Why Districts Are Reluctant To Let Even Struggling Teachers Go

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Those who want to reform public education in America have made one thing abundantly clear: they believe that teachers are the problem. They don’t often come right out and say so, but their actions are unmistakable. They weaken tenure protections because they want districts to more easily be able to dismiss veteran teachers. They end last-in-first-out policies for the same reason. They attack unions because they are the only thing standing between a teacher’s job and an administrator’s desire to give it to someone else. They push for new teacher evaluation systems as a way to identify the bad apples and to legitimize their removal, because who can argue with data? They advocate for more charter schools because charter leaders don’t usually have to deal with pesky unions who make it more difficult to fire substandard educators. They back alternative certification schemes as a way to undermine current professionals. And in perhaps their biggest tell, they pitch an absolute fit when their best-laid plans go to waste because the damn principals still won’t fire teachers!

Reformers believe that America can fire its way to better education. The so-called “5-10 percent solution,” a product of economist Eric Hanushek, is often cited by reformers. As you probably gathered, it posits that American education would improve if we consistently fired the worst 5-10 percent of teachers.

Read More About It (And Why It’s Probably a Dumb Idea) Here

This is the driving belief behind nearly every reform effort. But it’s yet to be put to the test because the people who would have to do the firing aren’t economists. They don’t work for think tanks. They actually have skin in the game. School administrators, unlike most reformers, operate in the real education world, and in that world, there are some very real consequences to letting even struggling teachers go. Consequently, very few principals give their teachers poor ratings.

A simple explanation for the high ratings might be that principals know best. They’re right there working next to the teachers all year, so perhaps we should take their ratings at face value; maybe most teachers really are effective.

The problem is that research suggests that principals’ evaluations don’t always reflect their honest opinions about the teachers in their buildings. Survey data from one urban district showed that evaluators perceived more than three times as many teachers in their schools to be below proficient than they rated as such. The authors of another study wrote:

“We find that principals’ evaluations of teachers are quite positive whether the stakes are high or low, but the low-stakes evaluations show substantially more use of lower rating categories, and many teachers rated ineffective on the low-stakes assessment receive “effective” or “highly effective” high-stakes ratings.”


So why do principals inflate teachers’ evaluations? Why are they reluctant to rate even obviously struggling teachers poorly? Given the power that many districts now have, why don’t more of them do what reformers want them to do and fire more teachers?

They have their reasons. Here are seven.

They probably won’t find anyone better.

Here’s a satisfying irony: Reformers’ efforts to make teaching better, a large part of which relies on the dismissal of large numbers of teachers, has resulted in the declining attractiveness of the profession, which has had the consequence of fewer and fewer young people enrolling in teacher preparation programs, thereby making it risky for principals to do the very thing reformers implore them to do: fire teachers. American education has never attracted the country’s highest-performing students and reform efforts have guaranteed that it never will. A principal has to be concerned that he might not find anyone better to replace a teacher he would like to get go.

Of course, this isn’t a universal problem. Some districts do indeed receive hundreds of resumes for open positions and they can choose among several impressive candidates. The problem is that those kinds of districts usually have students who do well no matter who teaches them. When you consider the potential consequences of letting a teacher go, is it really worth it if test scores will likely remain high with a replacement? And if scores are high, can principals even find the data to legitimize a teacher’s dismissal?

Conversely, the districts that reformers would say need the most teacher turnover (the ones with low test scores) are in the worst position to replace poor teachers with better ones because they are unattractive districts. Given that, a principal in a struggling district must weigh the benefits of firing even a struggling teacher against the costs outlined in the rest of this article, a calculus which becomes even more difficult with the knowledge that he’s unlikely to find anyone better.

The Principal’s Guilt

Nearly every principal agrees that the process to remove a teacher is time-consuming. Mahy lament this fact, but there’s a good reason for it. If a principal wants to fire a teacher, the least we should expect of them is to spend a fair amount of time with that teacher and offer some assistance. But because it’s time-consuming, many principals don’t dedicate enough time to helping a struggling educator. They don’t get in the teacher’s classroom often enough. They don’t meet enough. They don’t have conversations, or share best practices, or provide a mentor, or send the teacher to conferences, or provide a decent curriculum, or direct the struggling teacher to resources that might help. And because they don’t do those things they feel guilty. How can they evaluate such a teacher poorly when they would have to admit that, for at least one very important part of their job, they were also ineffective. If a teacher struggles, should not the principal share at least some of the responsibility for not intervening earlier? The guilt principals feel over their failure to adequately support a struggling teacher is one reason many principals don’t want to remove such a teacher. Doing so would be an admission of their own failures.

Staff Morale Already Sucks

There’s a risk that comes with firing any teacher, but that risk is magnified if such a teacher is popular with peers or if morale in the building is already low. Firing people doesn’t happen in a vacuum. There are reverberations. And when a principal lets a teacher go, she should know that every teacher will react to the news. If the teacher was widely recognized as ineffective, the firing can enhance the reputation of the principal. But if the teacher was well-liked, or if the teacher was perceived as effective with students even though she had other faults, you can bet there will be fallout. A message has been sent, but it is sometimes not the message intended. One problem with matters like these is confidentiality. In the absence of an official explanation, teachers will provide their own about why a teacher was let go, and those reasons can cause a chilling effect, a fearful lurch to conformity and away from risk-taking, or resentment and even animosity toward the building leaders. Firings are often received negatively by the teachers who remain, and principals will struggle to lead without positive relationships with their staffs. Given that morale is often already low in the buildings where reformers would like the see the most teachers fired, principals run a real risk when they decided to double-down on practices that further lower already sucky morale. The culture in education is that teaching is and has always been a secure job. Principals who want to challenge that culture do so at their peril (see Rhee, Michelle) It would be a little like a law firm deciding to no longer charge billable hours.

A Bad Reputation

News travels fast in the education world, especially at the regional level. In the last two weeks, my colleagues were abuzz over two news stories. In one, the district’s Superintendent decided to share surplus money with her teachers. In the other, a large neighboring district decided to significantly boost substitute teacher pay from now until Christmas. In education, word spreads quickly, and bad news moves like lightning. Most principals don’t want to become known as the administrator who fires people. Same for most districts. No one wants to work for the principal who evaluates teachers the harshest, just as no one wants to work for a district that has a reputation for high turnover. You’d be a fool to assume immunity. When you looked at the above graph, what’s the one state you reflexively did not want to teach in? You’re not alone. What’s the likelihood that New Mexico is going to attract great teachers when graphs like that exist? The problem with firing lots of teachers is that it’s hard to see why teachers would want to work in such a place.

Experience and Common Sense

As is so often the case in education (and elsewhere), you can find a study to support just about any contention. Some studies have shown that experience doesn’t matter much. Others show that it does. But even with the best research, people tend to default to their beliefs. And it’s pretty hard to fight the belief that people get better with experience since every teacher and principal will tell you that they’re better at their jobs now than they were in their first year. It’s just common sense, and when common sense runs headlong into a study by some economist you’ve never heard of, you’re going to go with common sense every time. So are principals. Sure, Cheryl might not be the greatest teacher right now, but she’s young. She’ll get better. It’s far easier to justify keeping even a struggling teacher around for another year with this line of thinking than it is to let her go, deal with the fallout, and invest time and money in the hopes you’ll find someone better.

Cost and Time

Hiring news teachers is a hassle. I’ve never done it, but I’ve been on four interview committees. Everyone working in a school is extraordinarily busy. No one is running around with free time, so when principals conduct interviews with new teacher candidates, it takes a large chunk of time out of their day, or, more often, they’re doing it in the summer and they have to beg teachers to come in over their break to sit on the interview team. There are often more rounds that take up even more time of those on the team (and they won’t be real happy to help if they’re pissed over the fact that the principal caused all of this because she fired a colleague they believed didn’t deserve it). Then, if you’re fortunate enough to find someone, there’s a mentor to find and training to provide (assuming you’re doing things the right way). Everything the district invested in the fired teacher is lost and you’re starting over with the new person. Once in the classroom, a new teacher will usually require more principal support. The new hire will need to be brought up to speed on building norms and procedures, a job often left to her experienced colleagues, who may resent the extra work, especially if they saw the firing as unwarranted. That can harm the culture of the building. And this all assumes that the new hire won’t keep interviewing, receive a better offer from a more affluent or geographically closer district and leave you in the lurch and having to go through the whole process all over again.


Determining bad teaching isn’t as easy as it sounds. Teaching isn’t just about test scores. It’s not even just about learning. As I wrote in Why Bad Teachers Are Hard To Find, different students need different things, and the perfect teacher for one student can be a terrible match for another. One teacher may closely reflect the values of one set of parents while holding views that are the antithesis of what other parents value about their child’s educational experience. Different students need different things, and teachers play many roles inside of a school. Teacher A may get great test scores, but her students might grow to hate school. Teacher B’s scores might be lower, but she may foster in students a love of learning that pays dividends down the road.

Part of the benefit of formal schooling is the exposure to different types of “bosses.” We shouldn’t want a monoculture in our schools where every teacher values the same things because we want flexible students who can adapt to changing circumstances and expectations. Principals are right to question whether their opinion should matter as much as it does. Just because a principal values publicly displayed learning goals, quiet classrooms, focused seatwork, and high test scores does not mean she should elevate her values above others. A little humility is called for because there is no one right way to educate children. The self-doubt principals rightly feel about what constitutes good teaching is enough to keep many of them from imposing their values on their staffs and it’s enough to stay their hand when it comes to rating teachers poorly on year-end evaluations.

Given all the potential negatives, it’s not surprising that most principals looking at the big picture opt to retain even struggling teachers. Until reformers start running schools full of actual teachers, they are unlikely to understand all the factors principals consider when making the difficult decision to rate their teachers poorly or take steps toward their dismissal.

Addressing the Roots of Classroom Behavior Problems

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By Frankie Wallace

In a 2019 report, based on a survey from 1,900 elementary school teachers, 25% of the teachers reported that they witness children in their classrooms throwing tantrums or having other behavioral issues a few times each week. 

Behavioral issues in the classroom are nothing new. Some kids have always struggled with their behavior more than others, and that comes across in a school setting. 

What has changed, though, is how we can learn more about the root of these behavioral issues, and what can be done about them. Things like talking back to a teacher, throwing a tantrum, or showing disrespect obviously shouldn’t be allowed in a classroom setting. Depending on the severity of the incident, it’s normal for a teacher to exert some kind of punishment, whether it’s staying after school, or bringing that student’s parents in to discuss further options. 

But instead of going straight to punishment, it’s important to understand what might be causing such behavior in the classroom. When a teacher and parents can get to the core of the problem, that’s when real, lasting changes can be made. 

So what are some potential roots of classroom behavioral problems? 

Listening to Learn 

As a teacher, your job is about more than just educating your students. It’s about listening to them. For starters, every student learns differently. Listening to their needs and the way they respond to things can help you to become an even better educator. 

But just like the counselors in your school, practicing listening skills like empathy, acceptance, and making an effort to really understand what your students are saying can help you to recognize if there are any underlying issues going on. 

For example, a child with ADHD might have behavioral issues in class, but really, they just want someone to understand them and know what they’re going through. Most kids with this disorder know they’re different and they want to be accepted. Listening to those needs and wants can make it easier for you to find a better way of teaching them. 

It’s also important to keep in mind that you never know what might be going on at home. Children witness 68-80% of domestic assaults at home between parents or other adults, and that can lead to lasting emotional and psychological issues that could cause behavioral problems. A child who has seen something like that, or experiences it on a regular basis, can suffer from anxiety or other mental health issues. 

The bottom line? It’s important to listen to get the full picture before finding the appropriate consequences for poor behaviors. 

Physical Factors Impacting Behavior

In some cases, behavioral issues impacting kids could have very simple causes. Children who aren’t feeling well or have some other kind of physical ailment might not know how to fully express it, so they act out in less-than-satisfactory ways. 

For example, 2-3 out of every 1,000 children born in the United States struggle with some kind of hearing loss. If they’re shouting in class, they may not be able to hear you well. Or, they might have to yell at home in order to be heard. 

Vision problems can also cause children to become frustrated and potentially disruptive. If they can’t see the board or the instructions you’re providing on a lesson, they might start to act out. Children who are squinting, tilting their heads to see, or who seem to have short attention spans may be struggling with vision issues. It’s a problem that should be addressed with parents so they can get the proper eye care. 

How to Help Children Overcome Behavioral Issues

The most important thing you can do to address behavioral issues in a child is to get to the root of the problem. Many times, it goes deeper than you may think. The good news about that? When you get to the problem, you can start to come up with more productive, proactive ways to find the solution. 

Punishment isn’t always the best solution, especially when something more is going on under the surface of poor behavior. So, while you might want to talk to that child’s parents, keep an open mind as you do. Discuss your concerns, and work with parents to find out the root of the issues so you can solve them together. From there, you can find more productive ways to encourage positive behavior in your students. 

Additionally, work with the child, instead of telling them they’re “in trouble” right away. Children often struggle with self-confidence issues, and they may have a hard time fully processing and expressing their emotions. Think about how frustrating that would be. Think about how you would react if you couldn’t adequately tell someone what was going on with you. Helping that child to overcome those emotional barriers can be a big step in coming to a positive solution. If you don’t feel you can do that on your own or with the help of a child’s parents, a school guidance counselor may be more equipped to do so. 

Again, classroom behavioral issues are nothing new. And, yes, there are times when some kind of disciplinary action is the best way to go. But, punishing students blindly without getting to the root of the issue can lead to even bigger problems in the future. Don’t be afraid to pause and consider why the issues are happening, in the first place. When you do that, you can develop a better relationship with your students, and help them to overcome their struggles.

How Micromanaging Administrators Destroy Collective Teacher Efficacy

If you’ve been teaching for any length of time, you’ve likely run across the term collective efficacy. You can blame an Australian researcher named John Hattie for this. Administrators love John Hattie because he attempts to simplify something that is extraordinarily complicated. Essentially, Hattie looks at a bunch of studies that other people have done in schools, plugs the results of those studies into some sort of gizmo, and out pops an effect size. If the factor has an effect size larger than .40, then that’s better than the growth you would expect to see from students who are doing something more than merely getting older.

There are lists of Hattie’s effect sizes everywhere and school administrators display them like I used to pin up posters of Nikki Taylor and Elle McPherson. If you’re a teacher, you’ve undoubtedly seen these lists or at least heard administrators referencing them. And what is at the top of Mr. Hattie’s magical list of factors?


Visible-Learning.org defines it as the collective belief of teachers in their ability to positively affect students. It has an effect size of 1.57, which I’m sure you’ve been told is

While collective teacher efficacy sounds a little new-agey and mystical and seems to imply that if teachers just believed a little harder than students would overcome any obstacles to learning and everyone would go to college and the gross domestic product would triple and we’d all live together in peace and harmony, it’s actually a little more complicated than making teachers feel empowered and getting them to believe in themselves.

Hattie explains that collective teacher efficacy is not just about having all the teachers in a building believing they can make a difference. It’s not just “growth mindset and rah-rah thinking.” Rather, it’s a “combined belief that it’s us (the teachers) that causes learning. It’s not the students.” Hattie says, “When you fundamentally believe you can make a difference (regardless of student demographics or other barriers), and you feed it with the evidence that you are, then that is dramatically powerful.” Source

It’s easy to see how having a building full of teachers who believe in their collective efficacy can impact student learning.

But it’s important to remember that in order to have collective teacher efficacy you must first have individual teacher efficacy. Indeed, the whole concept of collective efficacy is rooted in self-efficacy; each teacher needs to believe that they are the most important factor in each student’s education and that they can overcome student impediments to learning.

So the question must be asked: How do we ensure that each teacher believes in his or her own efficacy?

Too often, we assume that this is a teacher problem. That there is something wrong with a teacher who doesn’t believe in his ability to positively impact his students’ learning. That there is something defective about a teacher who points to poverty and wonders how her actions can overcome all the barriers it places before her students.

Certainly, there are times when a teacher’s mindset prevents self-efficacy.

But I believe there are many more times when micromanaging administrators have destroyed the self-efficacy with which most teachers begin their careers.

Micromanaging administrators, in their quest to improve student outcomes by taking a firmer hand over minute-to-minute operations in schools, effectively undermine their own goals when their actions destroy the one thing we know does more than anything to improve student achievement. The more micromanaged teachers are, the less they will feel responsible for student learning.

Simply, micromanagement destroys teacher efficacy.

Here’s how:

Collective teacher efficacy says that teachers believe they can make a difference for students. But what happens to that feeling when teachers feel disempowered? What happens to teacher efficacy when teachers are no longer trusted to make decisions in the best interests of their students but are instead told to merely follow orders?

Let’s say, for instance, that three bright, young people become second grade teachers. They all get hired to work in the same building. They’re idealists, as most are who enter the field. They’ve learned a lot in college about teaching methods and they’ve read some of the latest research on how to teach reading. They are not only full of ideas; they are full of optimism. They’re headed to a high-poverty school where reading scores on state tests have always been low and they’re determined to make a difference. To use Hattie’s language, their collective efficacy is sky-high. They believe that with enough hard work, they can overcome any barriers students might have to learning how to read.

But during the first week of back-to-school meetings, they’re told a few things. First, they learn that they have to use a Board-approved program to teach reading. The district has spent a lot of money on it. It’s research-based (nevermind that the research was paid for by the company that created the program). Other districts (districts that score higher on state tests than theirs!) use the program, so obviously it can’t suck. To give the program a chance to work, these three new teachers are told they will teach it with fidelity. No supplementing or just deciding not to teach something. Teach it the way it’s designed. Don’t deviate.

Our vibrant educators are a bit disheartened at this, especially when they attend a day of training on the program and realize that it doesn’t comport with what they’ve read about the latest research on reading instruction. There’s phonics, but it seems insufficient. There’s lots of comprehension work, but it’s focused on skill-building instead of building students’ content knowledge. Our three heroes were hoping to develop interdisciplinary units on high-interest topics, but it looks like that’s out the window. They were planning to use picture books like those of Patricia Polacco, but now it looks like they’ll be using story excerpts and articles from an anthology that seems cobbled together with the sole purpose of checking off boxes on a list of Common Core Standards.

They remain undeterred. They tell themselves they can still make a difference using this program. After all, they’ll need to intervene and the district is also big on differentiation (the young trio privately wonder how differentiation and slavish devotion to an unproven program reconcile, but they keep such questions to themselves). So they meet and talk about how they’ll help those kids who lack phonemic awareness and what they’ll do for those students whose fluency isn’t up to snuff.

And then, about two weeks into the year, they’re told that there’s a system in place for all of that. The school has been doing it for years. Students are pulled out of their rooms and put in groups based on need. And what will teachers do in those groups? Why, a prescribed intervention from the wonderful program they’re required to use, of course!

But their collective efficacy is not done taking hits. Because there’s also a math program that they’ll be teaching with fidelity.

And the district has guidelines (rules, really) about how much time they are to spend on each subject each day.

Oh, and there’s a pacing guide to which they must adhere. No spending extra time on something if it puts them behind.

And what if the teachers decide their students are just done some afternoon and they need a recess? Nope, not if it’s not at the scheduled time.

What about art projects? Well, they heard that another teacher got her wrist slapped when the curriculum director walked in on her art project last year, so they better not take the risk.

When, exactly, do our three new teachers get to decide anything of consequence? When are they allowed to put all of their learning and idealism into action? When can they put their collective efficacy to the test?

In some districts, the answer is literally NEVER.

It is no wonder why some teachers lack self-efficacy and why a collection of teachers being told what to do and how to do it by people who have never done the job no longer acknowledge that it is their beliefs that make a difference for their students when they aren’t allowed to act on those beliefs.

When administrators manage every part of a teacher’s day, when they send the unmistakable message to teachers that their judgment isn’t to be trusted and that they are to be nothing more than loyal soldiers following marching orders, then we cannot point at teachers and expect them to believe in the power of their own collective efficacy. Such efficacy no longer exists in people who have no agency. If districts want to improve student outcomes, they should listen to what John Hattie has to say. They should get out of the way and let the professionals do their jobs so that teachers will once again feel empowered to make a difference for their students.

Faulting teachers who work for micromanaging administrators for lacking a belief in their own efficacy is just another page from the same book that teachers have grown exhausted of having read to them. It’s teacher blaming. Instead of pointing at educators and asking them to believe harder, let’s return the trust and autonomy that was foolishly taken from them so they can be the authors of their classroom’s story. Only then can we expect teachers to believe in their own efficacy.

How to Teach Diversity in an Inclusive Classroom

By Aimee Laurence

More and more schools, colleges, and universities are committing themselves to promoting inclusion and diversity issue awareness to both students and faculty members. Regardless of the subject of the course being taught, there are certain things that teachers can do to the classroom and their approach to be more welcoming and inclusive to their students. Here is a basic guide to start taking necessary steps to creating an inclusive classroom and teaching diversity. 

  • What is diversity?

Diversity means a lot of different things. In the classroom, diversity means understanding that each student has a different experience, ideas and strengths, and respecting and encouraging those viewpoints. The differences stem from dimensions of sexual orientation, gender, race, ethnicity, religious beliefs, socio-economic status, age, ability, or political beliefs. Diversity is understanding these differences, exploring them with respect, and incorporating them into the classroom to have a richer learning experience. 

  • Why does it matter in the classroom?

Students go to school with varied experiences and backgrounds. Educators and teachers are responsible for making sure that students can work in diverse workplaces and collaborate and respect others that have different and new perspectives. When these are incorporated in teaching and students are given different ways to look at a discipline, they become better prepared for a diverse workforce. 

  • What is inclusivity in the classroom?

Having Inclusive classrooms means that the teachers have an understanding of the diversity of their students and work with them to have a collaborative, safe, and respectful learning experience. Course content is shared in many different ways and allows students to share their experiences if willing. 

  • How to bring diversity to the classroom?

There are many ways to bring diversity to the classroom depending on what you want your students to get from it. As per Helen Norrey, an educator at Let’s Go And Learn and SimpleGrad, bringing diversity to the classroom “means bringing different perspectives to the curriculum and sharing with students the differences in cultures and background in a safe environment without judgment, and inviting them to share in their experiences if comfortable.”  

Some advice to teachers who are seeking to teach diversity in an inclusive manner would be to observe, investigate, and most of all, not make assumptions. Some teachers unintentionally have societal and cultural biases and they are unaware of the microaggressions created in the classroom. It’s very important to be aware. Teachers have to observe different groups of people and make investigations instead of assuming certain things. They have to be aware and respond to diverse cultures in class instead of pretending cultural blindness. 

It’s also important for teachers to reflect on themselves and avoid perpetuating stereotypes. For example, students have shared experiences where they have had their intellectual capabilities questioned or their ability to attend elite schools simply based on skin color. Monica Islington, a teacher at My Writing Way and Via Writing, explains to others that “teachers must be constantly on aware of their thoughts and reflect on them, in addition to their feelings and their actions in the classroom, particularly when they’re handling a situation involving children from different backgrounds. This helps to prevent the reinforcement of stereotypes.” 

In truth, everyone is human and brings their own individual cultural biases to the table. That’s why teachers have to reflect on their thoughts and feelings about students from other backgrounds, and not stop at just saying they respect everyone. For example, even if a student comes from a poorer school, a teacher must consider whether they still have high expectations. 

They should also reflect on this during parent-teacher days, and have to be aware of how they phrase their questions to the parents which will be sensitive to gaps between home culture and school and respect those gaps. For example, if a teacher is speaking to a parent from a poor background comparatively speaking, they should not be assuming that they have access to the same resources.

At the end of the day, teachers should be treating students not only as individuals but also as part of different cultural groups with many differences to be celebrated. The differences that make each person unique must be recognized and observed. 

Aimee Laurence, a tutor at UKWritings.com and Essayroo Review, writes many articles on education and the modern world. She is interested in modernizing the curriculum in schools to be more in line with current beliefs and social developments. Aimee also works as a freelance editor on Assignment Writer.

7 Ways To Bulletproof Your Teaching Career

Many teachers I know live with fear. They fear failing their students. They fear angering vocal parents. They fear the judgment of their colleagues. But above all, many teachers fear a poor evaluation from an administrator that leads to the loss of their job and puts their teaching career in jeopardy.

This fear is why so many teachers are nervous when their principal walks in the room. It’s why they can’t sleep the night before an observation. It’s why they keep a close eye on the economy, state funding, and the financial health of their district. And it’s why so many teachers are afraid to speak up about harmful policies, unrealistic expectations, the misuse of data, and systemic exploitation.

Teachers can never fully bulletproof their careers. Because we work for a government entity that receives funding from the state, we’ll always be at the mercy of recessions and budget cuts. Because we work for other people, we’ll always be vulnerable to petty tyrants, budget-slashing Superintendents, and office politics. Still, there are simple things teachers can do to protect themselves from poor evaluations, dismissals, and layoffs. Here are seven things every teacher can do to make their career as bulletproof as possible.

1. Provide Uncommon Value

You don’t need to sign up for every committee and attend every after-school event to ensure that your principal values you enough that you’re never vulnerable to layoff. You don’t need to be a yes-man or a suck-up. But if you want to bulletproof your career, you should stand out from the crowd by providing uncommon value. When supervisors think of their building without you in it, they should wonder how you’ll be replaced.

Perhaps you’re the go-to person for making the specials schedule and the job would fall to your principal if you didn’t do it. Maybe you’re the disciplinarian, dealing with student misbehavior so the principal doesn’t have to do it all. You could have one major project that you do every year that is valued by the school and the community, such as Career Day or an annual Make a Difference Day project. Become known for one important extra and you’ll make it much harder for your principal to envision a day when you’re not there.

2. Be Likable (or at least not unlikable)

Most people hold the erroneous view that competence is what determines career success. They believe that those who are better at their jobs will be rewarded and those who don’t get results will be dinged on their evaluations. But research suggests that it isn’t true. While everyone would love to work with a charismatic star and no one can stand an incompetent jerk, things get murkier when it comes to choosing between capable assholes and lovable slackers. Professors Tiziana Casciaro and Miguel Sousa Lobo found that while many employers say competence matters most, their actions reveal the opposite. Writing for the Harvard Business Review, the professors stated:

“Personal feelings played a more important role in forming work relationships—not friendships at work but job-oriented relationships—than is commonly acknowledged. They were even more important than evaluations of competence. In fact, feelings worked as a gating factor: We found that if someone is strongly disliked, it’s almost irrelevant whether or not she is competent; people won’t want to work with her anyway. By contrast, if someone is liked, his colleagues will seek out every little bit of competence he has to offer. And this tendency didn’t exist only in extreme cases; it was true across the board. Generally speaking, a little extra likability goes a longer way than a little extra competence in making someone desirable to work with.”

Researchers have also found that the more likable a physician is, the less likely he or she is to be sued for medical malpractice, and that you’re more likely to get hired if you focus on being liked by prospective employers than if you highlight your skills. People want to work with likable people. If it comes down to laying teachers off, it won’t matter how good of a teacher you are if everyone despises you.

3. Make Students and Parents Happy

The more liked you are by students and parents, the riskier it will be for administrators to let you go. Schools hate negative press, and nothing generates negative press like when students and parents pitch a public fit over the loss of a popular teacher. News organizations eat that stuff up. To bulletproof your career, focus on pleasing your “clients,” the students and parents you serve, to such an extent that they will show up at Board meetings to speak on your behalf. Be the teacher who garners the most parent requests. Be the teacher who, if let go, will engender an emotional response from the community and lead to Facebook rants and news stories. Be the kind of teacher who administrators wouldn’t dare fire because they know what kind of hell will rain down on them if they do.

4. Complain Laterally

I thought about writing, “Don’t Complain” here, but I’ve been a teacher for 20 years and I’ve only met about three teachers who never complained, which leads me to believe complaining is probably rational, unavoidable, and maybe even a healthy way to alleviate stress. Given the state of public education today, I also have to wonder if those who don’t complain are paying attention.

All that said, nobody really likes a complainer. That includes principals. And if principals have to decide who gets kicked off the island first, you can bet they’ll want to remove the complainers. The paraprofessionals and janitors in your building don’t want to hear about your teacher problems either; they have their own, and some of them are worse than yours. So when you complain, do it laterally. Complain to your colleagues. You’re in this thing together, after all, and sometimes it’s nice to know that you’re not alone in your frustrations. In this way, complaining can actually bring coworkers together.

5. Handle Your Business

Most principals will tell you that they are there to make your job easier. They might encourage you to enlist their help to remove any barriers you’re facing to effective teaching. They may even work with the staff to develop a list of behaviors and consequences, some of which will include office referrals. You might interpret this to mean they want teachers to send students who break certain rules to them.

Be careful, and before you write a student up, consider the situation from your principal’s perspective. They are busy. They have a lot of problems to deal with. When you send them a student, you are giving them more work to do. You better have a damn good reason. While good principals will say all the right things, the reality is that no principal looks forward to having misbehaving students in their office. They especially resent it if those students seem to come from the same teacher. And they really resent it if that teacher sends her problems to the office when they’re hardly even problems. Deal with the swearing, mild disrespect, and occasional interruptions of your lessons yourself. Handle your business. Issue your own consequences as much as possible. Call the parents yourself. To the greatest extent possible, avoid sending problems to your principal.

6. Disagree in Private

I once worked with a teacher who would regularly question and criticize our principal during staff meetings. I never understood why. Of course, teachers regularly disagree with their principals, and sometimes, policy decisions must be questioned. But doing so publicly, in front of every other member of the staff, is counterproductive. While it may gain you the respect of your colleagues, it puts your boss on the defensive, a position that’s likely to cause him to dig in even deeper to save face. Publicly calling out the boss also puts the teacher and principal in an adversarial position, so it shouldn’t be a surprise when the principal, who is in possession of the full spectrum of human emotions, looks for ways to even the score. Teachers don’t want to be called out in front of their colleagues, parents, or students. If we’re going to be criticized, we want it done privately. Do the same for your principal. If you have a problem with her decisions, ask for a meeting, send an email, or make a phone call. Don’t unnecessarily make an enemy of the person who’s doing your evaluation.

7. Ask for Feedback

You don’t need to be a great teacher to keep your job. That much is obvious. In most cases, you don’t even have to be good, especially if you’re likable and don’t cause additional problems for your principal. What you should do, especially if you’re not yet one of the better educators in your building, is show that you’re trying to get there. You needn’t sign up for a bunch of conferences or constantly mention the professional articles and teaching books you’ve been reading. All you need to do is ask for feedback. Invite your principal into your room. Ask her for her honest opinion about what she observes. Ask to visit other teachers in the building to learn from them. Ask for book recommendations. Show you’re invested in becoming better at your job. I don’t know a principal alive who wouldn’t want to give such a teacher another year (or five) if they were willing to work on their craft.

Two Alternatives and Their Dangers

You could also be a suck-up. Plenty of people are. You could bend over backward to make your principal happy. You could compliment her during staff meetings. You could send him a thank-you card whenever he offers feedback on your teaching. You could volunteer for every extra bit of work the district tries to squeeze out of teachers, and you could even squeal on your colleagues in your quest to curry favor. You could ingratiate yourself with obsequious behavior.

All that might work, but the dangers are many and the payoff isn’t worth it. You’ll alienate your colleagues, most of whom you will be working with for far longer than you’ll be working for your principal. You will likely end up lonely, which is a bad thing to be in this profession. And for what? To hold onto a job that you likely would have kept anyway? Education is the one field where sucking up to the boss really doesn’t get you anywhere. You won’t get paid more and you won’t get a promotion. You’ll just get to keep doing the same job you’ve been doing, except just about everyone will hate you and talk behind your back.

Alternatively, you could follow the advice in this article, which suggests being a huge pain the ass (because supervisors tend to fire weak people who won’t pitch a giant fit if they’re let go), faking a heart attack or seizure, and claiming discrimination. The only problem with these strategies is once you’ve protected your job, you still have to live with yourself.

Bulletproofing Is Actually Pretty Simple

I know a principal who summarized much of the above with a simple story he told me. This principal has a teacher in his building who is a former professional athlete. His classroom is regularly the loudest one in the school. Walk by his room, and you’ll rarely see kids sitting quietly at their desks. The other teachers in the building complain about his classroom management and insinuate that they believe he’s not the most effective educator. But his principal told me, “I love him. He’ll never get a bad evaluation from me because students love him, parents write me letters that say, ‘My kid has never liked school and he loves it this year,’ and he never complains about anything.”

Principals are people too; it behooves teachers to remember that. Principals don’t want to hear about your problems. They don’t want to solve all your problems. They don’t want to be criticized in front of others. They like teachers who are likable. They appreciate teachers who make their job easier. They want to keep teachers who students and parents like. Bulletproof your career by being the kind of teacher you would value if you were the principal.