A matter of performance

A teacher disagrees with the findings of a performance management observation (PMO) undertaken by the assistant principal. The principal and assistant principal are certain that the findings of the observation are accurate. They insist that the findings of the observation stay on the teacher’s record. The teacher had been involved in a number of disputes with the school management in her years of employment. She had been difficult to work with and the school principal was tired of her behaviour.

A classroom observation

Jane had a chequered career in our school. Her ideas of how to work with students were very narrow. For her, 'the skills' constituted 'the learning'. I felt that she often undermined our decisions and the school guidelines. She had been moved from area to area within the school. She was regarded as eccentric but was also a 'satisfactory teacher' under the professional standards. Jane had a history of gaining support from new and beginning teachers, but seldom took on anyone else face to face.

At the end of our two-year cycle of professional development on the Numeracy Project, Dianne, the assistant principal, took an observation in Jane’s classroom. She noted that students were working several stages above where they should have been. As Dianne had taught these students only a few months before, she was surprised and concerned. Jane often spoke about her exceptional students and had been heard telling parents and parent helpers how brilliant they were as mathematicians. Dianne could find no evidence of this in her observation and found that the programme was paper based rather than activity based. Dianne noted this in her observation.

During the feedback session, she gave several recommendations and references to Jane about how her classroom programme could be improved and how it needed to reflect the intent of the Numeracy Project. Jane was upset about this and refused to sign her PMO.

Dianne told me about the feedback session the next day. I was sure that Dianne would have been accurate in her analysis of the classroom teaching programme. I said that I would discuss it with Jane in her follow-up interview with me unless she brought it to my attention first. This was a deliberate choice on my part, as I felt that Jane was often underhand and although she said she was upfront, she was not.

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 An interview with the principal

Nothing happened for a week. Jane was busy and polite when she and I interacted, but mostly stomped around the school and chose to isolate herself in the staffroom. This was nothing new. In the past we had played her game and tried to find out how we could address her unhappiness. This time we ignored her. I circulated the timetable for the Performance Management Interviews (PMIs) and spoke about the interviews with individuals who wanted changes to their times or who had concerns. Jane did not talk to me about her worries. This made me quietly angry as I knew she had a problem and felt that once again she was manipulating me.

It was a tense time waiting for her interview but I tried to put it out of my head. This was difficult as I had often found myself worrying about Jane in the past and felt annoyed that once again she was taking up so much of my headspace. At the appointed time for Jane’s interview, I walked out of my office to see her husband sitting there. I asked him if he wanted to see his wife. He replied that he was here to sit in on our interview. I was furious but stayed cold and polite. I told him I didn’t know anything about this and that he was not going to be part of our interview that day.

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The school is threatened

I went to see Jane. She began to shout at me outside her classroom. I said that I would discuss the problem with her in our interview but not with her husband present. She yelled at me that I had better sort it out because otherwise it was “going to cost the school big money”.

We had our interview without the husband present. She told me how angry she was, as she was a superb teacher and the observation appeared to detail her inadequate mathematics teaching and learning programme. She was furious with Dianne, whom she had regarded as a friend and who had always supported her. I reminded her that she had been under a programme of assistance and guidance for concerns about her performance in the past and that the observation only mentioned two areas for improvement. Jane told me that she was past the stage of being told how to teach. We agreed to adopt a problem-solving sheet as our guide to resolving the issue. Again, I was threatened with “it costing the school” unless the comments were changed.

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A personal grievance looms

We agreed to involve Caroline, the deputy principal. Caroline was reluctant to do this as she felt that she did not have the kind of overview of the area that Dianne had. However, I was sure an objective eye was necessary so I had to push hard at this point because Caroline wanted to avoid becoming involved. That Sunday night Caroline had a call from Jane, who said she was going to take a personal grievance against the school if we did not change the PMO. We were surprised she had phoned Caroline, as she had had little to do with her up until then, but realised that she was using her previously successful strategy of enlisting others on her side.

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Reflective questions 1

  •  What is the problem or issue here? Is there more than one?
  •  What would you do at this point if you were in this principal's position?
  •  What are the principal's options for dealing with this dilemma?

Practitioner comments on dilemma

Principal one

  1.  It is important not to back down in these situations, if there is a case to answer. So far the principal is being very thorough in her approach and is covering all eventualities well.
  2. The principal could role play, or mentally rehearse any follow-up meetings she has with Jane.

Principal two

  1. From my point of view, the most immediate course of action would be to ask a mathematics adviser to observe the school’s numeracy programme in action. This independent view would give unbiased and knowledgeable feedback to all parties. This action could be part of a school-wide review of the Numeracy Project. In this way, it would not be seen as openly targetting one teacher.
  2. The principal should probably have addressed the signing of the PMO earlier. Delaying has built up unnecessary concerns for all the staff involved.
  3. A school needs clear in-school procedures for addressing concerns if individual teachers are unhappy with the PMO process.
  4. Jane clearly requires more in-depth understanding of the Numeracy Project. She could be released to receive individual tuition over a period of time. This might bring about greater understanding and more willingness to make the changes in the classroom.

 Leadership adviser

  1. Consulting with the NZSTA and NZEI is crucial in this kind of situation, as is talking to the person involved about the issues, with their union representative present.
  2. Rather than refusing to talk with the husband present, the principal could have suggested that Jane had the option of continuing as planned – that is, no husband present – or could attend a more formal meeting with her husband present or her union represented. She could have also advised that the school would have representation at this more formal meeting.
  3. Informing the board chair and the school insurers would be a good idea.

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Actual courses of action taken by this principal

We decided that we would ignore Jane’s threat and continue.
At this stage, it would have been easier to let it go – it was the end of the year. However, the threat was real and was going to impact badly on our end-of-year and Dianne’s last few weeks with us. She was moving to another school.

Dianne was distraught that she had 'caused' this problem and Caroline would have preferred to have handled it her way the following year when she was in charge of the Numeracy Project. But I had had enough of Jane holding us to ransom with her demands. She was very manipulative and I felt that even though the timing was wrong, I finally had proof that she was not teaching to the needs of her students but pushing them too hard. I wanted it on record because when Dianne left, the huge efforts and background knowledge she had brought to the dilemma would be lost and only Jane’s version would be left in the school.

The week was hell. Others knew there had been a problem but no one knew what it was. Dianne and I had sessions after school where we talked about nothing else. At these sessions, we went over the performance management issue before us and discussed our anger that Jane could not see that her pushing students through the numeracy levels too fast was against the philosophy of the Numeracy Project. As we talked, we remembered all of the past instances where Jane had worked against school policy and how she had rejected the support we had offered her when she overloaded herself. We realised as we talked that we’d had this problem for too long and that it needed to be resolved now. The talks helped us to 'offload' our worries and plan our strategy.

We consulted with both NZSTA and NZEI, which supported us. They were adamant that we could comment on teaching and learning in a PMO. They believed we were well within our rights to insist that a teacher follow Ministry curriculum guidelines and the school’s programmes.

I phoned my board chair, who was also very supportive as he works in performance management.

I phoned the school insurers. They took the details and said to get back to them if a complaint came in writing.

I spent time reading the contracts and the PMI literature. We narrowed the task to Caroline checking the teacher’s planning and assessment and evaluating it against the PMO. She did a very thorough job and involved the numeracy facilitator and the numeracy leader in the school. She checked the staff minutes and our new school guidelines, which had been negotiated with staff. She gave me a one-page report, which we fed back to Jane. Caroline’s report stated that she believed the students in Jane’s class were working at levels that were too hard for them. She felt there were not enough practical activities and talk time in their numeracy work. She supported Dianne’s PMO.

Jane met with me after Caroline had shared her findings and was still sure we were wrong. I had spent hours scripting out how I would handle the interview, but had decided that Jane had to conform to the requirements. I was over the anger at this point and was determined that not a word that could be seen as supporting her views would pass my lips. The point I did make was that this was not a competency procedure. In other respects this teacher did a satisfactory job and we were giving her direction in how to use the professional development to reflect the school-wide practices.

At the end of the interview I pointed out to her that we were not going to change and that we expected her to follow our direction. Jane said she thought she would resign, as she didn’t want to continue in a situation where she was not regarded as a highly competent teacher. I did not reply.

Jane resigned the next day. I accepted immediately. The feeling of relief as I opened the letter was huge. I told my board chair that if Jane did take a personal grievance against the school, I would be prepared for it. I had checked with NZSTA and the NZEI, and they had assured me that there were no grounds for concern. The last few weeks were hard and Jane was difficult to be near. I was interested to see that staff distanced themselves from Jane and few commented on her resignation.

The last part of this was probably one of the most difficult to deal with. Towards the end of the term, Jane came to see me and hinted that she would find it hard to manage financially. I again said nothing but I struggled with the idea that her decision would impact on her and her family.

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Reflective questions 2

  •  To what extent might the avoidance of confronting this teacher’s performance in the past have contributed to the complexity and escalation of this current problem?
  • What assumptions, in your view, are held but untested through evidence-based dialogue in this case? For example:

Assumptions have been made about the effectiveness of a teaching approach but there appears to be no evidence (only hunches) about the achievement of students.
Assumptions have been made about the teacher’s commitment to the values and processes within the Numeracy Project.

  •  While the resignation may leave this principal feeling she has been 'saved by the bell', not all people problems disappear in this way. What learning might have occurred for the principal in the course of addressing this problem?
  •  In addition to the principal’s self-reported learning in this case (see below), what further lessons for principals emerge from this dilemma?

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Writer’s reflection

The timing of this situation was bad but there is seldom a good time in a school for addressing this kind of stuff. I wish I had handled it earlier but I had instead helped this teacher through several 'mini breakdowns' and family crises. I think I had contributed to the problem by assisting her when she was unhappy and that probably I should have removed the support earlier. In many ways, the fact that she was not agreeing to follow a Ministry-prescribed programme of work was the strongest part of the argument as the Numeracy Project was so well researched and documented. The conversations I had with the senior staff and experts were of great help, and although time-consuming they helped me to clarify my position. I think the thing I learned was that sometimes saying nothing is a powerful tool. It lets others work it out for themselves. I had been to a course with a performance management expert the previous term and found this had helped me to know that I had set clear structures in the PMO system.

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Further comments

Professor Carol Cardno offers these thoughts on this dilemma:

Without a doubt, the case described here features a classic 'leadership dilemma'. The nature of such dilemmas is that they recur, they are complicated, and they always involve tension between the need to achieve what is best for the organisation and the need to provide support for a colleague. Although in this case the principal has not actually articulated the dilemma in terms that show this tension explicitly, there are several references to the many different forces that are impacting on resolution. Yes, the principal should indeed have been creating opportunities earlier to bring the difficult teacher’s issues out into the open and make them discussable. However, by their very nature, such dilemmas exacerbate a general tendency to avoid unpleasant confrontations and protect self and others in the process.

The principal’s critical self-refection reveals a typical response to a leadership dilemma – a tendency to polarise it and fix things for either the school or the person, rather than learning how to deal with both horns of a dilemma simultaneously. Reflection after the event is always useful, but as research has shown (Cardno, 1998; 2002), it is not enough to reflect on action when dealing with dilemmas. A critical skill for leaders to develop is that of reflection in action – which requires both intellectual appreciation of the theory base of dilemma management and a set of skills that need to be internalised. These resources are needed in order to examine and overcome the defensiveness while it is occurring during one’s attempts to resolve a complex problem.

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Reflective questions 3

  •  What do you think about the ways the principal dealt with this dilemma?
  •  Can you identify the crucial decision–making points in this dilemma, where one course of action rather than another was taken?
  •  Can you take any learning for yourself from this principal's story, and the comments offered by others?

Tags: Appraisal

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