Why it’s so hard to fire bad teachers

Most principals would rather hide or transfer incompetent teachers than try to oust them

Why it’s so hard to fire bad teachers

Brendan Menuey: The transfer solution is known as 'passing the trash'

What it took for one Ontario principal to rid her school of an incompetent teacher is a process she’s not fond of revisiting. It began in September 2007, when she inherited a teacher whose performance was already under review. Despite a file thick with evidence of inadequacy, the principal helped draft an “improvement plan”—a requirement in the provincial Education Act—and dipped into school funds to pay for substitutes while the struggling teacher attended workshops. But, says the junior school principal, it soon emerged that there was “a serious, basic problem of not understanding”—which continued even after the teacher knew she was under review. Students shuffled through reading levels without proof of assessment. Parents complained about spelling test words that weren’t sent home. And the teacher submitted grades for computer class when, in fact, her “inability to use technology” meant the monitors “were rarely turned on,” says the principal. Still, it took months of paperwork and meetings with union representatives before she was able to inch even one step closer to dismissal. “It was very upsetting,” she says. “I wouldn’t choose to do it again unless I absolutely had to.”

Inadequate teaching has been shown to contribute to dropout rates, low test scores and a dislike for school. So severe are the implications, says Brendan Menuey, an assistant principal in Virginia, that poor teaching is tantamount to “educational malpractice.” Yet in Canada, teacher incompetence prompts so few administrators to pursue termination that the Ontario principal insisted that not even the name of her school board be published, because it would almost certainly identify her. According to Barrie Bennett, a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, the dismissal process is so onerous, the risk of reprisal from teachers’ unions so great, that “most principals find it’s not worth the effort.” Instead, they approve transfers, or hide struggling teachers where their deficiencies can go unnoticed. The result however, is this: a system that keeps incompetent teachers in the classroom.

The fact that more bad teachers aren’t being fired is “a problem that nobody wants to talk about,” says Menuey, who authored a 2007 study on the subject. Despite research indicating that about five per cent of every workforce is incompetent, he uncovered a truth about his district he describes as “scandalous”: less than one-tenth of one per cent of tenured teachers were being dismissed annually for poor performance. When viewed through this lens, the Canadian numbers are even more damning. Of the roughly 200,000 educators licensed by the Ontario College of Teachers to teach, only 27 have been terminated due to poor performance since 2004—an annual average of just 0.002 per cent. In the past five years, not a single permanent teacher has been dismissed for incompetence in the largest school boards in Montreal and Winnipeg; Saskatoon Public Schools has terminated just one; and in Edmonton Public Schools, says a spokeswoman, “very few if any” have been let go.

While a report of sexual or physical abuse is clearly grounds for disciplinary action (as well as a police investigation), what constitutes teacher incompetence can be somewhat fuzzy. As a teacher, Menuey says he had a colleague who gave “no grades at all.” When filling out report cards, this teacher would ask around to determine what grades each student had earned in other subjects, and “give them the same,” he says. While working for Edmonton Public Schools, Bennett once offered support to a teacher who would ask his unruly students to choose between the classroom and the hall. “Sometimes, I’d come to his classroom and there would be 10, 11 kids out in the hallway,” he says.

In most provinces, teacher incompetence isn’t formally defined. Yet long before termination is even a possibility, principals must document alleged instances of incompetence, often for the better part of a year. “It’s very labour-intensive and time-consuming,” says the Ontario principal. “You have to be meticulous or the union will grieve you.” Although the teacher in this case left before she could be formally fired, the principal says a grievance remains a possibility. But if inadequate teachers are being overlooked, says Frank Bruseker, president of the Alberta Teachers’ Association, it’s not the unions that are to blame. “The school boards and the principals need to step up the plate,” says Bruseker. “To simply say, ‘We’re not doing our job because we’re scared of the unions,’ says to me that they’re abrogating their responsibility. If we’re talking about incompetence, maybe they should be looking in the mirror.”

However, as educators are quick to point out, low dismissal rates don’t necessarily mean that bad teachers aren’t being ushered out of the classroom. In the Halifax Regional School Board (HRSB), where six teachers have been terminated in the last five years for either professional misconduct or incompetence, an additional 33 have resigned or been removed from lists of approved substitutes and those under consideration for future contracts. And according to Mike Christie, director of human resources at the HRSB, “self-screening” is a significant safeguard that these numbers don’t reveal. “Teachers have got a tough crowd in those kids,” says Christie. Many of those who are struggling simply “take themselves out of the profession,” he says.

Still, teachers are well aware that being bad at their jobs will rarely earn them their walking papers. As part of his study, Menuey asked teachers to rank a list of 19 strategies that administrators use to deal with incompetence. They identified “voluntary transfer to another school” as the most prevalent. Dismissal, meanwhile, was ranked 14th. “We all knowingly play this game,” says Menuey. “I believe passionately that we need to get rid of these folks, but I’ll be honest, because of the time and the difficulty in getting what you need, I’m inclined, when [another] principal calls me, to just say, ‘She’s a fabulous teacher.’ ” This practice, dubbed “passing the trash,” is hardly news to Bennett. He says “writing an okay reference letter” to get rid of an incompetent educator is endemic “at all levels. It’s not just teachers in classrooms—it’s principals in schools, it’s central office people too.”

Other strategies are similarly problematic. According to a teacher in Ottawa’s French Catholic board, when one of his colleagues couldn’t cut it this year, the school “purposely gave her the most difficult classroom.” Within months, he says, she “burnt out,” and is currently on medical leave. (Virginia teachers also ranked “increased workload to encourage teacher resignation” above termination.) Oftentimes, Menuey says shuffling inadequate teachers to another class is an attempt to give them students “whose parents won’t pitch a fit”—though these are typically the kids who stand to gain the most from quality instruction. More disconcerting still is something the teachers came up with themselves. The highest ranked write-in tactic on Menuey’s survey: “ignore the problem.”

Not all struggling teachers are beyond help. For some, observing more experienced colleagues or learning to better manage students is all it takes to spark improvement. To that end, many administrators are more than willing to offer every support available, which, in many school boards, is a lot. As Menuey explains, “We believe that all kids can be successful, and we believe that all teachers can be successful.” But in some cases, this culture of acceptance may be blurring the line between effective remediation and a fruitless pursuit. Even the Ontario principal, who says she “had no choice” but to go through with dismissal, expresses a palpable discomfort: “We’re educators. We’re not trained to fire people.” However, when incompetent educators are left to teach, whether in a roomful of difficult Grade 5 students, or hidden in the school’s art department, it’s kids who pay the ultimate price.


Why it’s so hard to fire bad teachers

  1. "We're not trained to fire people."

    Amazing. In the business of education, yet offers anincredibly stupid throw-out statement to avoid responsibility.

    Bring back standardized testing to determine college and university opportunity. Bring back provincial inspectors. Eliminate the management at the school and board levels.

  2. This kind of makes me want to be a teacher. I'd be one of the 5% who are incompetent, BUT I'd work hard at making the students like me so I don't get transferred. Maybe I'd teach a lower grade too so the kids don't realize they're smarter than me.

    • incompetence in the primary grades is easier to spot. Don't do us any favors.

    • That is just sickening.

  3. Remember, 50% of all teachers graduated in the bottom half of their class.

    • Where did you get that stat? I"ve never heard or seen it before.

      • You're kidding, right?

      • He made it up. That's how bad education has become. Unfortunately, that has nothing to do with the public education system.

    • Thats actually an absurd statistic. It presently requires much higher marks to enter a teachers college in Canada (around the A- to A range) than the enter a Master's program (B+ or higher). the stated minimum for most B.Ed. programs of B- or higher is misleading as intense competition over the last ten years has pushed that average well into the A-range with accompanying experience also now necessary for admission. It is encouraging that those outside of the education profession care so much about teachers and teaching but it would be nice if some of them possessed even the least bit of common sense, research or critical thinking abilities. Sorry Sticky_Mister but perhaps you need to return to school to work on some of these.

      • Seventeen minutes since you posted your reply. Have you gotten the joke yet?

        • At least someone gets it. What should I expect, I guess. Most people replying to my post were educated by a system that doesn't fire useless teachers.

      • Most B.Ed programs I've looked at have a cut-off of only a 70%, or B-minus average and often that average is taken out of the applicant's best 10 or 15 full-time courses. Master's programs required the B+ average over the last few years of study (depending on institution), meaning applicants can't pick and choose their best marks. Not only are you wrong in your assessment of requirements for Teacher's College, but you missed the freaking joke!

      • Maybe you need to return to grade 4 math class since my "statistic" is beyond your comprehension.

        • Indeed. If you divide a class in half, 50% will be at the top and 50% will be at the bottom. Genius stat.

          • Thank you. Also without conducting any research whatsoever, I can safely say that 1/10th of the teachers graduated in the top 10% of the class. Do you think B.P.L.H. gets it yet?

          • People are reacting to your quote in the context of high school…. it seems as though you are saying 50 percent of all teachers graduated at the bottom half of their HIGH SCHOOL class…. which simply isn't true

    • In order to even get into the Faculty of Education at most Canadian Universities you need high marks. It's a very competitive field nowadays. The B. Ed. program at the University of Manitoba turns away over 75% of the applications to get into the faculty… and then these people have to get hired by a school division.

      That being said, I do agree there are incompetent teachers in the field and it is incredibly difficult for a teacher to lose their job in Canada…. but your statistics are simply wrong.

  4. Why should anyone want to be a teacher when this culture doesn't value real education, as this rag manages to demonstrate on a weekly basis?

    I'll try and read the rest of it to try and determine what evidence was used to write this up, but I honestly think it's just another business elite attack on education and unions, imported directly from the US.

  5. Part One

    “Why it's so hard to fire bad teachers”
    Mac' Comment:
    “It began in September 2007, when she inherited a teacher….”

    Reply: So why is the board keeping the last administrator in their employ if he / she can not deal with the problem.

    Mac' Comment:
    “Still, it took months of paperwork and meetings with union representatives before she was able to inch even one step closer to dismissal. “

    Reply: This is the principals job do it for the sake of kids. Teachers are required to deal with students who are sex offenders and criminals every day. Get on with your job.

    Mac' Comment:
    ““ According to Barrie Bennett, a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, the dismissal process is so onerous, the risk of reprisal from teachers' unions so great, that “most principals find it's not worth the effort.” …

    Same oh same oh for the removal of administrators.

  6. Part Two
    Mac' Comment”
    “ Of the roughly 200,000 educators licensed by the Ontario College of Teachers to teach, only 27 have been terminated due to poor performance since 2004—an annual average of just 0.002 per cent. …”

    So true but look at the drop in support of the Ontario College of Teachers last election. Less then 3% of teachers voted in their election. No one in their right mind can claim they have any credibity in education.

  7. Part 3
    Mac Comment:
    “While a report of sexual or physical abuse is clearly grounds for disciplinary action (as well as a police investigation), …. “

    You are kidding! In a multiple sex criminal case one of the investigators from the College admitted he /she didn't report to the authorities the conduct of the accused multiple sex offender because the investigator thought he wasn't a threat to kids any more because he had gotten married. If the pattern holds, I bet that investigator is now a school principal! Want to see other really silly actions in education.

    CTV Report of Sex Offenders:

    It is a little obvious that the machinery of Ontario Education is in desperate need of an ombusdmen office with lots of power to crack the stupidity. Self-governing has failed kids, teachers and the integrity of education.

  8. I am a high school teacher, and a union rep, and I agree that the process of dismissing a tenured teacher is incredibly complex. Part of the problem here in Quebec is that we are about 3000 teachers short right now. If we start removing incompetent teachers we are even worse off, but it should still be done.

    Improving the prestige of the profession would help, many people see teachers as glorified babysitters with summers off. Improving pay in Quebec would also help, many great people choose not to teach because of the low pay, or they leave for other provinces.

    • I'm not a teacher, but I have a lot of respect for them. What the teaching profession needs to do is to become a little more vocal about the very real fact that the biggest determinant in educational success are *parental attitudes" towards education. Teachers are constantly accepting that they can make up for deficient parenting and that has to stop. No one's praising them as heroes for doing it, that's for sure.

      • Parental attitudes are the key, you're right. Unfortunately anytime a teacher tries to suggest that to parents, we are seen as elitist snobs. Sometimes it seems hopeless.

    • How are you 3000 teachers short? Here in Ontario, I looked at becoming a HS teacher and was told that employment opportunities were very limited and I would typically be required to spend 5 years or so as a substitute teacher just to have a shot at full-time employment. I'm not in the field, obviously, so I might be mistaken, but I've been told by those who are that there aren't too few teachers, there are far too many.

      • Because Ontario and Quebec are not the same province. Just because Ontario has too many doesn't mean the rest of the world does too. Ontario pays quite a bit more than Quebec, voila teacher shortage here, teacher surplus there.

        • Unless the Ontario teachers are willing to relocate to a rural area in the West or North of the country, job prospects seem the same. Quebec may have some unique circumstances which make things worse, but the problem presented in this article is a national one – poor pay or anything to do with prestige can't really explain why there are many incompetant teachers hanging around in the rest of the country.

    • Look into hiring the excess of teachers in the Vancouver area. Some of my friends have to be substitute teachers for 2-3 years before getting a full time job.

      I of course blame them for going into a profession that is vastly over supplied and has a decreasing demand, but for most of them, they couldn't imagine doing any other job.

  9. Right on, anon.
    Have heard Barrie Bennett talk. Ask him to demonstrate teaching the worst class in the school. Unsurprisingly, he declines. Anon, you are right on. He loves to promote business elites ideas, using public/taxpayer funded facilities, like elitist IB programs in public schools, using public school/taxpayer funded facilities, etc. Actually, he’s little more than a pedagogy peddler…I’m surprised he didn’t plug his books/dvds that he sells in the article…well, maybe they wouldn’t let him to that.
    Typical, right wing, profits-before-people propaganda.
    And people wonder why some kids are out of control, shooting/bullying each other, etc., with the kind of government incompetence/school board/professor incompetence that we have. Yep, little Johnny/Jane is bullying other kids/threatening and shooting/robbing/stealing, but hey, it must be the fault of the ‘bad’ teacher, eh?
    Incompetent people like Bennett and school principals routinely abuse and trample on the human rights of teachers, allowing teachers to be abused, etc. by out of control ‘students’. Typical ‘blame the victim’ right wing idiocy.

  10. There are all kinds of trained teachers out there! Why have they left teaching? That is the real question! Most teachers love teaching for the sake of kids, they just hate being teachers in a profession that has been destroyed by the self-interest of the ones in power.

    • I know of some teachers that have quit, and they did so because they found that there was little consequence when students misbehaved. The administration in many schools protect problem students by sacrificing good teachers. It's as if we are afraid to discipline any more.

  11. I get a bit tired of this twaddle. It's always possible to dismiss incompetent people. Always.

    When it doesn't happen it's usually attributable to lazy and/or incompetent managers.
    I spent a lot of years seeing discipline/dismissal provisions being written into labour agreements.
    They almost always require that managers assess, document, and deal with problems over time.
    They are there to prevent stupid managers from doing stupid things.
    Good managers who do their job can dismiss bad employees. They just have to do it right.

    • If these problems were relatively localised, I would agree, but the problem appears to be system-wide. If principals or other education administrators were the problem, you'd expect at least the odd principal to be competant and boot the bad teachers who cross his or her path.

      The situation of the Halifax Regional School Board is telling – at just above one dismissal for incompetance a year for 5 years over 137 schools in the board, if we're just looking at principals who are inadequate, that's 130+ inadequate principals, besides the odd one lucky enough to have only good teachers at their school. Now, either the promotion system is so poor that we're constantly promoting incapable people to administrative positions, or the system to fire teachers is the problem and in need of a serious overhaul (or both).

      • The promotion system is surely similar to the system at most (all?) other entities, public or private. Ie there are at least a few cases where an incompetent teacher is elevated to a principalship on the basis that they will do less harm there than if they continue to teach.

        Then there will be some other principals who were good or even great teachers, accept a promotion, and then turn out to make rather mediocre principals. And of course there will be some good or great teachers who would make good or great principals, but decline the opportunity to become a principal for any one of a number of reasons.

        So, what to do. A couple of ideas:

        – do a more rigorous job of reviewing promotions; a good number of failed promotions could have been foreseen with a more thorough or honest review
        – find out why good/great teachers that we know would make great principals decline a promotion when offered and deal with those barriers
        – designate a small number of hard-ass school board employees to become the designated axemen and set them loose to use the processes that are in place to deal with poor performance

        • My point is that if it was just the principals, the size of most school boards would mean that assuming even a quarter of principals were competant, there would be far more firings, given an average school size of even 10 teachers per school (which I suspect is well below the actual average). I have a little more faith in the system that I don't believe that 75%+ principals are bad at their jobs.

          I would agree that there needs to be an independent group designated to handle firings and promotions, but I would prefer if that person/group were one in the same – a "bruiser" meant just to fire people would be quickly shut out or disrupted by teachers sympathetic or friendly to the bad teachers, making their job all the more difficult. You get more flies with honey…

          • Agreed that the cause of the teacher 'problem' is by no means solely an issue of unqualified principals. Poor principals (a large minority?) are unlikely to attempt to improve teacher performance and even less likely to try to actually use existing processes to fire poor teachers. And better principals will at least try to improve teacher performance, but even for them the firing process is just too onerous to be implemented when there are easier although less effective 'solutions'.

            I thought about that third option (the 'bruiser' option) for quite a while before I added it to my list; that idea definitely needs some polish. In general I agree with the 'attracting flies with honey' approach, but in this case I'm not so sure it is the right analogy.

            I believe that the performance of principals is mostly based on student / school performance; if part of their performance review was based on how many firings they completed I would guess that the numbers would increase at least a little bit.

            Thanks for the feedback.

    • Good managers who do their job…

      Honest Q in search of an informed answer: to what extent have the incompetent teachers been "promoted" out of the classroom and placed in those very management positions, so as to do "less damage" to the kids?

      Not that I agree with that strategy, but doesn't every organization "hide" at least some of their imbeciles a little higher up? To the extent that this goes on in education, it might become statistically a little more difficult for "good managers" to be found.

      And then the cycle repeats: how do you fire incompetent managers at school administrations and regional school boards? You don't; you just shuffle the trash around…

  12. B.P.L.H.

  13. This article is so difficult to read. An expert from Virginia can't comment authoritatively on our situation in Canada! The fact that this writer makes it seem like he can is amateurish. Get credible, relevant, Canadian expert opinion if you want to talk to Canadians in their national magazine about educational issues here. I have no qualms with knowing that teachers leave the profession of their own volition if they are struggling. In my view, and I can only speak about Ontario and Toronto, the teaching profession has been sorely tried by successive reform governments, beginning with Bill Davis and ending with the GTA merger that amalgamated the TDSB and axed half the middle level administrators that mentor teachers, and with the McGunity split class regime to satisfy the class cap size political promise. Teaching is an honored profession and the measure of respect we have for it tells us who we are as a society.

  14. This article is so difficult to read. An expert from Virginia can't comment authoritatively on our situation in Canada! The fact that this writer makes it seem like he can is amateurish. Get credible, relevant, Canadian expert opinion if you want to talk to Canadians in their national magazine about educational issues here. I have no qualms with knowing that teachers leave the profession of their own volition if they are struggling. In my view, and I can only speak about Ontario and Toronto, the teaching profession has been sorely tried by successive reform governments. Begin with Bill Davis. Phonics and all kinds of poor curriculum. End with the GTA merger that amalgamated the TDSB axing half the middle level administrators who mentored and developed teachers, and with the McGunity split class regime to satisfy the class cap size political promise. Teaching is an honored profession and the measure of respect we have for it tells us who we are as a society.

  15. Hmmm…..or, as MYL says below.

  16. Hi,
    as part of a continuous improvement program within any organization, private, public, other, especially in the private sector, poor performers are let go from their positions and new bodies are hired. This keeps the organization vitalized, energetic and continually striving to do better. obviously, that is not a goal within the education system and it is a sad comment on that system in general.
    good luck !!

  17. This Macleans article has stirred quite a lot of discussion in other parts of Canada. Even in the quiet summer months when people usually take a break from school matters, there is a lot of concern. The comments on the Vancouver Sun education blog, “The Report Card” have good arguments on the topic and some rather well-advanced essays. Please see:

    Incompetent teachers safe from dismissal (76 comments) http://communities.canada.com/vancouversun/blogs/
    Also see:
    Incompetent educators (5 comments) School for Thought blog, Ontario http://www.societyforqualityeducation.org/index.p

    Are there other sites carrying this discussion?

    I really wish Macleans does a follow-up article on the topic when schools resume in the fall.

  18. Most principals move bad classroom teachers to support roles like science, special education or ESL. They will even bully the teacher hoping the teacher will leave….rarely happens.

    Problem for teacher is how do you get rid of incompetent principals who don't support their staff and lie to avoid being grieved.

    • No they don’t. You are uninformed. The best teachers go and work for a Private School. The worst teachers stay in the Public system. The work is easier and the union protects the slugs.

  19. To Teacher in Toronto (if you are one),

    Some of the best teachers that I have seen teach Science, Special Education, and ESL/ELL classes.

  20. The teachers in canada(NOT ALL),are very unprepared.I am a concerned parent,waiting to see improvements in my child educ.,but the rezults are not as expected.They do came to school for the paycheck ,only.The french teacher is also a gym teach…..and so on.Go in Europe and see what means to be a teacher,how they use the blackboard and chalk,yeees…how they recomand a notebook for every subject,and every day they teach a lesson,followed by explanations and homework.So,the parents know exactly what they learn in each day.Competion between cildrens is encouraged…i can tell you now,how bad the canadian educ,is ,First of all,a teach for history is a 4 year univercitry grad on that subj,espec…even he have studied a lot of something else……i am disapointed….maybe Canada doesn t need more than carpenters,,no offence

  21. This article sounded a lot like the Catholic Church's handling of the sexual abuse crisis.

    • Education in Canada is intellectual abuse.

  22. I used to work as an Educationl Assistant in the classroom plus I have had 3 kids go through the system–my last kid is in grade 12. I could write a book about teachers–the good and the bad. I got to see both sides of it–from sitting in the teachers' lounge listening to the complaining about students to finding an English essay on my son' s laptop expressing his wish to commit suicide. Unfortunately, I found the latter days after he died. Apparently, it was an assignment under the curriulum guidelines. I wish I had of just home schooled my kids!

  23. Let the bad teachers go and give their jobs to teachers who can't find a job and actually care about the students. In the classroom its the students that should be a priority not selfish teachers who don't give a dam

  24. teachers get too high on thier horse at times and need to be reminded why they are there…to teach. im not saying the job is easy but what is. When i perform poorly at my job im in deep you know what but where do they get thier feed back from. It takes leadership from the top to step up and improve the situation with the help from parent and comunity. If this does not happen education as it is, is lost!

  25. My child along with other children in his classroom are bullied by their teacher, she has done this before, and had police reports filed against her, she has been kicked out of another school, yet like a bad priest , here we go again. It's time Canada, gives us the parents a place to complain and be heard and have something done about it, we talk about kids who are bullies, but guess what happens to a room full of kids who are bullied? They become bullies and here we go again. Someone out there please help me, Bengough Saskatchewan.

  26. Teachers are overpaid, and uneducated. They are part time workers, studies have shown they work on average 154 days per year. That’s 42% of the year, which is part time work. Why doesn’t our government do something about these slugs?

    • If you believe any of what you just said, you know very, very little about teaching.

  27. This whole article is actually ridiculous! I’ve not ever met an incompetent teacher….other than one student teacher who didn’t make it through her practicum, in the 10 years I’ve been teaching! I will tell you one thing though, I’ve met a few incompetent and power-tripping principals! It’s the principals that have no accountability and hold all the power! BAD PRINCIPALS is more the issue! Our principals should have to undergo yearly staff evaluations!

  28. I hate how teachers incessantly whinge about how they put in all these hours for prep and how their days aren’t as short as we think.

    My dad was a teacher. He’d start work at 8:45 before the kids got in at 9:00am, and be out of class with all his marking done by 3:30 a half hour after the kids left. He did absolutely nothing work related all summer, and because he shared all the vacation time I had because I was in the same school district and did nothing on Christmas or Easter Break either. He stayed home on the so called “Professional Development” days because they were usually union meetings. And he was a GOOD teacher.

    I had a stepdaughter for several years, and it was the same at her school. If you wanted to talk to the teacher about your kid’s progress, you had better do it in the first 10 minutes after class because in 20 the teachers were all gone and the place was a ghost town.

    I say make school go from 8:30am to 5:30pm, and toss in an hour of physical activity activity each day and have an hour where kids quietly do their assignments (currently called “homework”) with the teacher around for them to ask questions (which is currently being done by parents who already worked all day). Then they could justify their pay.