How to Handle a Performance Improvement Plan
September 26, 2019
September 26, 2019
By Donna L. Shrum
“I’m putting you on an improvement plan.” No teacher hears those words without also believing they mean, “I’m thinking of firing you,” and, “Your life is about to become even more difficult than it already is.”
A Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) can feel like a devastating and demoralizing blow, especially since we’ve all heard the whispers that such plans have less to do with improvement than with creating a paper trail ending in job loss. An improvement plan can also happen without any warning that an administrator perceived a deficiency in your performance, making it even more of a shock.
The unspoken message is that you’re suddenly in a very stressful and tenuous position. A PIP is too often received as a punitive action that contributes to teacher attrition instead of an administrative investment of time into improving an existing educator.
It doesn’t have to be this way—and it’s not supposed to be.
Part of the problem is that we teachers often don’t inform ourselves about our legal rights regarding employment status and evaluations until it becomes a necessity, usually because we’re already overwhelmed with other professional requirements. Not knowing this information can lead an administrator to write a PIP that doesn’t adhere to the required standards, with no one the wiser. This isn’t helpful to anyone.
Click here to access a Google Doc I created with the important sites regarding the law in Virginia for teacher employment status and evaluations, as well as a space to keep a professional journal. Make a copy for your private Google Drive, then locate and insert your local county’s handbook URL in the appropriate spot.
If you are given a PIP, take a deep breath, say as little as possible, take the time to read it privately, and then share it with your local UniServ Director, who can help you interpret it. He or she will also help you start a file. It’s a good habit, even before any problems arise, to keep files documenting, especially any event or conversation you believe could crop up as a problem later.
Virginia’s “Guidelines for Uniform Performance Standards and Evaluation Criteria for Teachers” states that evaluators must “formulate a Performance Improvement Plan in conjunction with the teacher.” This means that the administrator can suggest activities for a struggling teacher, but also that the teacher may reasonably request an action from the administrator, such as a weekly meeting (at a convenient time) to review progress and receive a written summary of the administrator’s feedback. The administrator can choose to reject the teacher’s request, but the teacher should then document in her personal records that the request was made and rejected, with the reason for the rejection given. If the administrator insists on an action with which the teacher disagrees and it is included in the plan, the teacher should similarly document it. Those personal records should be shared with your VEA rep for your file.
The Guidelines state that a PIP “may be used by an evaluator at any point during the year for a teacher whose professional practice would benefit from additional support” and “is implemented if one of the following scenarios occurs at the end of any data collection period: a teacher receives two or more ‘Not Evident’ ratings at the interim review; a rating of ‘Developing/Needs Improvement’ on two or more performance standards; a rating of ‘Unacceptable’ on one or more performance standards; or an overall rating of ‘Unacceptable.’”
PIPs most often are put in place after a midterm or summative evaluation, but they can also come after a classroom observation. Keep in mind that an observation is just that: a report of what occurred during the evaluator’s time in the classroom. Teachers placed on PIPs have shared that evaluators told them they can include “anything they want” in an observation. For example, a teacher struggling with classroom behaviors had no observable student behavior issues while the evaluator was present, but the evaluator wrote that parents had called with concerns and the teacher had written behavior referrals on different occasions for that class. Such information would not be out of place in an evaluation, but it has no place in an observation.
The Guidelines also suggest creating portfolios and other artifacts as a record of your classroom performance, even providing several surveys for students to share their perceptions of teacher performance, which the teacher can then use to make changes. One teacher interviewee said, while on a PIP, she began giving students such surveys only to have her principal order her to stop, saying she had not been given permission to do so. That response is counter to the “Guidelines” and should have been documented.
A PIP must have specific objectives for both the teacher and the administrator to complete, a timeframe in which they will be completed, and a clear statement of how the teacher will know that the objectives are met. Here’s an example of how this often isn’t the case: “Strategy for Improvement: Learning activities need to be closely aligned to meet the learning objective(s) for the day’s lesson. Activities should be used that introduce and reinforce the learning that is expected for the day.” This administrator had no specific strategy for either the teacher or for himself and no time frame in which to achieve it.
In another example from a different PIP, the evaluator wrote, “All lessons must meaningfully include the elements of an effective lesson.” Who will determine if it is “meaningful”? What is the evidence the observed lesson wasn’t “meaningful”? Vague “admin-speak” doesn’t meet criteria for specificity.
A PIP* for a teacher struggling with discipline issues stated, “Evidence of improvement/completion: The classroom environment is conducive to learning. The instructor interacts with and questions all students.” There is no timeframe and no specific action plan for the teacher to follow and no indicator for when the objective is successfully met. Under “Building/Department Support,” the administrator wrote, “Assistance will be provided upon request.” This violates the spirit and intention of a PIP, in which both parties are supposed to invest in meaningful improvement for the ultimate benefit of the teacher and his students. An administrator who identifies a weakness in one of his teachers has an obligation to invest the time into helping that teacher improve.
As a teacher, you can and should document any disputes you have with observations and evaluations as rebuttals which your administrator must then attach to your observation, evaluation, and/or PIP in your personnel file. You should follow up later by visiting the human resources office to examine your file and making sure the rebuttal was indeed attached—no appointment is necessary to do so during office hours, and there is no need for conversation with HR about viewing the file. Your Uniserv rep will know what to do next if your rebuttal has not been included.
If an administrator is linking your student test scores to your performance as once required by Race to the Top, he’s on shaky ground. While Virginia has not officially embraced a teacher evaluation system that excludes test scores, other states have and Virginia’s is currently being revised.
A caveat must be added for a probationary teacher on annual contracts, who are not afforded the same legal protections as teachers who have earned continuing contract status. During a contract year, if a new teacher is terminated, he or she must be given notice, offered a hearing, and given some proven cause for dismissal, just as a continuing contract teacher would. However, the same right is not offered if contract renewal is denied for the following year. Virginia law only requires a local superintendent to give annual contract/probationary teachers the reasons “if any” for a recommendation not to renew teaching contract. But the law does not provide an annual contract teacher with a hearing to challenge those reasons. For those teachers, PIPs can be especially crushing because a reasonable expectation is that the principal who hired you and provided you a mentor would, as a matter of course, be working toward your improvement until you received a continuing contract. But, under current law, no “paper trail” of reasons is necessary not to renew an annual contract teacher.
Don’t allow a PIP to choke you. Follow state and local guidelines, and commit yourself to improving the perceived shortcoming. If your administrator has created a PIP for you that evidences an equal commitment on his part to truly assist you in becoming a better educator, you’ll be able to recognize it and grow professionally. If not, then your local Uniserv representative will guide you through to the other side of the labyrinth.
*All PIP examples used in this article were provided anonymously by current teachers and were created between 2014 and 2018 in Virginia.
Shrum, a Shenandoah County Education Association member, is a history and geography teacher at Central High School.