Twice in ten years. That’s how often I stayed in the same teaching assignment for consecutive years. I volunteered for teacher moves, because I didn’t mind moving while most of my colleagues hated or feared it.
Whatever the reason, each spring brings changes and reassignments. In a profession that values stability, it creates anxiety and uncertainty for teachers, students, and parents. They’re often left confused and wondering “why do principals move teachers around?”
As a teacher, I didn’t really understand it. It seemed capricious at best, and malicious at worst. After a decade of being a principal, leading principals, and even supervising a district transfer process, I understand the factors a bit more.
Contrary to popular belief, they’re usually not the result of some mad principal plan. If you’re curious, here are some of the reasons.
Reasons Principals Move Teachers Around
At District Direction
People may not realize how little control principals have over teacher assignment between buildings. Most moves are guided by HR needs, contract requirements, or district plans. Sometimes, even moves that look like a hiring process are actually district direction.
As a building principal, I’d say less than ⅓ of my teacher moves in or out of my buildings were by my choice. Yet, I owned responsibility for 100% of it.
While most teachers conceive of teacher assignments at a building level, actual staffing is a district-wide puzzle. Those factors drive most of the inter-building moves principals make. These are the factors that cause most of the teacher movements in a district:
School enrollment waxes and wanes. Unfortunately, students don’t move in nice classroom-sized groups. If a school gains students, then it needs another teacher. If it was all new enrollment then the district can simply hire a new teacher.
However, if another school has lost enough students, then a teacher has to be reassigned. This is enrollment balancing.
Reduction in Force
The worst circumstance is when a teacher RIF (reduction in force) is in play. The least senior teachers are reduced, and multiple transfers may be required to cover the RIF.
I was in my second year as a school principal and 20% of the teachers were new to the building because they were transferred in as part of a RIF process.
When teachers go on extended leave, for whatever reason, their positions must be covered. In some districts, they have rights to return to the same position. This means that position will be filled by another teacher for one year, but upon their return a teacher move has to be made.
In districts where they might not return to the same position, their return will still trigger the transfer or layoff of a temporary or less experienced teacher.
Of course, there are times when a principal makes a choice to move a teacher for performance reasons. This is less common than people think, but it does happen. Sometimes, it happens with good intentions, others it’s just lazy “leadership.”
Looking For A Better Fit
As both a teacher and an administrator, I’ve seen teachers with potential struggle because they’re in the wrong position. Sometimes, this is a result of the previously described mandatory moves!
A principal may believe a different assignment will enable the teacher to improve their skills, absorb a more healthy culture, or simply better match their natural skill.
I’ve seen a teacher who struggles with primary students become an incredibly skilled intermediate teacher. Schools and teams can have a negative culture that drags a teacher down and a new culture lifts them up. Sometimes, the teacher simply needs more experience with a more manageable assignment.
If this is an honest belief, and not simply a cop out by a subpar principal, then a move for fit can be a benefit to all involved. That doesn’t make it easy.
March of the Lemons
I hate everything about this phrase. It denigrates the professionalism of educators, it absolves principals of poor supervision, and disguises the horrible outcomes for all involved. It shouldn’t be a thing, and in healthy districts it isn’t.
Unfortunately, in some districts rather than practicing good supervision and supporting educators to improve their skills, or exit the profession, underperforming teachers are simply shuffled around.
Principals will place teachers they have concerns about into a pool and they will be transferred between buildings. Sometimes this is done by human resources, other times by the principal group.
Often, this is done with “looking for a better fit” justification but examining how it’s approached and the lack of actual support or conversation with teachers quickly reveals the lie.
Good leadership requires skilled observation, honest feedback, and follow-through. This practice does none of those things. It shouldn’t exist.
Moving Within A School
Unlike inter-school transfers, assignment within a school is largely under the principal’s control. There are several very good reasons a principal may move teachers around within the building.
Just as there is district enrollment balancing, class loads within a school need to be balanced annually. At the elementary level, for example, if you have a class of 100 second grades and a class of 75 first-graders, you will have enrollment imbalances every year as the largest class is followed by a smaller class.
Sometimes, these loads can be balanced through attrition and the hiring or placement of a new teacher. Other times, it will require existing staff to move.
Similarly, in secondary schools the schedule demands will sometimes dictate teacher moves. If forecasting for high school schedules indicates the need for greater, or fewer, sections then sometimes teachers have to be moved to accommodate.
I’ll be honest – this one happens far less than I think it should. There is a huge benefit to both teaching skill, and perspective, to have teachers try different assignments. An intermediate teacher, for example, will benefit from understanding how primary students acquire literacy. An honors teacher’s experience and high expectations will inform how an early sequence class is taught.
Specialization, particularly of higher sequence skills is important – I’m not advocating for a chemistry teacher taking over social studies, but there is reason for movement within a discipline. Sometimes this is done intentionally and purposefully.
This can show up in teacher moves in multiple ways. The first, is shuffling several teachers around to try to create a better combination of skill and personality. Sometimes, you can dramatically increase effectiveness on multiple teams with a few teacher moves. These usually aren’t popular initially, but if you get it right everyone benefits.
The other, is to cycle newer teachers through an existing effective team. I did this successfully at one school on a four-member team that was consistently high performing. Three of the members of the team were held intact and incredibly strong in culture, practice and support for new teachers. By rotating one of the four positions each year, the new member acquired the orientation and drive of the team. They could then be placed on another team and carry that culture forward.
There actually are some times where principals move teachers for reasons other than positive. These happen far less than people think – the truth is it’s just not really worth the pain and upset to transfer teachers without a good reason.
That said, I can’t pretend all motives are pure. I’ve seen principals transfer a teacher out of spite, to assert their authority, or simply to “mix things up.” This is leadership malpractice, but it does happen.
How Principals Can Support
Even when done for the right reasons, moving teachers around between, or within, schools creates instability and uncertainty. Even when done for the “right” reasons, moving teachers can negatively impact students if done poorly. Principals can take steps to mitigate these problems and ensure teachers are able and ready to be effective.
Include Teachers In the Planning
When considering moves, get input and feedback from teachers about possible interests. This won’t always result in volunteers or optimal assignments, but a principal can get surprising results simply from asking the questions and authentically considering the information and suggestions.
Teachers are professionals – they deserve to be asked.
Important caveat – don’t ask, unless you’ll actually consider the response. It doesn’t mean you’re required to do what is suggested, but do not ask simply for process and then move forward no matter what.
When making moves, be transparent about the reasons why. Half of the anxiety is created simply by not explaining clearly why the move is necessary, or how you believe it might best benefit the staff and students.
In the dark, teachers are left wondering and often create the worst narratives. Some will believe that you are doing it because they aren’t performing well, or they may believe you’re doing it because of poor leadership. The only way the right narrative can be told is if you’re clear and honest about your reasoning.
Important caveat – Don’t share performance information about other staff members. I once had a principal say to me, “I have to move you to 5th grade because TeacherX is on a plan and I need you to show them how to teach reading.” That’s transparent but horribly inappropriate. Sharing performance information about other teachers undermines trust.
Finally, far too often teacher moves happen without an effective plan for support in the new assignment. Regardless of the reason, the teacher needs to be welcomed into the new assignment, provided appropriate resources, and given the best possible chance to succeed.
If resources allow, an experienced and effective mentor in the new assignment is ideal. At a minimum, teachers should be provided with appropriate curriculum, contact information for relevant questions, and regular check-ins with the administrator.
The teacher deserves this and it is a principal’s responsibility to ensure they’ve got what they need to effectively teach students.
While moves can have positive benefits, they happen too often to new teachers. It takes a base amount of time to truly acquire the skills of a position and master teaching craft. Avoid moving the same teachers frequently, especially newer teachers who have not yet achieved mastery.
Summary – Why Do Principals Move Teachers Around?
Contrary to popular opinion, it is often necessary for a principal to transfer a teacher. Reasons include:
- Enrollment balancing
- Reduction in Force
- Managing Leaves
- Performance management
- Building experience
- Creating stronger teams
Principals can, and should, help limit the instability caused by teacher moves by including teachers in the discussions whenever possible and always being transparent about the reasons for the move. Then, they must provide support, and time, to ensure the teacher is successful in the new position.
Finally, the “march of the lemons” or moving teachers to assert authority or out of spite are horrible leadership practices that should be halted immediately. While these are not as common as perceived, they create instability and undermine trust.