Boost Struggling Teachers

By John F. Eller & Sheila A. Eller
November 2015, Volume 39, Issue 3

A particularly difficult category of teacher that principals supervise is the struggling teacher. These are teachers who are not meeting the expectations outlined in the teaching performance standards of the school or district. These teachers can be new or veteran, but normally are operating below the expectations outlined in the teaching performance standards.

There are two general performance levels associated with struggling teachers: marginal and deficient. In Teacher Evaluation to Enhance Professional Practice, Charlotte Danielson and Thomas L. McGreal define marginal teachers as “those who, in the professional judgment of an administrator, are experiencing difficulty in meeting one or more of the district’s standards for effective teaching.” We define deficient teachers as those who perform well below the performance standards in multiple areas or on a consistent basis. Teachers who are deficient are normally candidates for termination, while marginal teachers are normally candidates for improvement strategies to strengthen their teaching performance.


In our book, Score to Soar: Moving Teachers from Evaluation to Professional Growth, we focus on three main teacher types that normally fit into the category of marginal teacher. The three we identify do not necessarily describe every teacher type you may encounter. Rather, they are the most common types we have encountered, along with various improvement strategies.

1. Challenged Teachers
Teachers fitting into the category are not meeting the expectations on the teaching performance standards because they are lacking the skills needed for these standards. Challenged teachers need support or information related to the skill they lack. During one-on-one discussions about their performance:

  • Break needed changes into small parts;
  • Clearly explain or teach needed strategies; and
  • Provide follow-up assistance to ensure they can implement the strategies.

2. On-the-Job Retirees
These teachers are coasting in relation to their work. They may have the ability to meet the expectations on the teaching performance standards, but choose not to do so. (An on-the-job retiree may be an older teacher or someone younger who has decided to coast.) On-the-job retirees may feel tired or disengaged, which explains their decision to coast or minimally implement new ideas. This type of teacher needs to be told that expectations for performance are still in place and that you, as principal, will provide support to help the teacher. When meeting one-on-one with these individuals:

  • Tell them you want them to stay productive and effective; and
  • Provide follow-up to ensure they feel supported but also are accountable to stay effective.

3. Resident Experts
These teachers think they are meeting (or exceeding) the teaching performance standards, but are unaware (or unwilling to admit) that they are not performing up to expectations. They don’t want to listen and learn from others. To improve, they need to be given feedback and a realistic picture of their performance level. They also need support to “save face” as they learn new strategies or skills. During evaluations with resident experts:

  • Provide evidence to back up the rating or performance description;
  • Give them the opportunity to internalize the realistic view of their performance; and
  • Set implementation goals for the new ideas and strategies they learn during the discussion.


Differentiate Support
Each of these teacher types possesses certain characteristics. Identifying—and then understanding these characteristics can help you determine the issues behind the performance problems and design a specific strategy to help the teacher improve.

Make sure to use specific language or terms to help the teacher see the gravity of the issue. For example, stating that a teacher behavior it currently “not meeting” the teaching standards or letting the teacher know that he needs to make “major revisions” on a certain component ensures that these teachers understand the seriousness of the issue.

In all of the cases, clear feedback about their performance, a clear and detailed explanation of the needed improvement areas, and follow-up will be essential to help these marginal teachers make the kind of performance improvements needed to meet the teaching performance standards.

John F. Eller, a former principal, is a professor of educational leadership at St. Cloud State University and is president of Eller and Associates, which provides support to education leaders.

Sheila A. Eller is principal of High View Middle School in New Brighton, Minnesota.

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