Effective support for teaching staff who are struggling

Written by: Sonia Gill | Published:
Photo: iStock

Most headteachers will have to tackle underperformance at some point. Sonia Gill advises on the techniques and approaches that are likely to be successful for the teacher and the school

Many heads I work with have a teacher whom they believe is underperforming, or they have previously been in that situation. It is a difficult time for both the head and teacher, because the time and energy required by both to address the issue is considerable.

So, how can you tackle underperformance well? The best thing you can do for both yourself and the teacher (or any member of your team) is avoid getting into capability.

The steps you should be taking before you get into capability are actually very similar to the ones you need to take once in capability and they are driven by the desire to see the teacher improve their performance to the required standard as soon as possible.

As a headteacher, hopefully you see your role as being central to delivering great teaching and learning, and supporting your staff in achieving that. I know that there are lots of others parts to the role, but I think most would agree that this sits at its core (and from my experience most are frustrated that they don’t get to spend more time on this).

So, with this key role in mind, how do you approach underperformance?

Honest feedback

The first step is to give honest feedback. If you have observed a lesson and it is not at the level you would expect, the teacher needs to be told. The art of feedback is to be as specific as possible and focus on the core issues.

I often ask heads I am coaching “if I were to guarantee one change, one thing that will improve, what would it be?”. I encourage them to be very specific. So, an answer like “for them to be a consistently good teacher” is too broad. What is it within their teaching that you want them to change or improve and what will it change to?

This applies to conduct as well. “I want the teacher to have a more positive attitude”, is again too broad. However, “I want the teacher to try our new initiative for phonics, focusing on the benefits it brings”, is more specific.

Agree what to focus on

With specific feedback hopefully comes the specific focus for the teacher. But what if there are lots of areas that need to be addressed? Surely the teacher needs every piece of possible feedback because the teacher needs to know, don’t they?

Yes they do, but you risk overwhelming them and making progress harder. While you might choose to give them all the feedback, you can make this more manageable by focusing on the few things that would make a significant difference and have an impact quickly (your quick wins). If there is a lot to tackle, taking it a few steps at a time will build confidence and improve things quicker. If they are struggling to stay afloat you don’t want to overload them and make them sink.

Create your picture for success

Agree how you will both know they have been successful. Numbers are nice because they can be objective, but not everything can be measured this way nor is it always the best way.

As Einstein said “not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts”. Discuss what will be different when they have achieved their goal; how will they feel, what would you see, what would you hear? You could bulletpoint this or have it as a short paragraph of prose (don’t let a pro-forma limit you). The clearer the picture of success the far more chance that a) the person will achieve it and b) you will get the specific improvement you are looking for.

Support them

This sounds easy but in reality it can often be poorly implemented. Work with the teacher to understand what support will help them most and what appeals to them most. Just like the children they teach, they have preferred ways of learning.

Letting them use methods that appeal to them is more likely to lead to better learning for them. If they are not sure what they can do to improve, or you have some great suggestions, give them a range of ideas and work with them to form an action plan, focused on a few specific areas to improve.

It might cost you a bit, but my guess is that the cost will be far less than the cost of putting someone through capability, and less than the cost of having an underperforming teacher. And certainly far less than the cost of going to a tribunal. By cost I am referring to the time, emotions and impact on the teacher, on you and on the school. Ways you can support them are varied:

  • Training.
  • Coaching or mentoring.
  • Team-teaching
  • Visiting another school
  • Observing other teachers in your school.
  • Online programmes.

You can even try ideas like having an hour a week to focus on marking for a set period while they improve this aspect of their work. Be willing to try new things and get creative with methods that will lead to the improvement as quickly as possible.

Keep the conversation going

Arrange regular times to give feedback to them, check progress, and check the impact of the support you have put in place. Hopefully an improvement in one area will lead to improvements in other areas. As they start to improve, you might want to review the overall quality of their teaching again to see how they are performing and look at the next area to address.

Celebrate success

As they make progress acknowledge it and praise them. People of all ages need positive reinforcement; we are wired to do more of what feels good. So, if they are progressing, tell them and congratulate them, this will build confidence.

Take notes

Throughout the process make notes of what has been discussed, what has been agreed and when; if you do get to capability you will need these. Share your notes with the teacher and ask them to sign them if they agree they are an accurate reflection of your conversation – if they do not agree amend them as appropriate so that they are. Remember, the teacher does not have to agree with the chosen actions (although hopefully they will), but they need to agree that the notes are an accurate reflection of your meeting. At best you will never need them, at worst they will be needed if you get into capability or go to tribunal.


There are so many reasons why a teacher might be underperforming. The role of any line manager is to help them perform well, within a reasonable amount of time (although there is no definite way to define reasonable).

If you support someone well and still need to go into capability procedures you will be in the strongest possible position you can be and, more importantly in my opinion, you will know that you have done all you can to support them and keep them in the profession delivering quality education.

  • Sonia Gill is founder of Heads Up, specialising in supporting headteachers and school leaders.


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