angeles' Garfield High School, an assistant principal had threatened him with dismissal. Janitors were complaining that he was coming in too early and staying too late, and he failed to get administrative permission to raise funds to pay for his students' advanced-placement calculus tests.

Fortunately for the students of Garfield, Mr. Escalante had enough support from the community to turn the tables on his tormentor. Of course, incompetent teachers are removed as well. The difference is that it is easier to get rid of a good teacher than a bad one. Good teachers have skills that make them successful in other jobs. An incompetent teacher, who never could match his $30,000 salary in the private sector, is going to hang on like a pit bull. To get rid of a competent teacher, it is enough to make him a bit uncomfortable.