“Harassing supervision” a symptom of flaws in teacher evaluation, removal policies

iStock_000015653963XSmallA surprising number of principals report using a practice known as “harassing supervision” when they feel that removing teachers through normal channels is too difficult, says a recent article in Phi Delta Kappan focusing on research in the Chicago public schools system.

Principals engage in “harassing supervision” when their goal is to make teachers uncomfortable in the hope that they will voluntarily leave their positions.

Although collective bargaining agreements aren’t as restrictive as principals think, research shows removal rates in major school systems such as San Francisco, Chicago and Atlanta are shockingly low—often less than 1%.

Two other factors contribute to the use of harassing supervision, besides the difficulty of removing teachers, the article says. These are: principal turnover and principals’ lack of training in good hiring and recruitment practices. The authors note that principals cite a shortage of candidates when hiring for some positions as another factor in the practice of “harassing supervision.”

In a study of Chicago principals, 37 of 40 principals interviewed described engaging in harassing supervision, though there was no question in the interview protocol that focused on it. In another study, 75% of the 39 principals interviewed about a new evaluation system in Chicago public schools referred to practices that could be construed as harassing supervision, the report says.

“The lack of an effective, rigorous and fair teacher evaluation system fuels the need and incentive for principals to use harassing supervision,” writes author Sara Ray Stoelinga, the director of planning and program development at the Urban Education Institute in Chicago.

“Principals most often talked about these practices in discussions of the most significant roadblocks to school improvement. The management of teachers—recruitment, hiring, evaluation, professional development, and removal—was often the focus of the roadblocks conversation.

Examples of harassing supervision included reassigning a teacher who had taught 8th grade for many years to teach 1st grade, frequent impromptu classroom observations of targeted teachers, and giving an overweight teacher a classroom that was up 4 flights of stairs.

Evaluation systems often fail to identify or facilitate the removal of low-performing teachers, the article says.

A recent report on Chicago Public Schools found that 93% of teachers were rated excellent or superior on the teacher evaluation system. Teachers were rarely rated as satisfactory (7%) or unsatisfactory (0.3%). The complex procedures for lowering a scoring in evaluation systems make it extremely difficult for principals to accurately rate teachers, the report says.

With high principal turnover in many schools, principals often find themselves managing teachers they didn’t hire.

One principal told an interviewer that it took 20 years on the job for her to reach the point where she was working only with teachers she had hired. Another principal expressed a more disheartening realization to the interviewer: “My first year as principal, I thought only three of my teachers [out of 25] deserved an Excellent or Superior rating. But all of them except for one had at least an Excellent. I was trapped at that point.”

Another interviewed principal said: “I have three teachers I am pushing out right now. All three were rated Excellent in the last evaluation cycle, so now I have to get creative.”

Even when they are willing to work with unsatisfactory teachers, principals often don’t know how to develop effective professional development. They feel their principal training is inadequate for getting under-performing teachers on track.

“There should be some relationship between what I write on an evaluation of a teacher and the professional development we are providing here, and there just isn’t,” said one principal.

Most principals don’t feel good about engaging in harassing supervision, but justify it by saying that their students and schools are a higher priority than sparing a teacher’s feelings. In this era of accountability, they often feel their own jobs are on the line.

“We need to find some sanity and I do mean sanity,” one principal said. “When you have a system where you are doing crazy things like messing with teacher room assignments and praying someone will leave.”

“Pressuring Teachers to Leave Honest Talk About How Principals Use Harassing Supervision,” by Sara Ray Stoelinga, Phi Delta Kappan, Volume 92, Number 4, pp. 57-61. 

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