Why Shifting Teachers Through Grade-Level Change Usually Backfires
Updated: Feb 8
This article is inspired by the work of David Rock and neuroleadership. You can find a copy of his paper on the SCARF model here.
Most supervisors have been in the unenviable position before of trying to motivate a lackluster employee. For whatever reason, he or she is simply not cutting it. Deadlines are missed, quality is low, and too much effort is being required to prop him or her up. After they have tried all their tricks to support these employees, they usually resort to threatening, either overtly or covertly, to fire them in a last-ditch effort to motivate them to improve.
In the field of education, this sometimes happens when teachers' test scores are dismal. Students aren't moving up the achievement scale, they might be several grade levels behind their peers, and their classroom management is atrocious. After administrators and/or campus-based instructional coaches have supported them with little improvement, they are faced with few good choices.
Letting a teacher go in the middle of the year, while the teacher is still under contract, is nearly impossible without egregious misconduct. Thus, they come to a too-often used tactic as a means to improving the quality of instruction: shifting a teacher through grade-level change (e.g., moving a 4th grade teacher down to 1st grade). Nine times out of ten, this sucks the joy out of education for the teacher and actually serves as a de-motivator, the very opposite of what the change was intended to produce.
Our brains are designed to be pattern-recognition machines. They constantly try to predict the future based on past experiences to free up mental space. For example, imagine the steps needed to open up your car door. After you unlock it, you reach for the door, your arm darting forward and your fingers wrapping around the handle, and then you yank. You've done this hundreds, maybe thousands of times.
Each time you open your car door you don't draw on fresh sensory data - that would be a waste of precious mental space. Instead, your brain predicts where the car door should be in relation to your position, how far your arm should stretch out, and with how much force you need to pull to open it. As long as everything goes according to plan, it's a seamless operation that can be done unconsciously or even blindfolded.
Imagine, however, what would happen if you yank on the door handle and nothing happened. Your brain registers that as an error and your conscious attention kicks into overdrive. Whatever you happened to be thinking about gets shoved aside as you try to figure out what caused this prediction fail. If pushing the unlock button on your key fob doesn't do the trick, your error becomes an ERROR and your heart begins to race.
When our sense of certainty, of life going as expected (within reason), gets shattered, our brains suffer from an error response. It's difficult to do anything else until that error gets resolved. If you couldn't open your car door even after you press the unlock button several times, you wouldn't simply go inside and start reading a book or magazine. The disruption would be an itch you have to scratch, something that takes an incredible amount of willpower to ignore.
Our brains need certainty in order to operate at peak efficiency. When we have error responses flashing all over the place due to a disruption in predictable activities, most of our mental capabilities are consumed with addressing the errors.
This is why shifting a teacher through grade-level change typically makes the situation worse, not better. The disruption to their expectations and daily routines produces an error response on the scale of a natural disaster or the death of a loved one. When this avenue is taken to address a lack of production, don't be surprised when the teacher has the initiative of a cadaver in their new role.
When teachers sink to this low level of performance, several factors could be in play. See if any of these issues might be involved:
Lack of sufficient training. New teachers are sometimes thrown into the role with just a day or two of staff development. Teaching is incredibly complex and too many competing mandates or initiatives confuses those that have yet to master the intricacies of the profession.
Lack of embedded support. These teachers don't need to be told what to do. They already know what they should be doing but aren't doing it. Instead, subpar teachers sometimes need someone to come alongside them and show them how to do something. Don't tell them to start guided reading, show them what that looks like. Don't tell them to create exemplars, show them how.
Lack of trust and safety. In many schools, deficient teacher proficiency can be traced back to a school culture of fear and self-protection. When they don't feel psychologically safe, when they feel like every mistake will lead to belittling or a reprimand, teachers will tighten up and do the minimal possible to remain compliant. It's a simple self-preservation technique and the cause might originate in the front office.
Instead of shifting the teacher to address the lack of performance, my suggestion would be to assess the situation using the bullet points above. If you don't believe that any of those factors are in play, then all hope is not lost. The next step would be to employ the use of a professional coach (e.g., certified through the International Coaching Federation). While many school employees hold the title of "coach", that title in itself does not bring the hundreds of hours of training and experience that certified coaches have. If you'd like to explore working with a trained professional coach, learn more here.
Author's note: Shifting a teacher by lowering his or her grade-level assignment is not actually a demotion. The teacher has the same job title (teacher) and the same pay. The lower the grade level, the more difficult the challenges that teachers face due to children's immaturity and lack of foundational reading skills. Schools would be wise to put their strongest teachers in the lower grades, not their weakest.