Information Age Education
   Issue Number 167
August, 2015   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is edited by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education (IAE) publications.

All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are available online. In addition, five free books based on the newsletters are available: Education for Students’ Futures; Understanding and Mastering Complexity; Consciousness and Morality: Recent Research Developments; Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education; and Common Core State Standards for Education in America.

This is the 14th IAE Newsletter in a series on Credibility and Validity of Information.

Credibility and Validity of Information Part 14

Assessing and Responding to Marginal Teachers

Doug Gleave
Retired Superintendent of Schools
Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

The International Olympics uses an objectively valid system to select medalists in timed and distance events (e.g., running), and a different subjectively credible system to select medalists in events that are based mostly on a performer's style (e.g., figure skating). One would think that identifying the capabilities of students and teachers could be similarly straightforward.

Alas, it's not that simple. An earlier IAE free downloadable book on Common Core State Standards explored the complex issue of developing valid/credible ways to measure student success (Moursund & Sylwester, 2013). This article focuses on how to determine who are marginal teachers, and how to improve their skills.

Marginal teachers are exasperating. For example, parents complain and ask that their child be moved to a different teacher. A marginal teacher's poor instructional and classroom management skills reduce student learning. Student misbehavior, including bullying, is often rampant.

Unfettered use of Smartphones and computer tablets can similarly become a significant distraction. Parents and colleagues now expect technology to be used positively to facilitate interactive instruction and group work (Gleave, 2014). Parents get upset if they discover these deficiencies in their children’s teachers. Colleagues often have mixed feelings about a marginal teacher, liking the teacher personally but aware of deficiencies. It's thus often not one thing, but the aggregate of deficiencies that defines a marginal teacher.

As a school district superintendent, I always expected that a marginal teacher and the teacher’s principal would resolve issues. Alas, solutions were often multifaceted and thus very challenging.

Administrators have three obvious remedies: negotiated resignation, dismissal, or helping a marginal teacher to improve. Teaching improvements that remedy deficiencies would obviously satisfy all parties. Resignation or dismissal usually follows a prolonged evaluation of a substandard or marginal teacher. Let's examine the three possibilities within the context of three case studies that contain some elements of real life supervision experiences.

Resigning with Dignity

Ted was a long-time personal friend and a former teaching colleague. He could retire but chose to continue teaching (in an affluent community). His 5th grade teaching and management skills were now marginal. They were tuned to an earlier period, ignoring current provincial requirements and cultural changes. Parents expressed their concerns. Students were bored and misbehaved. Unfortunately, at this stage in his career Ted wasn't interested in making the effort to change his approach to meet current professional expectations. The level of criticism was credible: Nice person, poor teacher.

The principal asked that he be assigned to a different school to get a fresh start. The central office assigned him to an inner city school as an extra teacher. The principal assigned him to a small fourth grade classroom and visited his class at least once every morning and afternoon to monitor and assist Ted and his students. He also personally began the students' mornings with physical exercise so that they were ready to sit quietly in class.

Ted’s teaching became acceptable with this high level of support. However, Ted's school got a new principal the following year. He assigned Ted to a regular classroom and eliminated intensive supervision and support. His annual evaluation then indicated that Ted's teaching was consistently substandard, and he recommended dismissal.

I reviewed all the data we had on Ted and found it valid and credible. When Ted met me in my office, I reaffirmed my friendship and my respect for his commitment to teaching over his career. I told him that his principal recommended dismissal. His teaching would be re-evaluated for possible dismissal the following year. It was his choice but as a friendly colleague I recommended that he retire with his dignity and reputation intact. He immediately responded that he intended to resign the next day. We reaffirmed our friendship and mutual respect as he left my office to begin the next phase of his life.

Dismissing an Incompetent Teacher

Rod was a grade nine science teacher. He demonstrated subject matter expertise, and skillfully used guided and independent practice followed by testing and remedial teaching. Students excelled in his class. His classroom control was exceptional. These positive attributes were viewed as valid and credible. Supervisory research (Darling-Hammond, et al., 2012) supports these attributes as effective.

Unfortunately, Rod’s interpersonal relations with students and parents were decidedly autocratic. Supervisory research (Darling-Hammond, et al., 2012) supports this concern. Collaborative rather than autocratic classroom management is most effective for student learning. Students and parents occasionally complained to the principal about Rod’s interpersonal relations, which added credibility to this concern.

One day Rod became exasperated and permanently removed a student from his class. The current issues with this student included being late and insolent. In fact, he had a long history of misbehaviour including being late for class, off task behaviour, chatting during instruction, texting friends in class, and rudeness. The student’s mother complained about this expulsion to the assistant principal. The assistant principal investigated and reinstated the student with a set of clear expectations and consequences for future misbehaviour. Rod was incensed and informed the principal that he would not accept the student back into his classroom.

The principal contacted me, and I visited Rod in his classroom. I confirmed that the student’s behaviour was clearly unacceptable. I told Rod that I supported the assistant principal’s plan to deal with any future misconduct. I also made it clear that a teacher does not have the authority to permanently expel a student from class. I reaffirmed the principal’s authority in this matter and gave Rod a letter documenting my decision.  He responded that he refused to accept my decision. I wrote Rod a letter suspending him until he and the student returned to the classroom.  He appealed his suspension and refused to return if the student was readmitted. I decided to lift Rod’s suspension and I immediately transfer him to a new school for a fresh start. Rod bitterly refused this directive. He was immediately dismissed for being absent without leave and for being insubordinate. Rod unsuccessfully appealed his dismissal to the Board of Education and a provincially legislated board of appeal.

Moving a Teacher from a Marginal to an Acceptable Level

A professional colleague contacted me to arrange instructional coaching for Bev, who was teaching in a small town near Saskatchewan. She had been a respected teacher in the school district. However, a professional malaise had set into her classroom performance. She now seemed bored, rather than enthused, about teaching. Parents preferred not have their children in her classroom. Her classroom curriculum and instruction were dated. Bev had become strident in dealing with her grade three students. The superintendent accepted the above concerns as valid and credible

The school district superintendent thought that in-classroom coaching by five exemplary grade three teachers in our city schools would complement the principal’s developmental supervision. Bev received one day a week coaching over a protracted period of time. These visits by our district teachers invigorated her teaching career. She was motivated and modernized by the coaching experiences she experienced. Indeed, she maintained an ongoing professional association with two of our teachers.

My superintendent colleague told me at the end of the year that Bev was once again enthused about teaching. She was beginning to use the up-to-date curriculum and instruction she had observed in the progressive teachers’ classrooms.

Credible and Valid Supervision for Marginal Teachers

Successful responses to Ted, Rod, and Bev depended on useful and persuasive supervision. Administrative responses to marginal teaching must be grounded in a clear understanding of what is most important and what works in the classroom. Research on instructional effectiveness provides this valid and credible grounding for supervisory and evaluative responses.

Research findings provide a great starting point for improvement efforts. Darling-Hammond, et al. (2012) has identified seven features from instructional research:
  • Demonstrating expertise with the subject matter;

  • Connecting to prior student learning;

  • Providing models and learning platforms;

  • Guided and independent practice;

  • Ongoing diagnosis and re-teaching;

  • Frequent testing, feedback and correction; and

  • Collaborative classroom management.
Improvement begins when these findings are used as a credible and valid starting point for responding to marginal teaching. Peer coaching, portfolio development, interdisciplinary study, and cooperative learning are effective developmental supervision approaches to increase teacher competence. Current research in cognitive neuroscience supports these approaches and suggests complementary ways to assist marginal teachers learn and teach effectively (Sylwester, 1995).

Dismissal and voluntary resignation require that teacher evaluation be accurate and consistent. Darling-Hammond, et al. (2012) reported that current evaluation platforms are accurate when the seven research findings listed above are the basis for assessment and appraisal. She also endorses regular classroom observations throughout the year by a school principal who is trained in using the factors above.

My decade of experience as a superintendent of schools convinced me that firing an incompetent teacher occurred infrequently. When necessary, it was often a brutal and painful process for everyone involved. The difficulty and pain are magnified when a teacher is marginally competent, as opposed to incompetent. Performance evaluation can leave any teacher distressed, confused, and anxious. Helping a teacher improve is a far more effective and satisfying alternative for all involved.


Darling-Hammond, L., Amrein-Beardsley, A., Haertel, E., & Rothstein, J. (February, 2012). Evaluating teacher evaluation. Phi Delta Kappan.

Gleave, D. (July, 2014). Education for students’ futures. Part 10: The administrative role in interactive instruction. IAE Newsletter. Retrieved 7/15/2015 from

Moursund, D., & Sylwester, R., eds. (2013). Common core state standards for K-12 education in America. Eugene, OR: Information Age Education. Download the PDF file from Download the Microsoft Word file from

Sylwester, R. (1995). A celebration of neurons: An educator’s guide to the human brain. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.


Doug Gleave served as superintendent of staff development and superintendent of schools in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, for twenty-three years. He now writes professional articles. His Ph.D. is from the University of Oregon.


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