The Making of a Weak Teacher

A preposterous notion about the role of administrators in crafting an unsupportive work environment by STEVE W. GRUENERT and TERRY M. McDANIEL

It would be difficult to imagine any first-year teacher had aspirations of becoming a weak teacher. Most individuals hired as teachers have the ability to do a good job and want to do a good job. So how is it that some become ineffective?

We would contend that school leaders make them that way. In making this claim, we are ready to propose an experiment that could prove it.

The following should not be attempted at any school.

Steve Gruenert Terry McDanielSteve Gruenert (left) coordinates principal preparation, and Terry McDaniel runs the education specialist program at Indiana State University in Terre Haute, Ind.

Manipulating Conditions
Think about your best teachers. These teachers seem to do everything right: They look and act like professionals; students, teachers and parents admire them; they accept any task or challenge put before them; and they get their students to perform well on academic assessments. We will manipulate the environment around a best teacher to determine whether we can intentionally change his or her attitude and behavior for the worst.

Start by asking the school’s custodian not to clean the teacher’s classroom for a while. Our best teacher, let’s call her Ms. B, will probably not complain. She will likely respond by cleaning the room herself or by enlisting students to help. One day, maybe a week or so down the road, she might approach the custodian or an administrator to see whether something has been changed, either scheduling, job descriptions, whatever. But we can be sure Ms. B will be quite cordial and will offer her support if there are circumstances that need it.

You may be thinking, “Ha! She didn’t give us the reaction we wanted.” Just wait. The reaction we are trying to conjure up may not (and probably won’t) come immediately. Whatever reason we give to Ms. B soon becomes irrelevant because we’re not going to clean her room, at least not very well. She may learn not to trust some people, which is a first step to eroding one’s professional disposition. We intend to create an environment that eventually will give her permission to behave like a normal teacher and eventually behave poorly.

Constant Distractions
We know it will take a lot more than one or two inconveniences to break a great teacher. We will begin to introduce additional minor annoyances. Here’s what else we have in mind:

•  Tell Ms. B some parents have been complaining, but don’t tell her which ones, only that she is being watched carefully. This should challenge her desire to take any risks with new teaching methods.

•  Ask her to take on a few more challenging students because other teachers don’t want them. Her sense of helping all children, leaving none of them behind, will become a burden on her time in the classroom.

•  Change faculty meeting times to conflict with her personal commitments. Perhaps we also could schedule special education case conferences without any regard for her available times. This should send the message that her family does not come first to us, or that her input is irrelevant.

•  Demand she submit lesson plans each week with a timeline that she adhere to so we know exactly what lesson she should be teaching when we walk by. Hopefully this will imply we don’t trust her professional judgment and that good teaching is inflexible.

•  Ask her to be inspired by a vision statement that is as exciting as a nutrition label. This might become even more frustrating for her if we ask her to chair the school improvement committee and sell a mission or vision she doesn’t believe in.

•  Invade her instructional time by offering long morning announcements after classes have begun. Be sure to consistently interrupt her instruction by coming to her classroom during the day to talk to her about items that could be discussed after school.

•  Show little interest in her teaching or her students. When she comes to you to discuss something she is excited about developing in her classroom, be sure to make it difficult for her to move forward. When she wants to talk about a special student’s needs, move her back to meeting minimum standards for all students.

•  Talk to her only about academic achievement. Be sure not to focus on the whole child. Never discuss the individual needs of students. Dwell on test scores.

Adjusting Downward
Of course, this plan is ridiculous. Nobody would ever subject any teacher to all these distractions and stress. Yet is it possible a principal might unintentionally undermine the attitude of any teacher, causing that teacher to resort to defensive measures and leading the principal to see only the negative behaviors of that teacher? Nothing may be easier to corroborate than our own beliefs — a notion advanced by Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline as he challenges us to be aware of the mental models we create for ourselves.

What if we told you that your weak teachers are the ones who already have adjusted to the inconveniences and frustrations of your organization. They have found a way to survive in an unsupportive environment — which usually exacts a toll, such as effectiveness as a teacher. In their defense mode, teachers usually are forced to look out for themselves at the expense of good teaching, building relationships and collaboration.

Getting back to the experiment, what else could we do to mildly frustrate Ms. B on the job? Can you think of circumstances that proved irritating when you were a teacher? How about:

•  Presenting annual awards to some teachers only because it’s their turn;

•  Allowing athletic coaches to be excused from faculty meetings for practice;

•  Being left out of an information loop;

•  Enforcing discipline policies on only a few teachers;

•  Leaving memos containing only negative news in teachers’ mailboxes;

•  Conducting long staff meetings to present announcements that could have been accomplished through other means;

•  Holding a faculty meeting to address a problem that applies to only one individual; and 

•  Visiting classrooms only for formal observations.

Painful Realities
How about if the copy machine is out of paper? Or maybe the computers in the library are not working when a teacher brings in a class to do research? Maybe some teachers develop a bad attitude when they don’t get their favorite parking space.

These may seem like silly reasons to become upset, and yet some frustrating issues that teachers face never get on the radar screen of the administration. Teachers may be too embarrassed to mention these annoyances as the culture may not allow teachers to appear needy. However, that does not lessen the impact on their attitudes at work.

We might add that since your best teachers have high standards, this experiment becomes easier. While most great teachers have built up some resiliency toward many frustrations, they are still vulnerable. There are still some things they really care about. And those things (student performance, collegiality, trust) are prone to attack. These tend to be leverage points for new teachers as they develop and establish an identity.

We believe we can convert Ms. B into an average teacher in just two or three years by instituting a few negative nuances within the system. In response, Ms. B might build a support group with a clique of teachers who no longer support the building administrator.

Another painful reality is the experience of the first-year teacher. Imagine placing a new teacher in these negative situations, not knowing how to respond. Ms. B already had a strong level of confidence going into this experiment. New teachers do not, and they are looking for ways to validate themselves as teachers, trying to fit in. That means assimilating to whatever is thrown at them. In some schools, teachers learn that complaining feels like incompetence while conformity feels like success.

One argument we are making is that great teachers are not great by themselves. There is a supporting cast that assists in their self-actualization. The ability to become great depends on those around them as much as their own abilities or desires. Just as the best athletes don’t win championships every year nor do top actors or actresses win Academy Awards for every movie they make. A lot of components need to come together — a supporting cast, roles, direction and so forth. Weak teachers often are not a result of something inherent of themselves but rather a response to a toxic environment or lack of support. Perhaps they joined the wrong clique.

Support Matters
All this suggests that if we can make weak teachers, then we can fix weak teachers. With the right support system, it would be difficult for anyone not to do well. Similar to our preposterous experiment, we can choose to manipulate the environment to develop a positive attitude that supports the school. We can take a weak teacher and improve his or her performance with the right support.

What might we do to create the optimal environment for teachers to reach their potential? The following are possibilities:

•  Become aware of additional stressors in teachers’ personal lives;

•  Ask them how things are going, and don’t let “fine” be sufficient;

•  Ask what they need, then suggest resources they may be unaware of;

•  Help new teachers identify and hang out with the best teachers;

•  Let the good teachers know they are good;

•  Share new and exciting teaching practices and innovative education research;

•  Always be optimistic and look at problems as new opportunities;

•  Be available to communicate by being in the hallways and regularly visiting classrooms;

•  Protect instructional time by eliminating classroom interruptions; and

•  Empower teachers to be leaders not only in the classroom, but in the school.

That would be the charge of any school leader — to create the optimal conditions for teachers and students as they seek to reach their potential. Anything that is debilitating those efforts should be addressed. If school leaders have the capacity to address a situation but choose not to, then they own that problem and it probably will worsen. If leaders have the capacity to improve something, they have the responsibility to do so.

Sometimes doing what is best for kids can best be accomplished by providing teachers with what they need. While students do come first, this should not occur at the expense of teachers’ professional needs. There always will be weak teachers who can be identified as beyond help. These exceptions should not be allowed to influence this experiment or any real decision to improve the school. It is neither fair nor productive to create policy based on the ineffectiveness or insubordination of a few.

Cultural Fabric
This experiment is similar to the plot of the movie “Trading Places.” Placing a good person in a challenging environment does not guarantee good things will follow. Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, in their book Schooling by Design: Mission, Action, Achievement, argue it is no longer sufficient for good people alone to try to accomplish good things. Hiring the best staff always should be the goal of school leaders, and if you cannot hire the best, hire individuals who can develop into the best.

Maybe we can’t actually make a weak teacher out of the best teacher. But does anyone doubt that the effectiveness of any teacher is affected by the environment that school leaders create and sustain? If the negative environment persists, we can expect staff to adapt to it, maybe even come to expect it as the negativity becomes part of the cultural fabric of the organization.

No pre-service or in-service teacher aspires to be a weak performer. Principals may claim they have walking-dead in their ranks. We should then wonder whether they hired them that way or if the leadership killed them.

Steve Gruenert is the director of correction education and coordinator of the principal preparation program at Indiana State University in Terre Haute, Ind. E-mail: Steve.Gruenert@indstate.edu. Terry McDaniel is coordinator of the education specialist program and an assistant professor of educational leadership at Indiana State University.