Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
May 20 2012

Failure of a Teacher Protection System

Once upon a time, I taught the same subject in the same grade in the same district as a brand new first year teacher. This teacher was fresh out of student teaching with one of the best veteran teachers around, and a couple of schools actually fought over who would get to have him. The school that won was overjoyed.


Unfortunately, this teacher quickly found himself in over his head with a middle school math classroom of his own. It turned out that he actually knew very little about math, and couldn’t do fundamental things like make a table from an equation or multiply fractions. His confusion at the content meant that he was lost in curriculum and couldn’t even string his way through a textbook. His unit plans would jump from one idea to another and then back to the first idea in ways that had no logic, and his daily lessons were mind-bogglingly confusing. Combine that with a desperate need for the kids to think he was cool, an immediate willingness to undermine other teachers or make fun of his colleagues to get the kids on his side, and worse-than-normal first year classroom management, and I’m sure you can imagine what that room was like. It was an absolute disaster zone. 


It didn’t take long for him to decide that he wanted the kids to like him more than he wanted them to get an education. It also didn’t take him long to realize that teaching was hard and he wasn’t going to attempt the work required to get better because no one could really do anything about it. It didn’t take anyone long to realize he shouldn’t be working there. And that’s the point when he came to me.


I started giving him everything, from materials to sit-down time together explaining the math. He wasn’t especially interested in learning, but he would sit with me long enough to indulge my explanations and then run off. His classroom remained a crazy place (materials alone won’t save you), but at least the kids who wanted to learn had something to do. At least he could stand in front of the room and say something. At least there was some learning going on.


Now administration at his school was great, and they were very clear that a teacher who couldn’t manage kids, didn’t know basic math, and wasn’t trying to improve was not someone they wanted on that team. If you’d met this guy, there was no way you would disagree with them. Unfortunately, there was no easy way for them to get rid of even the Worst Teacher Ever. They had to give extensive proof that he was doing a bad job just to put him on an Improvement Plan, and then they had to wait a few months, and then give extensive proof that he wasn’t showing growth. It’s a huge amount of work on an administrator and little work on the teacher. In the end, the best they were going to get was a non-renewal of his contract for the following year. If they slipped on any detail of the process, they’d have to start all over and probably end up having to let him stay.


Tragically, no one trusts principals enough to just let them say, “This teacher is destroying students’ educations and our school culture and needs to get out.” They have to prove it first, and they can’t prove it if the teacher has a basic level of functioning in his classroom. This teacher had all of my materials every day, which were actually pretty good. Even though everyone knew they weren’t coming from him, they couldn’t prove how bad he was if my photocopies were sitting in front of his kids. So my administration had to weigh a horrible decision: Either cut off the one resource that was letting those kids learn anything, or be unable to get rid of a teacher who could keep doing a terrible job for years and years. It’s a decision I don’t envy anyone, but can you blame them? They chose the former. He and I were no longer allowed to share resources.


Without the easy access to materials, he stopped trying at all. He would literally put a slide up on the board and give the kids this direction, “You can hang out and do whatever you want, as long as you pretend to be working if anyone walks in.” Any kid in any of his classes would tell you that was happening every day, and even the administrators were aware of it. But there was nothing they could do faster than they were doing – he went on the Improvement Plan, and everyone just had to wait it out. He finally quit without notice, and the long-term sub at least tried to make the kids get work done. The fresh-out-of-college teacher they hired to finish the year had her struggles, but was a major improvement and worked really hard for those kids.


This story infuriates me for so many reasons. Why couldn’t admin immediately get rid of someone so horrible? Why do we have a system that allows teachers to literally do nothing if they’re brave enough and heartless enough to take advantage? Why can’t people trust the judgment of administrators, so he could have kept using my materials and the kids could have kept learning something while he still went through the improvement plan process? Why are so few people aware that in our most struggling schools, where the kids need great teaching most, this type of thing is not unheard of?


I am NOT saying that this is common in teaching. Most teachers are great, hardworking people who want the best for their kids. Even if they struggle, they are trying to improve and they are worth keeping in the classroom. Struggling teachers need help and support, and improvement plans can work well for them if they want to get better. But I AM saying that this does happen, and I think it’s important that people are aware of this when they try to talk about teacher protection policies. When I write things like “I don’t think it should be so easy to keep a job as a teacher” and people start roaring in fury about what a horrible person I am, I generally assume they are just lucky enough to work in a place where all the teachers are at least decent.



So before you start commenting about how I’m a heartless witch for wanting principals to have dramatically more authority in hiring and firing teachers, please re-read the story above and try to understand where I’m coming from. Be grateful that you’ve only known good teachers, but realize that there are too many kids in this country who are not so lucky. That’s all I ask.

18 Responses

  1. Wess

    This is hard.

    Right now I’m on leave for a reason that has nothing to do with student achievement. My kids have been staring at a substitute for two and a half weeks, instead of doing what was actually a pretty good final project.

    If I’m going to trust principals and administrators to fire the right teachers, I’m going to need some kind of assurance they’re not going to keep sacrificing student learning for political reasons.

  2. The power of this anecdote, for me, is undermined by this question: how did these so-attentive and reliable admins manage to hire someone as a math teacher who didn’t know any basic math? Yes, sometimes a person will be deceptive about their character, or will suffer a change of personality for the worse for whatever reason, but you don’t magically un-learn all the math you knew over the summer between college graduation and starting work. I can’t imagine this never came up as a warning sign prior to him being in his own classroom – if his student teaching involved any actual teaching it should have been readily apparent, and if he was certified he’d have needed to pass his Praxis. Unless he was hired to teach out of his content area, or didn’t yet have his certification?

    • Tee

      I agree 100%. It’s just like when people complain about how hard it is to fire tenured teachers. The majority of tenured teachers I know who are not great weren’t great back when they began. Why were they given tenure in the first place? Very few people, in my experience, go from being fantastic to terrible.

    • Parus,

      It’s actually not that hard to pass the middle school math test in that state. Even on the 7-12 math test, which is much harder, I know people who skipped entire sections and still passed. This guy had his certification in this content area, because that test was all he needed. How is the hiring person supposed to know otherwise? They don’t submit them to a second math exam.

      How it didn’t become apparent in his student teaching, though, is something that baffles me too.

  3. Gary Rubinstein

    I thought that every teacher who had a pulse got tenure and had a job for life.

    I believe that most truly ineffective teachers leave the profession voluntarily since being a terrible teacher is not a gratifying way to spend your life.

    Maybe I am inclined to give the new teacher the ‘benefit of the doubt’ and make the principal definitively prove that this teacher is not willing to do things to improve before firing because I probably would have been fired for incompetence my first year if it were easier to fire teachers.

  4. Cal

    In California, it’s completely simple to fire teachers in the first two years. No cause needed. You can get glowing reviews and still be canned on March 15th. I’m surprised to hear it’s not the same elsewhere.

    And it’s incredibly common for good teachers to be “non-re-elected”, as it’s called, which is why this statement here:

    “Tragically, no one trusts principals enough to just let them say, “This teacher is destroying students’ educations and our school culture and needs to get out.” They have to prove it first, and they can’t prove it if the teacher has a basic level of functioning in his classroom. ”

    is so utterly, idiotically, ludicrous. There’s a great reason why we don’t trust principals, and it’s entirely reasonable that they should prove it. Why would you think it isn’t? For that matter, why would you want to trust the moron who hired a math teacher who didn’t know math? And just how good is the veteran who didn’t realize that the student teacher was worthless?

    You seem to think your story is logical, when in fact, your story is exactly why no one trusts principals or anyone else’s judgment about “the best teachers around.”

    • Seconded: I know people who have put in two hard years, earned strong evaluations, and been canned. In California, a simple piece of paper and this guy is done. Either your state does not have this possibility – which I also am surprised to hear – or those administrators failed to do their job.

      But beyond that, in California there is a process for removing tenured teachers who are not suited to the classroom. It requires documentation, improvement plans, and – most critically – a principal willing to do the work. There are far more principals complaining about lousy teaching than there are actually willing to document it (if it exists).

      However, I am strongly opposed to the idea that what’s wrong with education today is not underfunding, childhood poverty, or institutional racism but lousy teaching and teacher tenure. Do you think that this teacher you describe is the primary agent of poor educational outcomes for his students?

      In my experience (twelve years), the two (let’s repeat that: two) teachers who weren’t working out were probably excellent teachers who were not at all suited to a high-needs school. In both cases, their mismatch with the staff was quite evident, and they left on their own.

      This may not suit your need for lowered teacher protections, but you’re also discounting the power of a strong, committed staff. I’m surprised no teacher had counsel-out discussions with this person, to be honest.

      • E. Rat –
        Do you seriously question if lousy teaching even exists? Are you a teacher? I’ve never met a teacher who didn’t believe that teaching is one of the hardest jobs out there, and if it’s a hard job then naturally there must be people who are lousy at it. The thought that there might not be any bad teachers out there implies that teaching is so easy that anyone can do it well, and I find that deeply offensive. I’m glad you’ve been lucky enough to never see a bad teacher, but if you use your imagination a little I’m sure you could think of ways that teachers could end up being bad for children.

        I’d also suggest you spend some time talking to administrators about their jobs (and about improvement plans). It’s not that they’re too lazy to do the work! It’s that they are ridiculously busy people trying to run the complex organism that is a school, and improvement plans require a huge amount of time, energy, and paperwork. Of all the ways those people can spend their time, filling out paperwork to prove to someone what they already know is an enormous extra burden. Please don’t assume the worst of them – most principals aren’t unwilling to do the work, they just don’t have the time with their million other responsibilities.

        • AdmininAZ

          I agree with you 100%, Ms. Math in Az!

        • I am a teacher. I’ve been teaching for far longer than you have, and all of those years at a high-needs school. Moreover, I know many administrators, and while I know their jobs are hard, I also know that – when they desire to do so – it’s not actually an endless stream of paper/impossible to remove a teacher.

          You seem shocked that I am not surrounded by “bad” teachers and unwilling to consider the possibility that the constant attention to “bad teaching” is political in any way. That’s fine, but your ancedote isn’t a data point: it’s an ancedote.

          • mathinaz

            It is absolutely an anecdote. I’m sorry if it seems like I’m trying to pass it off as anything other than a story to help explain my perspective.

  5. Reader

    While I agree with most everything that you said, there is some fault that lies within the admin. There are numerous ways that a teacher can be asked to leave during the school year. As you said, it just takes work on the admin’s part.
    Our justice system says that someone is innocent until proven guilty and the burden of truth is on the prosecution. This is also true in the classroom. The admin has to do work, and gather data, in order to fire a teacher. BUT IT DOES HAPPEN. I was lucky enough to be part of a committee this year that focused on how to effectively evaluate teachers and the one topic that kept coming up over and over is that admin needs to be in the classroom more. If they had been in the classroom, there would have been one of two outcomes: 1- the teacher would have been shown to be deficient and released immediately or 2- the teacher would have stepped up his game and been able to get the children some sort of education.
    Unfortunately, the stories of the bad teachers remaining in the classroom are the ones that jump out the most because it really is sad. But the reality is that sometimes great teachers are pushed out of the classroom because admin and the teacher do not see eye to eye. Sometimes this happens after years of great service by this teacher.
    One example comes from a teacher I know who had 4 years of glowing reviews, high test scores, and great rapport with students. This year, she got a new principal at her school, as well as a rough kid in her class. Her new principal did not agree with this teacher’s teaching style, even though it still yielded great scores on testing. The principal also did not agree with her classroom management style even though it, again, proved to be effective for all but one student (in 5 years). The principal went out of her way to make this teacher’s year very difficult. She got poor evaluations, but no support. When she asked others for advice, they were astounded by her low evaluation scores. At the end of the year, her contract was not reviewed. When I asked if she wanted to move to a new district, perhaps mine, she stated that she was just going to be done with teaching. Now, numerous students are going to miss out on having a fantastic teacher. Should this principal really have been allowed to let the teacher go because she didn’t like the style (even though it yielded positive results)?
    Again, in the particular story that was told above, the teacher needed to get out of the classroom. He did not belong there at all. However, I don’t think that it is fair to blame a system when it might boil down to a more individual level. There are safeguards in place to support great teachers, not to protect crappy ones. Unfortunately, and I am going to revert back to my criminal justice example, sometimes the guilty parties are let back on the street because the prosecution didn’t gather enough evidence. :-(

    • AdmininAZ

      Actually, unless a teacher does something totally egregious, like put duct tape over a student’s mouth, (yep, had to deal with that one at my school), there is very little a principal can do to ask a teacher to leave during the school year. To recommend that a teacher not be given a contract for the following year due to performance, a principal has to demonstrate not only that a teacher wasn’t able to meet criteria outlined in an improvement plan but that the teacher wasn’t able to meet that criteria with a plethora of support that too is outlined in said plan.

      I agree that administrators should be in classrooms more. And as much of a priority as it was for me, I never felt that I was there enough. I think most of my colleagues would agree with me, but what teachers and parents don’t see is all the responsibilities a principal has that are in addition to being in classrooms…. discipline, parent meetings, safety meetings, IEP meetings, going with a student to the hospital because a parent couldn’t be reached, developing a professional development plan, planning differentiated professional development, writing evaluations, analyzing data, being available for teachers who need support, dealing with the police and CPS, reviewing and authorizing spending with budgets. I could go on and on.

      Principals want their teachers to be successful! We don’t go around looking for ways to make people’s lives miserable, but we are required to be honest in our evaluations and provide support for all teachers to help them grow. While teachers are allowed to share their side of the stories in their dealings with their principal, we, administrators, can not. Most of the time there is a lot more going on than meets the eye.

      • This is evidently true of your state. It is not true in California. I also have to note that in California, I do everything on your list in addition to teaching. To be clear: I did all of those things this calendar year. So honestly, my sympathy for administrators is limited: everyone on a school campus is working hard, whether or not they make an administrator’s salary.

        • Ptah

          Something, deep in my soul, tells me that, since you’ve only worked with two bad teachers in your twelve years of education, the magnitude of the events you experienced in California does not equal – does not come near – the magnitude of the events of which mathinaz speaks. Your above average colleagues were certainly capable of handling some of the issues admininaz speaks of, making your life easier.

          And, while you’re accurate in stating that all employees on school campuses work hard, it’s only natural that some work harder than others. I once read about this thing called a bell curve. I believe it has something to do with population distribution – and a major takeaway, if I recall correctly, is an entire population cannot sit in the upper echelon. Magnificently, your career has seen only those such teachers who defy the bell curve. Man, I wish I was as lucky as you.

          • You make the critical mistake of assuming that “working hard” is what/all it takes to be a great teacher.

            I’m also betting that after you’ve put more than a year in the classroom, you’ll be more hesitant to judge the teachers around you as failing. And I suspect you’ll rethink your reliance on the bell curve – or maybe you’ll just leave teaching content with your inherent superiority.

        • AdmininAZ

          I, too, have spent time in California both as a teacher and as an administrator. No matter where you live or where you sit, education is hard work. I worked hard as a classroom teacher. I work hard as an administrator. I have worked with amazing teachers who put me to shame just as I have worked with teachers who should be ashamed. And yes, I can say the same for my administrator colleagues.

          I think the point is our students deserve the best education we can provide for them and whether we like it or not research points to the fact that it is the teacher in the classroom who has the most impact on that achievement. So whether it is through New Teacher Induction (BTSA), a PLC, grade level mentoring, PAR, or the formal evaluation process, we all have a responsibility to make sure that our students are taught by the best.

          And until we can quit bickering amongst ourselves as educators whether it’s because of a difference in our pedagogical paradigms or because we occupy a “different seat on the bus,” we aren’t really and truly going to be able to put all of energy toward the work that matters most.

  6. AdmininAZ

    Once upon a time I was a principal in a school in the same district as Ms. Math in Az…. Just because a teacher is highly qualified in a subject area, has student taught in said subject area, and received glowing recommendations from a respected teacher and school administrator does not mean the teacher will be successful in a classroom of his/her own. Teaching is complex… half science, half talent, and all hard work. It is not for the weak! Most school administrators want teachers to succeed. As a principal, I viewed the success or failure of my new teachers as a measure of the support I provided to them. If they failed, then I failed. In education as in other fields, if an employee shows inadequate job performance he/she is provided support and an opportunity to improve. Unfortunately in education, the opportunity for a teacher to improve comes at the expense of a child’s education. And in this teacher’s case, it came at the expense of 120 students’ math education.

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