First and foremost, when considering whether to write a teacher performance improvement plan (PIP), know that every situation is unique and will require thoughtful consideration on your part as the school leader. The context of a teacher performance improvement plan can include an array of concerns such as instructional practices, classroom management, or violation of board policies. This wide range of circumstances requires a principal to be able to use situational leadership as they make decisions regarding the urgency, worth, and content of the PIP.

Woman with hand over her forehead looking at computer screen

Before we continue, a few important beliefs and norms must be established regarding the use of teacher performance improvement plans.

  1.   The purpose of the PIP is NOT to terminate the teacher. The purpose is to improve the behavior in question.
  2. There is no exact science, score, rule, or light sensor that goes off to tell you it is time to write a PIP.
  3. Developing and implementing a PIP shouldn’t be something done to teachers but something done with teachers.

Although termination may be the end result of a teacher failing to meet the expectations set forth in the PIP, improving the identified behavior is the ultimate goal. The decision to develop a PIP is complex and can’t be determined solely on the merits of some evaluative score, single incident, or gut reaction. Every situation, every teacher, and every action must be critically analyzed from the lens of improvement. Will a PIP strengthen this teacher, paralyze their abilities, or cause them to retreat to isolation?

The decision to develop a PIP is complex. Every situation, every teacher, and every action must be critically analyzed from the lens of improvement.

Since there is no exact science, a principal is forced to look at each situation, analyze the data, and decide if they believe a teacher performance improvement plan will cause improved behavior. Principals have all the data they need to make this decision if they will ask themselves the following questions.

What really concerns me with this teacher? Can I articulate the issue? Can I link it to a teaching standard or board policy?

If you just can’t put your finger on what is concerning you about this teacher, you aren’t ready to implement the PIP. When you have identified the behavior of concern, resist the temptation to hide behind some deficiency you believe will be easy to document in lieu of tackling a more difficult or sensitive situation. Developing a PIP to improve an instructional strategy might be more pleasant to deal with than a PIP that addresses a teacher’s negative attitude, but it won’t help to get rid of the elephant in the room.

Do the scores and comments given during formative evaluations support the need for a teacher performance improvement plan? 

Even though there is no magic number of low scores that automatically jump-start the PIP process, one would assume that formative evaluations have not generated consistently average or above-average scores. Evaluative comments should equally articulate concerns about the specific behavior in question. While teachers may be surprised a growth plan is being implemented, they should not be blindsided that they have not been meeting expectations. Telling a teacher you believe a PIP is in order during a summative conference is unfair if you have not shared your apprehensions during the formative phase of evaluation.  

Did I have honest face-to-face post-observation conversations with this teacher during the formative evaluation phase?

The formative phase of evaluation should include specific feedback to the teacher that helps them to identify strengths and specific points upon which to improve. Conversations should always be conducted with a growth mindset.

Have I given this teacher enough time to improve?

Asking teachers to change their instructional practices or interpersonal skills is asking a lot.  Most human behaviors don’t change overnight and certainly don’t become routine with a few weeks of random practice. Although there are circumstances requiring immediate teacher reaction (see disregard of BOE policy below), most behaviors and situations will require time and coaching to improve. The experience level of the teacher may be a factor to be considered, as well as the complexity of the desired action.

How will the teacher react to a performance improvement plan?

Students, teachers, and principals survive and thrive on relationships. The principal-teacher relationship is particularly complex given that principals must act as coach and evaluator for teachers. These relationships are important to manage and nourish. Before implementing a PIP, a principal should reflect on the persona of the teacher and their relationship with the teacher.  This does not mean some teachers get a pass on PIPs. It does mean you need to consider how a teacher is going to react and decide if it’s worth it. Can you simply help this teacher to improve with more observation and conversation? Will this teacher wilt under the pressure of the PIP? Is this a teacher who will thrive with the organization and timelines of a PIP? Is this teacher not moving until some formal piece of paper is signed? And when you do initiate the PIP process, how does it change your relationship? Almost all teachers will require some added positive attention from you to preserve the rapport you have established.

Has the teacher’s growth stagnated or regressed?

Did the teacher initially demonstrate growth but over time slip back into old, unproductive habits? Does the teacher seem to be motivated to continue working toward growth? It’s not unusual for a teacher to initially demonstrate improvement toward feedback, only to slip back into prior behaviors. If the teacher isn’t demonstrating appropriate growth, a PIP, which is more specific and formal, might be needed to establish clear expectations for growth and a timeline for actions to occur.  

Do I have the resources to fulfill my obligations to the teacher performance improvement plan?

Principals have many obligations when it comes to supporting the PIP, including providing resources, follow-up conferences, instructional coaching, and documentation. Overextending your time with too many PIPs will serve no one well. Attention should also be given to the resources that will be necessary to support the plan. Obtaining these resources generally falls to the principal, so it is critical you are confident you can do so.

Is the teacher’s behavior a blatant disregard of Board of Education (BOE) policy?

If the teacher has violated a serious BOE policy, swift action and a PIP may be in order. Violations concerning student safety, drug use, and theft to name a few may warrant an immediate PIP without the normal time to improve. However, it’s important to take a step back and take some time to carefully consider the facts surrounding the event to determine the best actions in this situation. Is this a one-time event? Is this event out of character for the teacher?  Did the event cause lasting harm to students and/or others in the school community?  Does the teacher recognize their mistake?

Should I involve district administration in the decision to write a teacher performance improvement plan?

Read your BOE policy before you talk with district administration. Do your homework, especially if this is the first PIP you are contemplating. Before initiating the PIP process, inform Human Resources (HR) or the person(s) above you in the appeal process that you have a concern, and present the written facts. Keep your comments focused on the behaviors and actions causing the concern, not your feelings about the teacher. Teachers have rights that should be followed, but don’t let that discourage you from doing what is justified – improving teaching performance to ensure student success. That’s your job. Always follow the advice of your HR.

If you feel confident in a plan to develop and support a PIP, read our blog post on Best Practices for Writing and Implementing a Teacher Performance Improvement Plan.

Cheri Patterson is a trainer and field support representative for the Network for Educator Effectiveness. She joined NEE in 2013 after an extensive career in K-12 education as a teacher, principal, and associate superintendent.

The Network for Educator Effectiveness (NEE) is a simple yet powerful comprehensive system for educator evaluation that helps educators grow, students learn, and schools improve. Developed by preK-12 practitioners and experts at the University of Missouri, NEE brings together classroom observation, student feedback, teacher curriculum planning, and professional development as measures of effectiveness in a secure online portal designed to promote educator growth and development.