ERIC Identifier: ED259448
Publication Date: 1984-00-00
Author: Ellis, Thomas I.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Educational Management Eugene OR.

Dismissing Incompetent Teachers. ERIC Clearinghouse on Educational Management: ERIC Digest, Number Five.

Dismissing incompetent tenured teachers is difficult and time-consuming. Contrary to popular opinion, however, it is not impossible.


According to surveys of parents and administrators, incompetence in the teaching profession has become a major concern (Bridges 1984). On one occasion 45 percent of polled public school parents felt that some teachers in the local schools should be fired. In another survey school administrators estimated that 5 to 15 percent of their teachers performed unsatisfactorily. Yet dismissal of tenured teachers for incompetence is still relatively rare.


Tenure originated around the turn of the century to protect teachers from arbitrary dismissals by school boards. However, tenure is not a lifetime contract that guarantees teachers permanent employment. Tenure laws were intended to regulate, rather than prevent, the dismissal of incompetent teachers.


Courts have not been inclined to specify standards for evaluating teacher competence. They have, however, defined four broad areas in which unsatisfactory performance might be grounds for dismissal: subject matter, teaching methods, effects on pupils, and personal attitudes.

Most dismissal cases of tenured teachers involve multiple sources of failure in addition to other legal grounds for dismissal, such as neglect of duty, unbecoming conduct, and other good and just cause. Dismissal rarely stems from a single egregious error; rather, termination is most often based on a persistent pattern of mistakes and failures.


Regardless of the nature of the teacher's failure, the success of a school board that attempts to dismiss a tenured teacher is by no means assured.

The frequency with which dismissal decisions are upheld by an impartial third party partly depends on the type of adjudicator--commission on professional competence, court judge, or hearing officer.

In 1982, a California Commission on Professional Competence upheld seven out of nine dismissal cases. Court judges are less supportive, upholding roughly two-thirds of the cases brought before them. Hearing officers render the least favorable decisions, sustaining school board actions in only 37 percent of their judgments.

The key to successfully dismissing a teacher is to provide thorough documentation of the teacher's shortcomings. Principals should put everything in writing: full, detailed records of a teacher's performance; evidence of the specific times and dates of key incidents; and direct, eyewitness reports from outside observers.


A first step is for administrators to adopt and publish reasonable criteria for teacher performance. Not only do these criteria encourage teachers to excel, but failure to meet such criteria may provide a legal basis for dismissal. The second step is for administrators to develop a process for determining whether a teacher has adequately satisfied the criteria.

After defining a teacher's problems according to specific standards of acceptable performance, principals should work with the teacher to establish objectives and strategies for improving the teacher's performance. Future teaching behavior should be monitored carefully and measured against these objectives using observation, regularly scheduled evaluations, and continuing feedback to the teacher.


Success in dismissing incompetent teachers then depends entirely on adequate preparation for hearings and scrupulous respect for due process. Teachers should be duly notified of a recommendation for termination.

The necessary components of a fair hearing, as delineated by state statutes, include (1) a statement of charges and the materials on which they are based; (2) a timely, written notice telling the date, time, and place of the hearing; (3) an opportunity to be represented by counsel and to call witnesses on the teacher's behalf; (4) an opportunity to cross-examine witnesses; (5) a written decision containing specific findings; and (6) the right to appeal.


Bridges, Edwin M., with Barry Groves. MANAGING THE INCOMPETENT TEACHER. Eugene, OR: ERIC Clearinghouse on Educational Management and Stanford, CA: Institute for Research on Educational Finance and Governance, 1984.

Dolgin, Ann B. "Two Types of Due Process: The Role of Supervision in Teacher Dismissal Cases." NASSP BULLETIN 65 (February 1981):17-21.

Erickson, Ralph. "How Firm Are Teacher Tenure Laws?" KAPPA DELTA PI RECORD 17 (April 1981):114-116.

Frels, Kelly, and Timothy T. Cooper. A DOCUMENTATION SYSTEM FOR TEACHER IMPROVEMENT OR TERMINATION: PRACTICAL CONCISE GUIDE FOR LEGAL CONSIDERATION IN TEACHER EVALUATION. NOLPE Mini-Monograph. Topeka, KS: National Organization on Legal Problems of Education, 1982. ED 228 725.

Larson, David H. "Dismissing Incompetent Staff." SCHOOL ADMINISTRATOR 40 (February 1983):28, 35, 37.

MacNaughton, Robert, and Victor J. Ross. "With Preparation, You Can Clear the Teacher Termination Hurdles." AMERICAN SCHOOL BOARDS JOURNAL 169 (April 1982):32-34.

Munnelly, Robert J. "What You Should Know When Your Staff Asks You for a Teacher Dismissal Hearing." AMERICAN SCHOOL BOARD JOURNAL 170 (May 1983):22, 26.

Peterson, Donovan. "Legal and Ethical Issues of Teacher Evaluation: A Research-Based Approach." EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH QUARTERLY 7 (Winter 1983):6-16.

Peterson, Jerry D. "Teacher Termination Hearings: The ABCs of Survival." NASSP BULLETIN 66 (December 1982):83-89.

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