Guest Column

Courage To Let Bad Teachers Go

by Reggie Engebritson

Years ago, before starting my educational administration classes in graduate school, I attended a workshop for aspiring -administrators.

There I heard a superintendent speak about what it takes to be an effective administrator. One thing she said was that it requires courage — especially courage to make the tough decisions.

That advice never left me, and I recalled it several times recently while I was deciding which teachers to retain and which teachers to let go.

Prior to becoming an administrator, I watched and worked with several administrators. One of my tasks was to assist with staff evaluations. Each spring, I discussed with them those non-tenured teachers for whom I had conducted formal observations. I was disappointed when the administrators retained teachers who I thought were ineffective in the classroom, allowing them to become tenured. I always felt these administrators weren’t being courageous and doing their ethical duty to the students they served by enabling a teacher who had shown poor performance over time to receive tenure.

Now that I am an administrator, I’m not suggesting it is an easy thing to do to release a teacher, but I am saying it is the ethical thing to do. And the courageous thing to do.

Expect Fallout
I feel strongly that we are in a service profession. We are here to serve the students who come through our doors. I believe just as strongly we owe it to the students to provide the best teachers we can find. I am not opposed to helping teachers improve by creating action plans with steps to help them. But they need to be committed to change and grow.

It takes courage to release a teacher when you know it will be difficult to find another teacher with the proper licensure, sometimes in subjects with a scarcity of candidates. It takes courage when you wonder whether you will even find another teacher with a pulse if you work in an area that doesn’t attract good teachers.

It takes courage to start the paper trail necessary to document tenured teachers who are not performing adequately. It takes courage to stick with the paper trail to see it to the end where the teacher is released. This is not easy to do because other people will accuse you of not being fair or question your motives, and you cannot say anything publicly because of confidentiality. So you need to have courage.

You’ll need courage to face the fallout from your decision. I originally wrote about this topic during one of my monthly contributions to the blog Some of the teachers in my district found out about my post after the school board had approved their release from employment in the district and someone anonymously started posting comments about me on the blog that were not flattering.

In another situation, I was asked by a probationary teacher if she should be looking for another job. She already had been released by our school board a month earlier. I said yes. She immediately stood up, hollered that I had ruined her life and stormed out of my office. This was six days before the end of the school year. The next week was a long one with her being rude to others and unprofessional in her duties.

Should I have not been honest with her and waited until there was only one or two days left? I needed to have the courage to give a straight answer when she asked the question. Her subsequent behavior left me with no doubt I had made the right decision.

The Proper Thing
What you need to remember always is whom you are doing this for. It’s for the students who don’t get a do-over when they have a bad teacher and move on unprepared to the next grade in the fall. A study led by William Sanders at the University of Tennessee Value-Added Research and Assessment Center found that the effects of teachers on student achievement are both additive and cumulative with little evidence of compensatory impacts. The study also found that as teacher effectiveness increases, lower-achieving students are the first to benefit. Their advice to administrators: “Ensure that no student is assigned to a very ineffective teacher more than once, and even then ensure that each student so assigned has a highly effective teacher before and after.”

I am sure many colleagues have struggled with the decision of whether to release or retain a particular teacher. No one said the job would be easy, but we must have integrity to do the right thing. Students and their parents are counting on us. Other teachers and administrators are counting on us.

I wasn’t a big John Wayne fan growing up, but I like this quote credited to him: “Courage is being scared to death … and saddling up anyway.”

Reggie Engebritson is executive director of the Northland Learning Center and special education director of the Northland Special Education Cooperative in Virginia, Minn. E-mail: