Termination Without Tears

Dec 5, 2014

by Bob Thompson

I. Introduction

As a general rule termination procedures are based on a philosophy of win-lose (i.e. if the administrator “wins” the employee must “lose” and vice versa).  As a result the termination process has a very high potential of becoming confrontational.

Because most of us dislike confrontation we often wait too long to implement the process for removing a low performing employee.  Worse yet we sometimes avoid acting at all.  If we do act the confrontational atmosphere created by a win-lose system often causes the employee, even the mildest mannered one, to fight back.

II. Objective

The primary objective of any termination proceeding is to move a poorly performing employee out of his/her present position.  In the win-lose format the termination process ends there (i.e. with termination).  The dismissed employee has the full responsibility for coping with the loss of his/her livelihood and for finding further employment.

In the “Termination Without Tears” process the objective is for both parties to win.  In short, if the process works correctly, both the administrator and the employee feel good about the outcome, which usually includes the supervisor assisting the employee in pursuing his/her career goals in another capacity and/or another employer.

III. Fundamental Concepts

  1. Tenure and continuing contracts are not guarantees of employment.  They are guarantees of due process (i.e. you must show cause for dismissal and the employee has a right to a hearing if he/she so chooses).  If you have the documentation it is not difficult to remove a poorly performing teacher.
  2. An unproductive employee is an unhappy employee.  This is why, after the initial embarrassment and anger subsides, we often hear people who have been fired or laid off say “that was the best thing that ever happened to me”.  They have found they are much happier in their new job.
  3. Educators, especially at the teacher level, generally place a high value on job stability and job security.  Their sense of well being is intertwined with their job.  To lose one’s job is to lose one’s security.  It is humiliating and shakes their sense of well being.  Humiliation and fear are the primary causes of teachers contesting dismissal.
  4. Most people can cope with a major change such as the loss of their job if the following conditions are present:
    • They have time to adjust to the loss (incremental supervision).
    • They recognize that the change is unavoidable i.e. its not “if” the change is coming, but “when” it is coming (inevitability).
    • They have something desirable and/or exciting to replace it (a chance to be happy).
  1. People don’t like to lose.  If an employee knows you have data to support a recommendation for non-renewal, the odds are very high that the employee will resign rather than ask for a hearing.


IV. Process

  1. Make sure your decision to terminate or retain an employee is supported by data.  The sense of inevitability is much easier to create when the employee realizes you have an objective evaluation with hard data and specific examples.  To accomplish this you must have:
    • Realistic evaluation scores (normal bell curve) for the overall group to demonstrate the fairness of the process.
    • Several sequential evaluations of the employee that show continued unacceptable performance.
    • If possible, evidence that the employee was given the opportunity to be successful under more than one supervisor or evaluator.  (The credibility of the evaluation and recommendation for dismissal is directly related to the number of evaluators who concur on their findings.)
  2. Implement the concept of incrementalism.  The feedback session after each successive evaluation should convey a higher and higher level of your dissatisfaction and an increasing sense of urgency for the employee to remove the deficiencies.  A typical incremental evaluation and feedback system might look something like the following:  (Note:  Each “level” in the process connotes successive evaluations of the employee to check for progress in removing the deficiencies noted in the original evaluation.)
    • Level 1: Here is a copy of your growth plan specifying areas where you need improvement.  Tell me who might be able to help you with your growth plan and what is your plan for getting that help?  I’ll be back in three weeks to check on your progress.
    • Level 2: Your performance in these areas is still not satisfactory.  You should make improvement in these areas a top priority.  I’ll be back in three weeks to evaluate your progress.  If you need a free period or two to work on this, tell me and I will arrange for you to have some free time.
    • Level 3: Your performance in these areas is unacceptable.  I’ll be back in two weeks.  If your performance in these areas is not satisfactory when I return it will be very difficult for me to justify recommending your contract be renewed.  Tell me what additional strategies you are considering to improve your performance in these areas.
    • Level 4: Your performance in these areas remains unacceptable to the point it jeopardizes your position in this school.  I’ll be back to evaluate you in two weeks.  Tell me what you understand to be the consequences if you have not mastered these deficiency areas by that time.
    • Level 5: I have worked with you for ten weeks as you attempted to master the areas where your performance was unacceptable.  From our conversation at our last meeting I know you understand that your failure to remove these deficiencies leaves me no choice but to withhold my recommendation for your contract to be renewed.  I am sorry it didn’t work out for you.Now, let’s talk about your future.  What are your interests?  How can I help you get a job that fits your interests and expertise?  If you need time off to pursue leads, go for job interviews, etc. let me know and I will arrange for a substitute.  To assist you with your planning I can tell you I will not be sending my recommendations to the superintendent until (date).  If you find another job by then and submit your resignation before that date, I will have time to pull my recommendation for non-renewal.
  1. Document all evaluations of the employee’s work.  Each evaluation should be followed by a feedback session with the employee and a written record of the evaluation and feedback session.  Each written record should specify or include:
    • The date of the evaluation.
    • What performance was unsatisfactory.
    • When you will be back to check for mastery.
    • The employee’s plan for removing deficiencies.
    • The level of urgency and/or consequences for not mastering the areas of deficiency.  If the employee is not making progress toward removing the deficiencies you should be more and more specific after each successive evaluation about your increasing level of concern and the consequences of not meeting expectations.
    • The signature of the employee indicating they have seen and understand the information on the report.  (A refusal to sign should be noted on the report.)


V. Caveats

  1. Document, document, document and be specific.  Specific, written documentation is remarkably persuasive, not only to the employee but also to a hearing officer, especially if the record shows an opportunity and process for the employee to improve
  2. Make the teacher and his/her colleagues responsible for the teacher’s mastery of deficiency areas listed in the growth plan.  If you prescribe the plan and the teacher does what you directed and still does not perform, the teacher has an “out” because she/he did what you directed.  It’s your fault it didn’t work!
  3. Always try to get a corroborating evaluation.  See if you can transfer the problem teacher to another building to give him/her a chance to be successful under another principal.  If that is not possible, bring in an outside evaluator – preferably one from outside the district – to conduct an independent evaluation.
  4. Above all, always be kind and empathetic, but always candid and direct.