I have chosen to give this blog the title “Sorry, Mom, No More Mr./Ms. Nice Guy”, Letters of Direction and Improvement Plans, the Need for Command. Here are some thoughts on staff evaluations. Dr. Don Roberts, a superintendent who taught me as much as I advised him, told me how he would handle principals who would try to be “kind” in their evaluations. It seems that whenever a principal would come into his office to complain about a teacher or other staff member, Don would pull out that person’s file and begin reading the evaluation out loud. Then Don would look at the principal and say, “What do you mean? This is an excellent employee. You said so yourself! When your evaluations match what you’re telling me now or when I see some documentation about the behavior you’re talking about, then I’ll listen. Meanwhile, congratulations on having such an excellent employee!” Educators tend to want to see the best in others and to hope that people will live up to a good evaluation; they want to be encouraging and supportive and they most assuredly do not want to be disliked by their staff. While these traits may make educators good at the job of educating students, they are counter-productive in the job of being administrators.
Whether in a letter of direction or in an improvement plan, the wishy-washy, kind, polite language like your mom told you to use has no value. What do I mean by “wishy-washy, kind and polite language? Try these: “I would like you to…”; “From now on, please try to…”; “I would appreciate it if you would…”; “It would be in your best interests to…”; “It would really help out if you…”, “Please do the following”. These types of words are “precatory,” meaning that they “express a wish or a desire rather than a clear command.”
If you are trying to correct a subordinate’s behavior, you need to move from expressing wishes or desires to issuing a clear command in the form of a directive. If an individual decides not to comply with a wish or desire, you may find that the attorney representing you will not see this as clear-cut insubordination. You may instead be told that you gave the person the option of whether or not he or she would grant your wish, and the person chose to not do so.
What should you say instead? “You shall” works. So does, “you will.” Use those. “You shall not use terms in your classroom which are profane, vulgar, and/or commonly recognized as ‘curse words’”; “You shall be at work by no later than 7:45 A.M. each day”; “You shall comply with the District policies for reporting absences.” Those are commands; failure to comply with commands is insubordination. No, they don’t sound kind. They aren’t meant to sound kind; they are meant to express a command with which the person is directed to comply.
That’s not it, however. You also need to document these directives. If you give an “oral” directive, send an email confirming the date and time and the specifics of the “oral” directive:
As you will recall, I called you into the office on Friday to discuss the complaint that you had cussed at your students, calling them “damned idiots” and then telling them that they had better “f-ing straighten up” or you would break their pin-heads.” You told me that you were angry because they had gotten into a fight and you lost your temper. I advised you that using curse words in front of students violates policy GBEA, Staff Ethics and policy regulation GBEB-R, Staff Conduct. Threatening students with physical harm violates policy regulation GBEB-R, Staff Conduct. In the future, you shall not use profane, vulgar, or other curse words with your students and you will not threaten them with bodily harm. You shall meet with your mentor teacher by no later than Friday the 13th to discuss strategies to maintain better classroom control so that fights will not occur. Let me know by no later than tomorrow at 5:00 PM that you received this email, whether or not you have any questions, and if you wish to supplement or respond to anything I’ve stated in this email summarizing the oral directive you received.
Written directives, of course, provide their own documentation by their existence, but you still should include a summary of when you met with the staff member, the complaint that was made or the inappropriate action you observed, anything the staff member said in his/her own defense, the policies violated, and then the actual directive in clear, and, yes, commanding language. If you are issuing discipline, still make sure that you include a directive so that the offending behavior does not continue.
Similarly, when issuing an improvement plan, make sure that you give specific dates and times by which something will be accomplished and express that “something” clearly: “On the first work day of each month, you will have a new bulletin board display in your classroom”; “By no later than 3:00 P.M. each Thursday, you will have your lesson plans for the next school week on my desk for my review. The lesson plans will comply with the attached format.”
If you use the end of the 40 instructional day improvement plan as the “specific date” rather than including multiple interim small, measurable dates, you won’t be able to monitor progress during the improvement plan. Why not? Because if you say the last date of the 40 instructional day period is the date by which the improvement must occur, then the person is able to wait until the 39th day to comply—thus depriving the students of the benefit of what you thought was important enough for the teacher to implement when you wrote the improvement plan. By putting in the smaller bench marks, you can verify whether or not the steps are being taken throughout the improvement plan—and, just perhaps, you can see the improvement in the classroom.
In addition, a failure to meet a benchmark may result in disciplinary behavior for failure to comply with the directive. “In your improvement plan dated ___, you were directed to provide me with lesson plans by no later than 3:00 PM on Thursday for the following week. On Thursday, the 12th, you failed to provide me with lesson plans for the week of the 16th. I’ve set an appointment for you at my office during your free period today so that you can explain why you failed to turn in your lesson plans as directed. Failure to comply with directives is insubordination which may result in discipline.”
While kindness is appropriate in your daily dealings with individuals, clarity of direction is the ultimate kindness when you are seeking to correct the behavior of your subordinates. Using clear directives, whether in discipline or in classroom improvement plans, enforces appropriate behavior enabling your subordinates to become the outstanding employees you want them to be.
As always, seek the advice of your District’s attorney regarding complying with the open meeting law in appointing a person to issue subpoenas; in drafting a form of subpoena to be issued by the hearing officer, if the Board does not already have a form subpoena; and when and how oaths, including oaths of office, should be administered.
 Duhaime.org, legal dictionary.
This blog should be used for informational purposes only. It does not create an attorney-client relationship with any reader and should not be construed as legal advice. If you need legal advice regarding Letters of Direction and Improvement Plans, or other Education Law matters, please feel free to contact Candyce B. Pardee at 800.863.6718, log on to udallshumway.com, or contact an attorney in your area. Udall Shumway PLC is located in Mesa, Arizona with a branch office in Yuma, Arizona, and is a full service law firm. We assist Individuals, families, businesses, schools and municipalities in Mesa and the Phoenix/East Valley.