Suppose that a loved one came home from an annual physical exam with news that she or he must live a healthier lifestyle or risk serious complications. What would you do? Would you intervene? Would you develop a plan? Would you work with your loved one to implement improvement strategies? Would you model the needed behaviors? Would you encourage and coach and offer specific feedback? Undoubtedly caring family members would intervene immediately—developing plans, goals, strategies, and actions needed to ensure success. Helping the loved one to improve would take on a sense of urgency.

That same urgency is necessary when addressing coaching improvements in marginally performing teachers. High-stakes accountability programs heighten the need to ensure that all teachers are providing quality instruction. The ineffective performance of even one teacher can negatively affect a school’s ability to meet performance goals, and more importantly, can limit students’ academic progress. The high turnover rate of teachers, combined with decreasing numbers of college and university students majoring in teacher education, highlights how important coaching improvements are as the job pool continues to shrink. Developing and implementing an action plan can guide improvements, and when done well, may eliminate the need to terminate a teacher.

Defining and Implementing an Action Plan

Start first with an action plan—a written document outlining a teacher’s performance problems along with goals and strategies that must be implemented to foster improvements. An action plan should include a timeline for monitoring progress and descriptions of actions the principal will perform to support the teacher. The basic components of the action plan include: the problem statement, the performance goal, improvement strategies, dates and deadlines, and monitoring efforts.

An action plan should be implemented as soon as it is evident that a teacher is demonstrating a pattern of poor performance that requires significant and sustained intervention. The best way to determine whether the teacher’s behavior represents a negative pattern is to conduct multiple classroom observations and use data sources (complaints from students and parents, test scores, concerns noted by colleagues) that allow for greater analysis of performance than a traditional, isolated classroom observation.

Basic Principles for Success

1. Define the teacher’s performance problems using straightforward, specific language in a “problem statement” at the beginning of the action plan. To write an effective problem statement, identify the main problem and its component parts, and address each. For example, let’s suppose the teacher is struggling with classroom management issues. Instead of just noting “classroom management” as the problem, also state what the teacher is doing poorly or neglecting to do that is causing classroom management issues. A simple yet precise problem statement could be: “You are not using effective procedures to begin class quickly.” This provides the clarity needed to develop goals and strategies. Too often, problem statements are written so broadly that they only categorize the problem.

Problems are negative and must be described as such. Sometimes the desire to spare a teacher’s feelings causes problem statements to be written using vague language that masks real concerns. To ensure clarity, begin the problem statement with the phrase “You are” or “You are not” and then provide narrative to elaborate about the teacher’s deficiencies. After describing the shortcomings through the “You are” or “You are not” statements, add the phrase “and as a result” to describe problems that unfold. For example, the statement “You are not using effective strategies to start class quickly” should be followed by something like “and, as a result, instructional time is lost daily.” This specificity may result in fairly lengthy descriptions of the teacher’s inadequacies and the problems they create. But straightforward language must be used to ensure that the teacher fully grasps the nature and significance of the problem.

A single performance deficiency often causes most of a teacher’s performance problems. For example, “The inability to effectively manage student behavior” may be the primary concern. However, this problem may negatively impact other aspects of the teacher’s performance. Poor classroom management could, in turn, be responsible for ineffective instructional delivery and a low level of student time on task. Be sure to identify and address all secondary problems in the action plan as well. Also, it is sometimes necessary to recount problems that are not directly related to instructional concerns or classroom matters. For example, issues such as the failure to meet deadlines, negative interactions with colleagues, or poor attendance should also to be noted in the action plan. A teacher with multiple performance problems may require an action plan that uses several problem statements and spells out their related goals, strategies, deadlines, and evidences.

2. Accompany each problem statement with one goal statement. In each goal statement, outline as many improvement strategies as needed to resolve the problem and specify the criteria that will be used to determine if the teacher has satisfactorily accomplished the goal. For example, “Improving classroom management such that you are rated as satisfactory (or higher) during weekly administrative observations” might be an appropriate goal statement for a teacher who is having classroom management difficulties. This goal statement should clarify performance and success measures (weekly satisfactory ratings) for the teacher and the principal.

Strategies represent targeted efforts performed by the teacher to reach the goal. They should be aligned with the improvement goal and written as individualized action statements listed with a logical time frame. Any remedial efforts should be noted. Training activities should be specified. Meeting a goal will typically require multiple strategies, all of which should be noted in the plan.

3. Establish a timeline. The teacher and principal need clear deadlines for implementing strategies. For example, stating, “Written lesson plans for the next week using the district’s planning form are due to me at 3 p.m. every Friday” provides better clarity than “I will review your lesson plans.” The statement, “An administrator will conduct an observation in your classroom weekly” provides a clear expectation for the teacher and the principal. In order to ensure mutual understanding, be sure to establish due dates for every strategy.

4. Prepare the plan using the right language. The action plan should reflect what good principals expect from others. The plan should be well-written and grammatically correct. Remember, the action plan may become a legal document in the event of disciplinary action against the teacher or in the event of his or her termination.

5. Seek teacher input and make action plan development a collaborative process. Action plans may not always create the desired improvements. This failure may be due in part to resistance from the teacher, either by denying the problem or hesitating to fully implement strategies. To combat this concern, use multiple data sources (multiple classroom observation reports, students’ test score reports, parents’ and students’ complaints, colleague concerns) to help the teacher understand the significance of the problem. Give the teacher some choices and input into improvement strategies, the timeline, and monitoring efforts. Of course, the maturity level and expertise of the teacher will dictate the amount of input that should be allowed; novice teachers generally need the most direction.

6. Keep it simple. An action plan should be clear, concise, and easily understood. Someone completely unfamiliar with teaching pedagogy and terminology should be able to read and easily understand every facet of the plan.

7. Follow through. Writing the plan is the easy part. Next, the struggling teacher and principal must implement the action plan, requiring ongoing effort and a significant time commitment from both. The principal will need to conduct multiple observations and follow-up conferences with the teacher, meeting at least weekly to provide feedback and guidance about the teacher’s performance. Simply stated, the principal is going to spend lots of time coaching, monitoring, and intervening to help the struggling teacher. Without this level of support, the written action plan is not likely to create significant improvements. The principal should document his or her efforts toward helping the struggling teacher, and this documentation should be included in the monitoring portion of the written plan.

The action plan process is not fun. Holding people accountable and coaching performance improvements are not easy tasks. But most teachers want to do a good job. Those few who struggle can improve with the quality coaching, support, and direction provided by the action plan process. Principals owe it to struggling teachers and the students they serve to make the action plan process a success.

Walter Hart, EdD, is an assistant professor of educational leadership at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, SC.

What’s your take on Hart’s article? Tweet him @drwalterhart.