Difficult Teachers

What the teacher is, is more important than what he teaches.”  – Karl A. Menninger.

Most teachers are dedicated and caring professionals who understand that the welfare and progress of students are paramount.  However, in most schools there are a few dysfunctional and difficult teachers who may have a different agenda and who do as little as possible.  They constitute a source of daily frustration for principals and their more committed colleagues.

Difficult teachers come in various guises.  They may be lazy and unprepared, often absent or late, resistant to change, unable to get along with others, unprofessional, negative in outlook, or they may be hostile towards the administration of the school.  Some may be close to retirement and just marking time.

Through their actions or inaction in some cases, difficult teachers have a negative impact on student performance and parents’ perceptions of the school.  If left unchecked, they will eventually damage the public image of the principal and the school.  The principal will be seen as weak and the school will lose its public appeal.

These negative teachers, although few in number, can be influential in the staff room and induce younger teachers to adopt their obstructive behaviour.  This negative socialization often results in the formation of a faction which fights against any attempts by the principal to improve teaching, learning and school effectiveness.  This faction may even resort to efforts to sabotage new initiatives at the school.  Over time, morale and school climate are affected and there is tension in staff relations and staff meetings.

A review of the relevant literature, discussions with other principals over the years and my own experience as a principal have all made it quite clear that leaders of schools must deal with difficult teachers if they want to continue promoting excellence in teaching, learning and all school activities.  Good teaching results in improved learning outcomes.

Principals must clearly communicate their vision and goals for the school to every member of staff, student and parent.  School values and policy must be known.  Monitoring and evaluation must take place at every level of staff and in the programmes offered.  The principal can then, with the help of his management team, identify and deal with the difficult teachers who ignore the stated vision, goals, methods and values, and follow their own agenda instead.  In this exercise the principal must be courageous, firm, fair, consistent and respectful.

He or she must first have a calm, unemotional chat with each negative teacher, seeking to discover the teacher’s reasons or motives for the negative behaviour.  It is possible, in some cases, to solve the problem at this point and the teacher may emerge from the discussion with a greater sense of motivation and commitment.

In more recalcitrant cases it is definitely wise for the principal to have a third party present during the discussion.  This would generally be the deputy principal or the relevant department head or senior teacher.  Some situations may require the presence of all of these parties.

When discussion fails, the principal has to find ways to reduce the influence of the difficult staff member without alienating the rest of the staff.  This can be achieved by publicly recognizing and rewarding the positive and exemplary teachers at every opportunity.  They can be given greater training and responsibility, empowered, and placed in charge of teams, committees and special projects.  Let them implement any good ideas they come up with.  Let them make presentations at staff meetings and organize in-house training sessions which will allow them to mentor and instruct younger teachers in classroom management, lesson planning and pastoral care.  Make sure that the most deserving among them benefit from any avenues for formal promotion that arise.  Insist on professionalism at all times and never let them lose sight of the fact that they are in the teaching profession because of the students.  Their success is our success.  The aim is to build a true learning community.  Each principal can add to this list of morale boosting and motivational activities according to the culture and exigencies of the particular school.

Once the majority of staff is satisfied with the leadership and climate of the school, they will ignore and refuse to support the difficult teachers.  These dysfunctional few will then stick out like sore thumbs and will have no credibility.  The critical mass of positive teachers will create a climate conducive to learning.  The difficult ones will then feel great pressure to conform.

The principal should not let the difficult teachers off the hook.  If they persist in their negativity, he or she needs to reprimand them orally and then in writing.  Documentation is vital.  They can be reported to the Board of Management and the Ministry of Education and their formal evaluations should reflect their shortcomings.  Those who are temporary should not be reassigned if they fail to improve over an agreed period of time.  The principal should seek to maintain total professionalism at all times in dealing with problematic teachers.  I do not share the view, held by some educators, that one should ignore difficult teachers.  The onus then falls on the Ministry of Education, after receiving these negative reports, to deal swiftly with any teachers who are shown to be clearly delinquent after appropriate investigation of each case.

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