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Journal cover: International Journal of Educational Management

International Journal of Educational Management

ISSN: 0951-354X

Online from: 1987

Subject Area: Education

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Managing “challenging” teachers

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DOI (Permanent URL): 10.1108/09513540510599653

Article citation: Eliezer Yariv, Marianne Coleman, (2005) "Managing “challenging” teachers", International Journal of Educational Management, Vol. 19 Iss: 4, pp.330 - 346




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The Authors

Eliezer Yariv, Gordon College for Education, Haifa, Israel

Marianne Coleman, School of Educational Foundations and Policy Studies, Institute of Education, London University, London, UK


Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to investigate the ways in which elementary school principals in Israel deal with teachers who are “challenging” in their behaviour, that is those who are perceived as under-performing. This is an important and under-researched area of educational management.

Design/methodology/approach – Interviews were carried out with 40 elementary school principals, every fourth school being sampled in the northern district of Haifa. They were asked to recall a particularly difficult teacher and their shortcomings and then asked about the measures they took, in chronological order, to solve the problem.

Findings – The findings indicated that the principals preferred supportive measures or making changes to the organization rather than confronting the teachers. More than half the principals had started by ignoring the difficulties. In the end most did discuss the situation with the teacher and that sometimes involved direct criticism. In half of the cases the teacher left the school by the end of the year.

Research implications/limitations – The research findings are limited as they only relate to the views of the principals, leading to the possibility of researcher empathy with the principals. Further research might investigate the teachers perspective.

Practical implications – From a practical point-of-view, the current findings indicate that elementary school principals need to be better equipped with knowledge, managerial skills and sources of assistance to solve personnel difficulties.

Originality/value – This paper adds to the limited literature on the subject of under-performing teachers and reveals the resulting personnel difficulties faced by principals.

Article Type:

Research paper


Educational administration; Teaching and training; Performance management; Human resource management; Israel.


International Journal of Educational Management









Copyright ©

Emerald Group Publishing Limited




This study explores an extremely difficult aspect of educational management: coping with problematic staff. Dealing with shortcomings of teachers can be painful to both parties. Formidable practical, methodological and ethical barriers face researchers and practitioners who wish to explore this phenomenon. Probably the initial obstacle is the criteria by which teachers with problems are identified and appraised. Terms like incompetence poor-performing, and marginal can hinder clear thinking as to what may be considered as good teaching. Are the criteria merely confined to measures of achievements (Middlewood and Cardno, 2001)? Is good teaching limited to practices within the classroom (Cheng and Tsui, 1999)? How do we weigh cultural context and situational influences? Allegations of incompetence tend to consist of a cluster of factors, not just single one, including: poor classroom organization; poor class control; low expectations; inability to deliver the curriculum through lack of planning; poor subject knowledge and failure to capture the childrens interest (Wragg et al., 2000, p. 4). The salience of the difficulties plays a major role in determining who the problematic teachers are. There are quasi-legal terms, e.g. misconduct, poor-performing that are linked to cases of incompetece. One of the authors, Yariv (2004) coined the term “challenging teachers” to refer to those staff members who pose a challenge to the principal in terms of coping with their difficulties. Research based on the accounts of principals indicated that these teachers were not necessarily incompetent (some appeared to be quite able professionals), or poor performing (some performed at an average level) or “marginal”.

For whatever reason it occurs, poor performance on the part of teachers can destroy the efforts of students, other staff members, principals and parents. Unlike other workers, teachers are not only supposed to work and behave well. They are also expected to educate others (pupils) to do so. The role model they give is crucial to convince young people to follow them. A teacher who tends to come late to school may ruin any attempt s/he makes to convince others of the significance of punctuality. Poor teaching undermines the chances of student to succeed. The importance of good-conduct and effectiveness is not only necessary to run the class and school smoothly, it helps teachers and principals attain their goal of student learning.

Managing “challenging” teachers is the subject of this research. An example, a vignette, based on an interview with an Israeli elementary school principal (pilot, school D) is given here to illustrate the area researched. The false names were added to both anonymise the subjects and to help the reader visualize the participants. The view given here is purely that of the principal and it is recognized that the teachers might have reported the events differently:

Several days before the beginning of the school year Deborah, an elementary school principal, received a call from her inspector. “I have no other choice but to transfer a teacher to your school” he announced. Initiated transfer is the Ministry of Educations code for moving incompetent teachers from one school to another. The inspectors promise that the teacher would stay for only three years, the successful absorption of two teachers who were transferred the previous years, and the shortage of teachers at the time made the principal less suspicious than they might otherwise have been.Ruth was a 50-year-old veteran tenured teacher who taught humanities. Deborah assigned her to educate a fifth grade class. The role of an “educator” in the Israeli school system means not only teaching subject matter but also being a leader to a designated class and responsible for its pupils social and personal matters. The position of an educator is more prestigious with a better salary than that of a specialist teacher. As an experienced teacher she used various methods with reasonable success, but her students did not enjoy her lessons. The difficulties emerged at the end of the first year, when the principal noticed that Ruth had bad relations with others. She had quarreled first with colleague teachers and later with parents and students, insisting on being the one who sets the tone (e.g. how to teach, when to examine classes). In one case Ruth objected to a legitimate decision made by another teacher. The principal, who got very angry, called her outside the classroom in the middle of a lesson to reprimand her, but Ruth argued with her (as she did whenever the principal tried to open a discussion). These measures brought no progress. Other staff members did not like her. It reached a point when Ruth celebrated her daughters wedding but none of the teachers agreed to attend the ceremony. The principal had to force a few of them to represent the school.Ruth used to come late to school. Deborah responded first politely and later more assertively. Ruth sensed that she was under probation and came to school on time. By the end of the first year Deborah decided that Ruth would not continue as an educator, but Ruth begged her to amend the decision. She told the principal of her desire to retire the next year, requesting that she remain an educator, in order to maintain her full pension. Deborah agreed to change her decision, hoping her consideration would ease Ruths way out. It was a mistake. The difficulties continued the next year. By the time she had made up her mind to get rid of her, Ruths husband got sick and Deborah refrained from taking action. By the end of the second year Ruth announced she had decided not to retire. The principal assigned her to a position of guiding teachers, but even then she could not cooperate with them and the principal was asked to intervene. By the third year the inspector left his job and the new inspector felt committed to her predecessors decision but could not deliver his promises. Further, the teachers union chairperson told Deborah she empathized with her difficulties but was fully committed to protecting Ruth. Having almost no relations with the teacher and no support from the Ministry of Education and the teachers union, Deborah found herself in a hopeless situation.

The case of Ruth exemplifies some of the complexities for principals in Israel and elsewhere of coping with teachers problems: the lack of information, sometime intentionally hidden by inspectors and colleague principals; the teachers denial of difficulties; the maneuvers and occasional deceptions used to postpone any of the principals actions. A difficult organizational climate and regulations limit the power of the principal. In addition the principals hesitations and moral consideration slow down any move they may consider taking. The teachers may obviously see these problems differently.

Coping with incompetent teachers – earlier findings

Despite ethical and methodological constraints, two comprehensive empirical studies have been carried out recently by Bridges (1986, 1992) in California and by Wragg et al. (2000) in England. These works and other studies reveal that incompetence is a universal phenomenon. Poor-performing teachers comprise about 5-10 per cent of the working force (ERS, 1988; Tucker, 1997; Yariv, 2004). Weeding out weak teachers appears to be very difficult. It is not legal aspects (McDaniel and McDaniel, 1980) that prevent taking action, nor is it the lack of ideas and sound practices. It seems that excellent teachers are not necessarily rewarded for superior work, and failing teachers are rarely held accountable for poor performance (Dawson and Billingsley, 2000). Some authors suggest enhancing principals accountability, replacing tenure contract with performance contracts, paying teachers based on performance and other organizational and instructional recommendation (Dawson and Billingsley, 2000; McGrath, 1993). When school principals identify weak teachers, they endorse simple remedies, trying first to assist them and later, if no viable improvements occur, they then tend to try to reassign them elsewhere or remove them (Ehrgott, 1993).

Analyzing principals coping strategies may take the form of measuring the use of specific strategies. For example, Wragg et al. (2000) report that the most common measures were in-house support and advice, target setting, observing teachers lessons, sending them on courses, and giving opportunity observe good practice. A process-based approach, used by Bridges (1992) identified three consecutive modes of responses which principals follow. First, tolerating and assisting: once a teacher has been identified as a poor performer, heads prefer to overlook, tolerate and protect. They use double talk, and give inflated ratings (which are interpreted by the teacher as a sign of approval). They also offer some remedial programs, but the personal and organizational conditions reduce the chances of a successful intervention (Bridges, 1986, 1992). About only one quarter of the failing teachers recover with such help. Second, when no signs of improvement are seen, principals refer the teacher to “escape hatches”, which confine the actual damage. There are three types of “escape hatches”:

  1. transfer between schools within the district with better chances to improve with the new conditions;
  2. placement in a position of assisting individual students; and
  3. reassignment of the incompetent teacher to non-teaching position, such as librarian or even driving the school bus (Bridges, 1992).

Third, salvage attempts and induced exits, after trying to assist, principals and supervisors may initiate a period of open criticism, which is usually met with teachers defensive responses. Administrators begin to specify the teachers behaviour more carefully, decrease any assistance, restrain support and rely more on extensive documentation of the problems. These remedial measures often bring little improvement.

When external pressures emerge, such as enrolment decline, a financial squeeze or continuing complaints from parents and colleague teachers, principals are forced to make tough decisions. At this stage another factor comes into effect – the importance attached to teacher assessment by the principal. Teachers appraisal varies tremendously across schools, districts and states in the US (Jacobson and Battaglia, 2001). Such evaluation varies in its effectiveness, but does not necessarily predict the administrative responses to incompetence (Tucker, 1997). If the school runs a strict procedure of periodical evaluation with formative and summative feedback there is a better foundation to offer assistance or ask the teacher to leave. Proper appraisal enables the substantiation of allegations of incompetence and the initiation of steps toward resignation or dismissal. For example, evaluation programs by peer review held in Ohio not only led to more teachers receiving help, but eventually led to the dismissal of more incompetent teachers than previously (Hertling, 1999). Dismissal, however, is a lengthy and very expensive procedure; it may cost up to $150,000 and take two-three years, let alone the stress encountered on all sides.

Managing poor performing teachers – the Israeli context

The governance context in Israel is different from the UK and USA experience in that centralized governmental control and tight inspection by the regional headquarters leave little room for schools independent decisions. Principals have little freedom with regard to finance, staffing, curriculum and other crucial issues. Without regional governing authorities (e.g. LEA) clearly in Israel principals have little control over staffing and appear to have virtually no choice if an inspector decides that a challenging teacher ought to be sent to a particular school. That old-fashioned and inefficient organizational structure; an increasing public outcry about the diminishing quality of the Israeli education, and the rapid deterioration of Israeli students achievements in international tests has led the minister of education to establish a task force. With a mandate to offer radical changes, the committee suggested changing the structure of governance, establishing local educational authorities, decreasing governmental involvement and offering broad latitude to mange schools more independently.

As in other countries, very little is known about how Israeli school principals actually cope with their teachers shortcomings. Israeli principals engage in many conflicts. Friedman and Benades-Yaakov (1998) who surveyed 174 high school principals found that 35 per cent of them mentioned a conflict with a staff member within the last two years. These conflicts took a relatively long time and both sides used not only persuasion, but also appeals to other organizations, demonstrations, strikes, defamation, violence and lawsuits. These figures do not necessarily represent the overall numbers of Israeli problematic teachers. Many less serious cases are kept hidden. Despite these ongoing difficulties, principals spend relatively little time on improving their teachers performance and discipline (Rosenblatt and Somech, 1998).

Dismissing a teacher in Israel is an extremely difficult and lengthy procedure. Collective labour agreements and strong workers unions militantly defend against employers efforts to lay off its employees. In practice, only ten0 to 20 teachers are dismissed each year, mainly due to misconduct and for bureaucratic reasons, rather than for improper teaching or wrong implementation of the curriculum (Stanner, 1966). Civil service courts seriously consider charges of beating pupils, but instead of dismissal they prefer to reprimand and fine the teachers (State of Israel, Civil service court, 1981, 1985, 1986). For example, 140 teachers were accused in civil service courts in the year of 2000 for acts of violence toward pupils. Five teachers were dismissed, 70 teachers were fined and the rest were still waiting for their trial (Dayan, 2001). Teachers who were charged with criminal acts like embezzlement were reprimanded and fined, while cases of theft and bribe often led to dismissal. Also courts take seriously charges of negligence and lack of students supervision within schools and while on outdoor educational activities (Taub, 1997).

Aims of research

The current study carries some important theoretical and practical innovations. It elaborates the knowledge of extreme situations which principals face and how they cope with them. Such information may help to assist principals, reduce teachers difficulties at school and save the aggravations they cause. Since this work focuses on a relatively little researched subject no pre-determined hypotheses were laid. The research questions are:RQ1. What measures do principals take to cope with teachers shortcomings? RQ2. What are the outcomes of those interventions?


Exploring such sensitive and complicated issues entails the use of qualitative techniques such as semi-structured interviews (Powney and Watts, 1987). The interpretive paradigm is best suited to examine interrelationships, emotional reactions and cognitive processes, which cannot be categorized into small and simple definitions (Cohen and Manion, 1994, p. 5).


The sample included 40 elementary schools principals. The sample was limited to the Jewish, Hebrew speaking population. In order to avoid confusion it was decided not to sample middle and high schools, in which the chain of command includes three and sometimes even four layers, and teachers may report to more than one manager, but to limit the research to elementary schools with a simpler management structure.

Using probability systematic sampling (Cohen and Manion, 1994, p. 87), each fourth school was selected from a full list of elementary school in the Ministry of Educations district of Haifa district. Very few, 10 out of 58 principals refused to cooperate, and principals who had worked less than one year were not included, since they might not have been familiar enough with the staff. The principals were 40 to 50 years old, most of them (85 percent) women, who had been working on average over 20 years (M-23.3, SD- 6.6). Only five out 40 principals had served in more than one school.

The 40 schools, encompassing 14,395 pupils, varied tremendously with regard to its size (M=360, SD=173). Due to gradual demographic changes one third of the schools suffered an enrollment decline. On average almost 30 teachers worked in each school (M-29, SD-7). Less than one quarter worked part time, most of them were specialist teachers (e.g. music, sports) whose full time job was divided among two or more schools. Being a worker in several institutions became an organizational obstacle for full involvement within the schools daily routine. Some of the poor-performing teachers came out of these ranks. As is true in all Western countries, teaching is a feminine profession, and 97 percent of the sampled teachers were women (Addi-Raccah, 2002). Most of the teachers in the sampled schools were veteran and very few new teachers had started work recently. The turnover rate within the last two years was relatively low. In 16 out of 40 of the schools there was no change in personnel. In other schools only few teachers left (M-2.4, SD-1.8), most of them had taken maternity leave, retired or moved to another school.

Studying the cases of the challenging teachers was done using the “critical incident technique” (Flanagan, 1954). The Principals were asked to select an extreme case (“critical”) of a poor performing teacher who posed a challenge to work with him or her (Yariv, 2003). Such a sampling method is neither fully random nor representative, yet the relatively large number of cases enabled both qualitative and quantitative analysis.

Research tools and data analysis

The interview was mainly based on Bridges’ (1986, appendix) and Balser and Sterns (1999, p. 1050) works and was aimed to achieve two goals: first to collect background data and second to get a comprehensive account about a case of one teacher identified as “challenging” whom they had worked with. After describing the teacher and his or her shortcomings the principals were asked about the measures they took, in chronological order, to solve the problem. Obviously, those stories cannot be considered as a full account of the many actions they took for months and years, but rather their own remembered responses. Probing questions (Hoinville ans Jowell, 1978, p. 101-102) clarified the principals answers and kept the picture more balanced by presenting some aspects of the teachers perspective too. A pilot interview was held initially with an experienced principal whose feedback comments helped to introduce certain improvements with regard to the content and the procedure of the interview.

The interview includes sections containing closed questions (e.g. number of teachers who took maternity leave), sections that include broader categories (e.g. eight criteria for the teachers shortcomings), and fully open ended questions (e.g. how it all ended). After defining the categories a content analysis was taken (Anderson, 1997, p. 341). The numbers that were attached to each category (e.g. “holding feedback discussion” yes – 1; no – 0) enabled the use of certain statistical procedures. Yet, since these numbers are based on a relatively small sample and were extracted from unsubstantiated interviews, the descriptive and the inferential statistics are presented just as a marker of the possible emerging trends.

Procedure and ethical aspects

The principals were approached by telephone. The interviews took 60 – 90 minutes and the content was recorded in writing on the spot. The studys procedure protected the confidentiality of the principals and the schools identities, and the privacy of the teachers, who remain anonymous (Cohen and Manion, 1994, p. 368). The full cooperation received, indicated that the procedure was proper and professional. Had the request to identify challenging teachers, discuss their shortcomings made an impact on the principals thought and behavior? Several measures were taken to eliminate any negative outcomes. A follow-up telephone call to several respondents revealed that the interview was felt to have left no “side effects” in terms of the principals behaviour towards the teachers. All the principals were also reminded in a letter about their professional responsibilities to ensure that the research had no ill effects on the teachers.


Based on Bridges (1992) analysis, the measures principals took were divided into tolerating measures and confronting measures. The escape hatches, which strictly appeared to be non applicable within the Israeli context were identified here instead as a third category of organizational measures (changing position; reducing teaching hours). Each of the three approaches consisted of several sub-categories of actions.

The tolerating mode consists of seven categories and the confronting mode was divided, according the principals answers, into six specific measures. Two organizational measures were added. Altogether, principals used on average no less than six different kinds of measures, mainly tolerating and assisting (M – 3.1), less confronting (M – 2.1) and rarely used organizational means (M – 0.6). There were other means, such as direct intervention with an undisciplined class or individual talks with parents and pupils, which were used less frequently. Usually principals first used more assisting and later more confrontational measures. The order in which the measures were practiced (except for the initial reaction of overlooking) was changed from case to case. Based on the principals answers the low correlations reflect that no specific measure was connected to specific background variables. Table I shows that the larger the school (as measured by the number of its teachers), the less likely were the principals to ignore difficulties, and the more likely they were to hold more discussions with the problematic teachers and use the available options to change the teachers position. Other school background variables (size of city, socioeconomic level of the neighborhood) were found to play no role. Among the principals background variables, experience had no significance while gender emerged to carry some influence. The positive correlations mean that women principals used coping measures more often, for example, asking other teachers to assist, talking with teachers about their difficulties and sometimes even voicing criticism.

With regard to the teachers variables, the many negative correlations mean that principals responded cautiously when it came to their experienced teachers, both in terms of assistance and confrontation and were especially anxious to avoid offending them by the offer of changing school.

Tolerating and assisting

Recognition of poor performance is sometimes very clear but often it is less easy to point to evidence (Fidler and Atton, 1999, p. 108). When facing improper behaviour, the principals had to decide whether the presented problem called for direct intervention. In half of the cases they deliberately preferred to ignore the first warning signs, but they were selective with regard to the difficulties they ignored. Low motivation and laziness (r =–0.29 p< 0.05) met with quite an indifferent response, while aggressiveness toward pupils (r =–0.35 p< 0.05), poor teaching (r =–0.26 p< 0.05), and low achievements (r =–0.33 p< 0.05) led them to intervene immediately.

Ignoring is qualitatively different from any other measure being used. Principals described how careful they were not to blame an innocent teacher. Such an act, they knew, could have very negative outcomes, potentially leading to deterioration in their relations with their staff. However, once the shortcomings were clearly noticed and judged to be serious, principals became more active:

In the second year I noticed the [teachers] low motivation and her communication with others, which I interpreted as dishonest. For example, she could pretend: “I didnt know I have to tell you”. I began to examine her reports more carefully. In the middle of the year one of her pupils was absent for ten days. The teacher did not report to me about it. A week later I received a telephone call from her parents. They were furious, asking how come nobody called her sick daughter, who had been hospitalized for few days. I called the teacher and revealed that the girls absence was not registered from the start in the classs diary, but the teacher covertly tried to correct it (School 36).

Being passive, pretending not to see, reflects the emotional difficulty involved in facing the “bad news” and taking action. Interestingly, ignoring correlated positively with the principals own observations, while opting for taking more active monitoring was correlated with being informed by others. Only when the difficulties did not disappear or became painfully evident did the principals make up their mind to get involved.

In the case of perceived poor teaching, principals tended to advise the teachers to take additional professional development. This happened in about a quarter of the cases but very few of the experienced teachers actually cooperated. Offering continued education correlated negatively with more decisive acts such as reducing teaching hours (r =–0.31 p<0.05). Maybe the principals felt it was too early to cut teaching duties short while they still had alternatives. Principals also offered the problematic teacher cooperation with a senior colleague who taught the same subject and the same grade level. Such use of the professional schools resources was perceived as a legitimate channel of assistance without stigmatizing the failing teacher. Principals tried very hard not to offend their staff, but rather encouraged them to cooperate:

I initiated a meeting with both [arithmetic] teachers to examine the implementation of teaching certain subjects and to encourage them to work together. The more experienced teacher arrived after a sabbatical year. She was knowledgeable and self-confident, and somehow did not threaten the [problematic] teacher. In order not to decrease her (the weak teacher who had a severe health problem) confidence and to create a common working system, I found an out-of-school courses, which I asked both teachers to attend. Those courses on heterogeneous teaching and on learning disabilities fitted our pupils needs. It helped. Later, I asked the inspector, without telling the exact reasons, to observe both teachers. I also visited their classes and talked with them (School 31).

Another prevalent course of action was to ask the school counselor or the Ministry of Education (MoE) instructor to get involved. That step not only enriched the professional assistance, but it also enabled principals to take one step backward, especially when their relations with the failing teacher had already deteriorated. Interestingly, that assistance correlated with changing the teachers position (r =–0.35 p<0.05). It seems as if the counselors involvement encouraged principals and teachers to take a more courageous step.

In addition, almost all the principals (35 out of 40) held feed back talks with the teachers. It enabled them to discuss in a calm atmosphere the teachers daily experiences and to insert some advice and encouragement. Sometimes principals lost their temper and openly criticized the teacher (r =–0.38 p<0.01). If complaints continued to flow and improvement was obviously slow, principals began to monitor the teachers performance more closely. Walking more often along the corridors near classes, entering more often to observe a lesson, watching the teacher and her student at informal times and other methods supplied principals with further data.

About one-third of the principals more actively guided the challenging teacher. They talked with problematic students, conferred with parents and joined the teacher to help in developing the curriculum and to assist with its implementing. Such modeling was added to the assistance of other staff members (r =–0.37 p<0.01).

Organizational measures

Bridges (1986) described several organizational solutions which are practiced in California in order to reduce the potential harm from the failing teachers. Those “escape hatches” include a transfer of a teacher between schools within the district, a placement in a position of assisting individual students, or a reassignment of the incompetent teacher to a non-teaching position. The Israeli system differs to some extent with regard to its personnel management. The enforced transfer of a teacher to another school is seen as confrontational, the last call before dismissal. Reassignment to a non-teaching position such as librarian contradicts the labour laws and the stern protection policy of the teachers unions. Even a placement in a position of assisting individual students is rare since the teacher must have a professional background of teaching in a special education setting (most of the problematic teachers did not have such experience). Meanwhile, measures like reducing teaching hours or changing a teaching position within the school are enacted more often and are met with mixed feelings. Some teachers perceived them as confronting while others felt it assisted them:

She had a 30-hours [teaching] position. Her [educational] approach to the children was terrible, as if they were her prisoners. When the “explosion” occurred two years ago I decided to squeeze her job. She (the teacher) agreed to reduce many hours in order to concentrate on educating her class. I also turned to the inspector, to move her from my school, to use the opportunity that she left our village to reside in a nearby city. But the teacher insisted to continue working here. She is a very stubborn person and I appreciate that (School 12).

In broader employment experience, reducing a job from full-time to part-time is usually done as an alternative to layoffs when organizations need to cut their workforce (Heneman et al., 1989). In such a case, the organization negotiates with the union and reaches an agreement on the exact terms of the new labour contract. Then the company may shift to work sharing, e.g. four-day weeks, with the lost income offset to some extent by unemployment compensation, or pay cuts. Despite the emotional toll of uncertainty, it buys greater employee flexibility in adjusting to changes, since employees are not afraid of losing their jobs. Reducing the workers position to a part time job, unlike measures such as oral warning, written warning, suspension and dismissal, cannot be lawfully used as a sanction in coping with incompetence and discipline problems (Bureau of National Affairs, 1985). In respect of teachers, the few cases (seven out of 40) of reduction in teaching hours were not related to low enrollment (r =0.06 NS), but rather served as an attempt to minimize the harm caused by the problematic teacher. The reduction itself was minimal (otherwise it would have raised an outcry from the teachers union), and it was meant to signal the principals upset with the teachers performance. Needless to say, such an act changed the teachers working conditions, reduced his or her salary and sent a message to all the staff in the organization. Some challenging teachers reduced their participation in staff meetings and some took leave the next year.

Even when principals are unable to select or dismiss a worker, they are still left with a staff of 20-30 teachers to maneuver with. Changing teaching positions was used in almost half of the cases; principals changed the teachers grade level or transferred educators to become specialist teachers. Yet, even taking such measures entailed a cautious approach.


When the supportive measures did not bring the expected results, principals became more confrontational. Most of the principals (80 percent) criticized the teachers actions. Only a few (12 out of 40) expressed their discontent in a letter, most often aimed at teachers who neglected their duties. According to labour regulations in Israel, once a worker receives three criticizing letters, it enables the employer to open a dismissal procedure. Employers and employees are fully aware that each letter brings closer the termination of the working contract; hence they prefer not to enter into written communication.

Principals preferred not to signal their intention directly, but rather to lead the teachers to catch their hidden signs and leave voluntarily. Yet, some staff pretended not to understand, forcing the principals to actually offer the teacher a move to another school. Such a move, even when transmitted in calm tones, hides a serious meaning. It signaled discontent and the principals decision to sever the ties. If it did not help, principals turned to the use of direct threats (seven out of 40). Studies on the psychodynamics of organizations indicate mixing emotion and control (Gabriel, 1998). For example, supervisors may generate fear and anxiety in order to motivate their employees. Once they become concerned about their job, esteem, or status there are better chances they would comply more willingly (Flam, 1993). The use of direct language, which usually was added to other measures, increased the pressure on the failing teachers. Such an example occurred with the principal of the teacher who did not call her sick pupil:

I told her that I didnt believe her stories, and seriously considered her behavior as improper. I announced my intention to send a letter to the inspector. A day later, the teacher asked to meet with the inspector. After their appointment the inspector called me to explore what had happened and to defend her. At the staff room the teacher told her colleagues that I cling to her like a leech. The next week, the teacher asked to meet with me. I told her she lied to me and by that she crossed the “red line”. When I met the inspector, I asked him to transfer the teacher to another school, but he refused, explaining that there were other “more serious cases”. The teacher continued to teach properly, with high achievements. [Finally] I was lucky. Another schools principal asked the inspector to replace a failing teacher and so we did a trade in (School 36).

Most studies on control within organizations focus on the managers behavior toward their workers (Viorst, 1998). Yet, this case supports the findings of a study on intra-organizational influence, which concluded that “in large organizations, everyone influences one another, regardless of their position” (Kipnis et al., 1980, p. 450). Here, as in other organizations, despite their lower status in the power hierarchy, the workers try to control their bosses and use various tactics to improve their working conditions, their benefits and the environment in which they work. The allegedly dishonest teacher was not a passive recipient of the principals maneuvers. She convinced influential persons (e.g. inspector, staff members) whom she believes would have the power to change the course of events. The use of deception and chutzpah, with considerable success, actually voided the principals efforts to get rid of the teacher. In terms of employer-employee relations, the teacher was more assertive and initiating, used more sophisticated tactics and actually won the game. From the principals standpoint, this process of managing conflict cannot be read off from legal and managerial prescriptions, and it is shaped and enabled by their ambiguities and contradictions. It also involved a complex set of assumptions about self-status, role security and professional competence – and about others (Fineman and Sturdy, 1999, p. 643).

The letters, the threats and the referral to the inspector are meant to increase the pressure on the teacher to leave the school. When none of the former methods help, principals ask the inspector to transfer the teacher to another school or to initiate dismissal procedure. Dismissal, as the last resort, was enacted when the shortcomings were profound, mainly in cases of poor teaching (r =0.30), discipline problems (r =0.36) and the teachers irresponsible behavior (r =0.31). Dismissal is a long painful process that may take up to three years (Blacklock 2002), and many inspectors object to using it. In three cases, principals discontinued the contract of an untenured worker who was employed by the local municipality, while in two cases principals asked their inspector to initiate a dismissal procedure.

The interventions results

By the end of the interview, after describing their story and the measures they took, the principals were asked how it all ended. In half of the cases the challenging teachers remained working in the school. A total of one-sixth left the school temporarily (e.g. took sabbatical leave, maternity leave or unpaid absence). Although not often planned in advance, taking leave may be considered as a means to put the dilemmas on hold, and hopefully allow the passage of time to help resolve the problem. Almost a third left to work in another school, while only three teachers took early retirement. There were no cases where teachers had gone through professional change. It seems that this relatively high rate of turnover, especially when compared to the stability (not to say stagnation) in staffing those schools had relatively few downsides (Cascio, 1991; Pelled and Xin, 1999). On the positive side, it opened convenient channels for both parties to end painful working relations (Dalton and Todor, 1993), and introduced fresh perspectives of replacement with other teachers, who were easy to obtain at the time. Examining in a meta-analysis the predictors to withdrawal process, such as the decision to leave (Griffeth et al., 2000) includes job satisfaction, organizational commitment, job search, comparison of alternatives, withdrawal cognitions, and quit intentions. It seems that many of the antecedents described in this study could have led the teachers to decide to leave, but more research is need to confirm that.

Remaining or leaving school should not be considered as a failure or a success. In comparison, most of the teachers in Wraggs (2000) study (70 per cent) resigned or retired, many of them found another post (mainly in teaching), and very few were dismissed or made redundant. In-house support and a sensitive approach were the prominent reasons for improvement, especially with the heads desire to see the teacher succeed rather than fail. Yet, such improvement is mainly left as the responsibility of the teachers:

Offering a high level of support, observing someones lessons, encouraging them to watch others, giving detailed and honest feedback, all these may lead to success with a teacher who actively seeks to improve, but fail if the teacher is actually stressed, resistant, or simply appears not to have the inner resources to change existing practices (Wragg et al., 2000, p. 7).

Some of the measures principals used correlated with those end results. In general, assisting measures ended more often with the teacher remaining in the school while confronting measures caused the teachers to leave to go to another school or take early retirement. More specifically, when principals invested in feedback discussions (r =–0.39 p< 0.01) it was made with the intention of clearing the way to better teaching. Also, the larger the school and the option of using organizational measures, such as changing teaching positions (r =–0.28; r =–0.32 p<0.05 respectively) the better the chances of teachers remaining in their schools. Meanwhile, confronting measures such as offering to move them to another school (r =0.27 p<0.05), referring the case to the inspector (r =0.41 p<0.01) and especially initiating dismissal procedure (r =0.46 p<0.001) pushed teachers outside their institution. One would expect that less provocative problems would leave a teacher inside schools while more blatant behavior would end up somewhere else, but no such correlation was found. Finally, as it was noted earlier, experienced teachers were found to be more stable (r =–0.35 p<0.05).


An extreme situation, such as coping with an incompetent teacher, provides an invaluable opportunity to examine the principals decision-making and managerial practices that are not manifested within “normal” conditions. When principals face teachers shortcomings they are forced to act, but the choices are neither simple nor pleasant. They must weigh a number of factors – the emotional cost of confrontation, the investment of time, the possible impact on staff morale, opposition by the teachers union, and the difficulty in “winning” (Bridges, 1986). Their actions reflect the understanding of the situation, the weight given to each factor and the hesitation to open a direct conflict. For example, everyday principals receive ample information from many sources about their school. Unlike Bridges (1986) findings of the importance principals place on external sources (e.g. parents complaints), no single informant was found here to influence the principals to take a specific action. The relatively low correlations do not necessarily imply that principals ignored those messages, but rather that they attach specific responses to each case.

Statistically, a similar trend of searching ad-hoc solutions appeared also with regard to the connection between the difficulties and the nature of response. Yet, three kinds of teachers shortcomings did drive principals to focus their responses: Students low achievements seem much more difficult to overlook (r =–0.33 p<0.05). More than in any other difficulty they tend to offer guidance in this case, either by other staff members (r =0.44 p<0.01) or by themselves (r =0.48 p<0.001). Here, their professional leadership comes to life, believing in their power to change the teachers performance. Only when efforts bear no fruits do principals offer the teacher a change of school. Poor teaching is not perceived as a cause for dismissal, but seems to be considered by principals as a problem that might be corrected elsewhere, once the teacher work in another school with another principal. Denial of difficulties and dishonest behavior were also not perceived as a reason for dismissal. When principals were faced such behaviour they asked the school counselor or the MoE instructor to get involved and later, if the problem continued they did not hesitate to criticize the teacher in writing and to suggest that they change school.

Meanwhile, having discipline problems can mark the problematic teacher as a danger to the schools reputation, who should be removed. Principals surprisingly did not refer these cases to the instructor or the schools counselor. They preferred to discuss such cases with their inspector and ask them to terminate the teachers work. As in Wraggs et al. (2000) findings, the salience of the problem and the danger that it would stain the schools reputation and get out of control drove the principal to respond.

Working in a highly demanding environment forced principals to save their resources and energy for the most urgent and important issues. Once they calculated their chances to succeed were limited, either due to organizational stipulations or when the teachers personality seemed to be too rigid, they preferred to pass the burden onto the inspectors territory. When forced to cope with a stubborn older teacher they sometimes gave up and waited patiently until his or her retirement.

Unlike the formal and structured procedure of teachers appraisal (Bridges, 1986; Jackobson and Bataglia, 2001) and HRM procedures to cope with incompetent teachers in the USA (Bridges, 1992), Israeli principals did not seem to adopt any strategy, but rather responded to the course of events. When the first measure brought no change and the teacher presented no signs of improvement they used the next weapon in their arsenal. Principals did not set goals on how to cope with the problematic teachers, nor did they work with the teacher to plan for training and studies. When an improvement occurred, even temporarily, principals preferred to “forget” the case and resumed their efforts only once the difficulties reemerged. The only exception was that novice teachers who had difficulties in reaching a certain benchmark did receive help with careful planning and ongoing guidance. Handling personnel with such a shortsighted perspective halted long-term initiatives. For example, when problematic teachers decided not to attend in-house training or enroll in professional studies, principals were left empty handed. Further, when inspectors decided to initiate dismissal procedure and observed a lesson of the teacher, even a minor improvement led to a premature termination of the process.


In a situation when the cases were so varied, when the teachers and others perspective were hardly represented, and when the passage of time continuously changed the relations and the situations (either healing the wounds, or intensifying the pain), getting an objective picture and drawing solid conclusions became more difficult. The principals presentation at the interviews was not only one-sided, but it also appeared to be censored and defensive (e.g. blaming others, lack of self-reflection about own mistakes). In addition, despite the careful preparations, the warm and close relations at the interviews led the researcher to empathize with the principals point of view in the initial stages of the study. Taking several precautionary measures as well as getting professional guidance assisted the researcher to adopt a more balanced approach, probe in more depth the principals accounts and describe the cases in a more neutral manner. A different perspective would be obtained in the teachers, who were the subject of the interviews, had been also interviewed. However, that is another study.


Performance management is a vital aspect of managing an effective school, yet it is perceived as difficult and therefore tends to be ignored or sidelined by those who manage and those who research educational management. From a theoretical perspective this study uncovers a sensitive and under-researched subject. It not only broadens our understanding about managerial performance in general, but it also sheds light on a specific difficulty faced by principals – coping with teachers shortcomings. The cases identified here exemplify the immense importance of the context and the manager-worker interaction, especially when serious problems arise. As several contingency theories suggest (see Vroom and Yetton (1973) normative model of decision making) the principals accounts help to identify their understanding of the situation and their step-by-step “decision tree” in solving the problems.

From a comparative standpoint, the current study is the first investigation into the subject in Israel. It allows the testing of models developed in the USA and comparison with findings from the UK, Yet more international comparisons are needed to develop a sound theoretical and practical knowledge as how to minimize that painful phenomena.

Practically, the current findings indicate that elementary school principals need to be better equipped with knowledge, managerial skills and sources of assistance to solve personnel difficulties. As a very complicated phenomenon, more research is needed to determine what are the sources of teachers shortcomings, what managerial practices contribute to increase or minimize teachers difficulties, and what is the hidden dynamic within the manager-worker dyad.

Practical recommendations

The current study points to several practical implications. Recognizing the existence of the problem and developing, together with other organizations (e.g. colleges, teachers unions) training programs for principals and inspectors is crucial. Other measures should also include offering a “package” of assistance to the principals and the teachers (e.g. retraining, early retirement programs). Proper individual guidance, preferably offered by a veteran principal or an organizational counselor, can give a supportive atmosphere for effective learning. Training principals to submit feedback can also be motivating, especially if coupled with setting goals for improvement. The teachers should be involved in setting the goals, and later evaluations should consider the progress towards goals. Performance evaluation should be done more often and include a post-appraisal interview each time. Introducing additional methods of appraisal (e.g. portfolio, 360 degree evaluation, peer evaluation) would supply teachers and principals with a realistic picture and enable them to broaden the scope of the professional development. In extreme cases it could be useful to establish an independent consulting body to offer consulting services (e.g. hot lines, legal and marital consultation).

ImagePrincipals, responses and background variables (frequencies and correlations)
Table IPrincipals, responses and background variables (frequencies and correlations)


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