Making tough personnel calls

Principals … Key to Student Learning

School improvement rarely (possibly never) happens without great leadership. Principals’ building-wide impact makes them one of the most important forces in student learning.

Earlier blogs have highlighted the power of principal pipelines and ongoing capacity development for principals. This blog focuses on discernment: what to do when a principal is unable to provide the instructional leadership to support each and every student.


Clearly define and communicate what you expect. It is hard for anyone to improve if they only hear what they DON’T do well. Most people don’t wake up in the morning wanting to do poorly. Many/most would do better if they knew better.


If principals like kids and are willing to grow and improve, I will do everything possible to help them succeed. I’ve seen this approach pay off. One principal who had been reassigned due to problems went on to lead a remarkable turn-around in a difficult school. He was a persistent learner who helped his school grow through sheer determination and willpower. For those who are not willing to grow or don’t like kids, I have far less patience.

Plan Ahead

Ideally, the employee and the district come to roughly the same conclusion at about the same time. This makes it really hard to make big decisions in one year. Telling someone for the first time in January to get better by May is shocking to the individual and often to the system as well. Plan on a two-year timeline: one year to be clear on expectations and a plan of improvement, and one year to provide a genuine opportunity to improve.


Start with a lot of listening and support. Especially if this the first inkling of concerns after many years of positive evaluations. Help them absorb the difficult feedback and work through the stages of grieving and changing and adapting. John Maxwell and Brené Brown advocate careful preparation. Showing up with clarity and kindness. Sitting side by side. Working collaboratively on a plan of improvement.


Surveys may or may not measure what you want. It can be hard to distinguish between improvement gurus who push staff to stretch and grow and those who lack leadership skills. Surveys that go public can also do more harm than good. Consider other approaches first.


Focus Groups or 1:1 listening sessions with staff may be a more diagnostic alternative than surveys. Pick four open-ended questions based on what the problems appear to be. “What can you tell me about … (trust, equity, clear expectations, follow-through, etc.)?” Protect the anonymity of staff. Tabulate the results and sort the responses. Meet with the principal to share, and then with the faculty.

This process socializes the decision and gives the principal time to reflect and consider best options for moving forward. Often principals already know what staff will say, even if they hope otherwise.


None of us hear well when we are under duress or feel like we are under attack. Take the initiative to invite a colleague or union representative to be present. Having someone they trust who will listen with and for them can be helpful. When the meeting is over and they debrief in the parking lot, their colleague can explain if needed: “I think you need to take this seriously. This may not blow over.”


For similar reasons, I sometimes use a picture of a thermometer to illustrate:

  • You have a temp of 100—a mild fever, probably a cold, likely something you will recover from pretty quickly with the following steps.  OR …
  • You have a fever of 104. This is dangerous territory; you might or might not survive.

My experience is that the ones who have nothing to fear are the ones who are traumatized and think this will end their career. The ones who should be trembling often think this is no big deal.  The thermometer illustration can be help get the message across appropriately.


The state principals association can be a good resource. They have addressed many of these issues in multiple ways. They understand and see the big picture more clearly and can provide solid advice for all parties. Engage the state association early. Invite the principal to call the state association for help. Provide lots of details on the timelines so everyone has time to figure out what is coming next.

  • Say things like: “If done today, my evaluation would show….” “I will finalize the evaluation on (date).” “My decision on your contract status will be made on (date).”
  • Then explain the logical implications. “When/if we decide to non-renew, this will happen.”

The state association can then explain some of the alternatives: appealing the outcome versus resigning before being non-renewed.


We certainly do need to know and follow the legal steps meticulously. But legal advice tends toward judgment and certainty and deciding who is “right.” Most decisions come down to relationships and making decisions that are the best for all concerned. Following all of the legal steps is no guarantee that the political and relational results will be successful. HOW you handle the relationship is often more important than checking all the right legal steps. Finding a joint solution that preserves respect and dignity is usually far better for all concerned.


These situations are often time-consuming and heart-wrenching. Protecting the integrity of the student learning environment is imperative. Doing so kindly and with gracious respect usually allows us to move the culture and climate forward with the least damage. Done well, difficult decisions can be made with dignity.  More than a few have returned years later to express appreciation for support in helping them find a better professional fit.





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Larry Nyland – Leadership Coach and Consultant.
Seattle Schools superintendent 2014-2018

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