I remember still a challenging situation from over a decade ago. On my staff was a veteran faculty member who had been teaching at the school longer than either the Head of School or I, as Director of Judaics, had been involved in education—combined! But her effectiveness in the classroom had declined significantly, and she was no longer reaching students the way that she once had. Parents were complaining. Students were too.
Although it was certainly not her idea to leave, we worked with the teacher to devise a retirement strategy that allowed her to leave the school on terms that were dignified and respectful of her contributions over the years. Although she was unhappy with the decision, she agreed to it.
One of the most difficult responsibilities of a school leader is speaking with a current employee about the end of his or her tenure at the school. School leaders not only worry about how difficult it is to have that conversation, they also are concerned about fallout from the conversation and the consequences of the decision. Below, we offer some suggestions to guide those conversations.
Reasons for not renewing or firing a member of staff
There are many reasons why you might decide that you can’t have a person on faculty any longer. It may be the person is not performing his job well; it may be that the person is not really a fit with the school’s ethos and vision; or it may be that the person is not a fit with your team — the chemistry and interactions are wrong.
Furthermore, the decision to not hire someone back is not always a matter of performance, but a matter of capacity. For example, sometimes schools need to hire full-time employees to teach certain subjects while the current employees are part-time and are unable to move to full-time. Or perhaps the school’s funding or enrollment has changed, and the school can no longer keep everyone on faculty.
Once you’ve clarified the reasons why you’ll be dismissing a member of faculty, turn these into your talking points that will help facilitate a smoother, more focused conversation.
Timing the conversation properly
School leaders agonize about the timing of this conversation. Some argue that it is better to have this conversation mid-year. Others argue that the school should wait until near the end of the year.
There are reasons to consider both options, and neither will work in every situation. When deciding on your timing, it’s important to consider the following competing values. Informing a teacher mid-year that his contract will not be renewed positions your school to openly recruit for the vacated position during prime hiring season. In addition, it provides the teacher time to secure employment for the following year. On the other hand, waiting until later in the year may help minimize the negative impact the teacher’s feelings and morale will have on the rest of the school.
Any time a member of your staff is dismissed, anxiety levels rise among your faculty. Even if your faculty is supportive of your decision to dismiss their colleague, they will still become nervous about their own future in the school. Therefore, it is advisable to time the notification of dismissal to coincide with the distribution of letters of intent to faculty to reinforce their sense of security.
Some of the most painful and challenging decisions revolve around veteran staff members and teachers, as in the scenario I described above. They likely have contributed a great deal to your school over the years, and they likely have many fans in your school community, including alumni and alumni parents. Find ways to ensure that the process is respectful and allows your employee to maintain as much dignity as possible.
For example, you may decide to draft a joint announcement from the school leadership and faculty member that allows the faculty member to have some control over the narrative. You may choose to have a ceremony honoring the teacher or produce a book filled with pictures and comments from students current and past.
We believe that no employment decision should come as a surprise to any employee of your school. A proper system of supervision, observation, and feedback will help in this process. However, even if that system is in place, the conversation about not hiring someone back for the following year can be difficult.
You should have clear school standards in place and in writing that, outline what behaviors or performance issues would lead to termination. Verify the facts surrounding your staff member’s behavior, performance, or activity that violates those specific standards. If the employee is being dismissed for poor performance, document that you have held multiple meetings with him to address the performance issue prior to the decision to terminate his employment. If you haven’t had multiple meetings, you may not be in a safe position to terminate.
Sometimes, we have hard data to support our decision (e.g., the staff member came late to work every day, the teacher has been embarrassing students in class), but other times, our decision can’t be supported by hard data. Even so, try to support your decision with observable evidence whenever possible.
What to actually say
The first thing that school leaders should do in these conversations is state the reason for the meeting. You should clearly state, without ambiguous language, that the employee is not being hired back for the following year. It is important then to lay out clearly the reasons why the employee will not be coming back. Keep your comments brief and professional.
Although it may sound harsh, and you may think you’re being insensitive, we believe it is best to come down the “ladder of abstraction” and just say what you mean.
Rather than saying, “We think it’s time for you to move on,” or “We’re going in a different direction,” say, “We will not be renewing your contract for next year.”
Also, your instinct may be to tell the person you are dismissing that you are sorry. We recommend against that. First, you won’t be believed, and your comment will come off as insincere. Second, while you may feel conflicted about the decision and terrible about having to be the one to deliver the news, you ultimately are doing what is in the best interest of the children in your school. They are your highest priority. As one school leader put it to me, “We are advocates for children, not an employment agency.”
Some people believe it’s important to include positive statements in this conversation, such as reasons why the teacher was a good employee and what he or she did well in your school. This may be a mistake. Instead, you can thank the employee for what he or she has given to the school, but be careful with this, as it can seem disingenuous. You can tell them that you’d be happy to serve as a reference if this is true (i.e. you’d be able to serve as a positive reference for them without jeopardizing their chances at another job).
Expectations for future behavior
In many situations, it is appropriate to clearly lay out your expectations for the employee’s remaining tenure in the school. If the teacher will be leaving immediately, have an action plan ready to explain what the steps will be for leaving. Consult with your human resources expert about this. If you don’t have a human resources expert, alert the board president and make sure to get outside counsel. However, if the teacher will be staying on until the end of the year, it is important to be very clear about what expectations you have for the employee in the time remaining.
One important thing we have found in our work is that the teacher should know that you probably will be asked to serve as a reference for them when they seek their next job. Even if the employee doesn’t list you on their resume as a reference, schools will call you to find out about their performance.
For that reason, it is important to share with the teacher that it is in their best interest to be the best possible employee they can be in the time remaining in their contract. They should remain professional, positive, and upbeat. Of course, they should not speak disparagingly about the school or its leaders or give less to their work. Negative behaviors could result in negative recommendations at best, and in early termination at worst.
Positive behavior outside the school should also be stressed as a matter of professionalism. When your employees are talking with their friends, it is important that they do not speak negatively about the school or the decision you have made. Because of the small world in which Jewish day school educators operate, that information is very likely to get back to you or the next employer and could have negative consequences for the teacher.
If the employee has generally been a positive member of your team and is being asked to leave because roles and needs at the schools have changed, this conversation can have a positive spin, even though any change is hard. You should stress to the employee that you really want to act as an advocate for them as they search for their next position. You can stress that you know that they’ll continue to act as a professional in the remaining months of the year for the sake of the students and themself.
“Chodesh LeShanah” and other forms of severance
Unless your school specifically indicates in the employment contract that severance will be paid, you are probably not required to do so. Consult with your legal counsel and (if appropriate) school halakhic authority to determine your obligation, if any.
Sometimes severance can be used to help soften the blow to a person you are dismissing or not renewing. Sometimes, schools use severance as a lever to keep the fired employee’s behavior in check (i.e., “If you behave according to our agreement, you’ll get your severance, but if you don’t, we won’t pay you.”). Each of these should be carefully considered along with their short-term and long-term implications.
Everyone is keenly aware that firing a staff member puts the school in murky legal waters. This can be especially true if the staffer is a member of a “protected class.” We most often hear about age discrimination in these matters.
Seek out the advice of your school’s legal counsel prior to speaking with the employee you will be dismissing. If you don’t have legal counsel who has expertise in employment law, hire someone to advise you. It will be money well spent.
These conversations are some of the hardest we have in our schools. Be prepared, practice (yes, practice and role play), and talk with a trusted confidential advisor afterwards to process your own feelings. We entered the field of education because of our deep compassion for and devotion to children and people. Holding a person’s career and livelihood in your hands is a hefty but necessary part of school leadership. Remember always that you are doing what you believe to be in the best interest of the students. You may doubt yourself, and that is natural, but don’t let your doubt jeopardize decisions that must be made for the future of your school.