How is teacher underperformance constructed by principals of Lutheran schools?

Author: Shane Paterson

Paterson, Shane, 2016 How is teacher underperformance constructed by principals of Lutheran schools?, Flinders University, School of Education

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In his study on the health and wellbeing of school principals across Australia, Dr Philip Riley discovered that managing teacher underperformance was one of the top stressors identified by principals in their work. This finding was substantiated with further research by Dr Mark Worthing and Shane Paterson of Lutheran Education Australia (LEA), who explored this issue amongst principals of Australian Lutheran schools. The findings of these two projects provided the genesis for this study, which explored the ways principals construct underperformance within the context in which schools currently operate.

It is Connell’s assertion that schools currently operate within the context of the dominant ideology of neo-liberalism (2013), where teachers’ work is observed, recorded and managed (performativity), and where government accountabilities, such as NAPLAN, place schools’ and teachers’ performance under an intense spotlight. Within this context, the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) “Australian Professional Standards for Teachers” were developed to provide a framework for teachers to assess their own effectiveness and to reflect on their future capabilities (AITSL, 2012). These are some of the contextual factors that appear to be impacting on the work of the principal and on the expectation that they manage teachers and provide an environment that encourages the highest possible student outcomes.

The core feature of this study is teachers who may not be meeting the expectations required of them in improving student outcomes — teachers who could be considered to be underperforming. This study therefore explored how teacher underperformance is constructed by principals of Lutheran schools, and investigated why managing it is a major cause of stress for principals. It explored the use of the AITSL (2012) standards and identified behaviours in determining underperformance, along with the application of three theological beliefs of the Lutheran faith — grace, creation and the two kingdoms. Little work has been undertaken within the Lutheran education sector to understand the issue of underperformance, the application of Lutheran theology to underperformance, and the impact that dealing with underperformance has on the health and wellbeing of principals; this project addresses those gaps in knowledge and understanding.

Underpinned by a constructionist lens, the project used a mixed-methods approach and, more specifically, a sequential explanatory design procedure to explore the research question. After surveying all principals (n=85) in Lutheran schools, questions for the open-ended, semi-structured interviews were developed. Through purposeful sampling, five principals with five or more years of experience and experience in dealing with two or more cases of teacher underperformance were purposefully selected for the interview stage. These interviews provided rich data which was used to answer the research question.

Through coding of the interview data, the themes of Awareness, Process, Effect, Relationships and Motivation were identified. These five themes led to the development of a model which illustrates the process of identifying and managing teacher underperformance in Lutheran schools. The results highlighted the particular importance of Relationships and Motivation within these themes, which was an unexpected finding.

The findings together with the research literature led me to suggest that principals in Lutheran schools are confident in their ability to identify and deal with underperformance — they do so with the understanding that it is a part of their role. The use of the term “stress” is therefore questioned as a result of this research, and I suggest that consideration needs to be given to the alternative term “pressure”, which may more accurately describe what is experienced when dealing with underperformance. The thesis concludes with a number of recommendations for Lutheran education.

The findings of this project will be of assistance to Lutheran education as it seeks to support the health and wellbeing of its principals. This research made significant findings about the importance of relationships, the consistent application of Lutheran theology, the motivation of principals, and principals’ confidence in dealing with underperformance. Further, this project leads to the recognition that there is a need for a consistent approach to and understanding of the process of performance management, while clarity is needed around use of the terms “stress” and “pressure” before strategies are employed to assist principals.

This project was limited to conducting interviews with experienced principals, and further research could be conducted to include principals with less experience. Further research using the term “pressure” to investigate any impact that managing underperformance has on principals and their health and wellbeing should also be undertaken.

LEA is mindful of the health and wellbeing of principals, and it seeks to support principals where possible. The findings of this research will assist in the ongoing support of principals as they lead in their complex and demanding role.

Keywords: Lutheran education, schools, teachers, principals, stress, performativity, neo-liberalism, Standards, constructionism, mixed-methods, pressure, performance management, Grace, Creation, interpretivist perspective, pressure, stress, Two kingdoms

Subject: Education thesis

Thesis type: Professional Doctorate
Completed: 2016
School: School of Education
Supervisor: Dr Michael Bell