Developing performance, not managing it

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Jo Castelino’s recent post on teacher development (improvement ain’t a bad word) resonated with me; we’ve all either been or had experience of those who don’t see improvement as something that really applies to them. For many, performance management or appraisal are also considered dirty words, full of negative connotations. But if we want teachers to get better, we need to have some sort of system in place to support that.

My previous experience of performance management, like many others, was a set of targets (usually three, up to five) which were based around some key performance indicators. You know the sort of thing – “85 % of class X will achieve on or above their target grades at GCSE.” They were hogwash. Of course I cared about my students’ achievements and would try my damnedest to make sure they did well. But the idea that plucking an arbitrary number to work towards, based on unreliably calculated baseline data, was going to mean anything, was nothing short of idiotic. Ridiculous, too, was the notion that setting a range of different targets which could all be miraculously completed within one academic year, was going to lead to anything other than box-ticking compliance.

In this post I want to outline our school’s approach to performance management / appraisal*, and how we’ve tried to move to a system which is wholly focused on helping teachers improve. I’ve written previously about our approach to CPD here, and our journey on implementing a coaching culture here and here. Our appraisal system is the third arm in our whole-strategy for teacher development.

Developmental observations

Coe et al (2014) demonstrate that lessons cannot be reliably graded through observation, and that the quality of teaching cannot be gleaned from a single lesson observation. Formal lesson observations also generate a significant amount of workload for both observer and observed, with little real tangible benefits. Therefore we ditched the use of formal observations, and adopted a ‘drop-in’ model instead.

All teachers are visited at least once per term by a learning coach who stays for around 15-20 minutes maximum. Coaches give feedback and highlight a strength and an area to consider for improvement. Crucially, if we don’t see something clear then we won’t give any suggestions for improvement. We acknowledge that many teachers are doing a great job, and that we are not specialists in every subject; sometimes there’s just nothing to comment on and we don’t want to go looking for something just for the sake of it. Where we do give suggestions, they have to be concrete and lead to something specific that the teacher can actually do. No comments of the more pace or differentiate better ilk that have plagued lesson observations in the past. Where appropriate, this feedback is in the form of an observation and a question to prompt thinking. “I noticed that… I wonder how/if…?”. 

As I’ve explored elsewhere, I’m not convinced this approach is going to quickly and radically change people’s practice but it’s about shifting our culture to one in which feedback is always seen as helpful and developmental. In time, I’d like to see this process devolved back to HoDs, as they are better placed to give more meaningful subject-specific feedback but we’re not ready for this yet. First, I think we needed a clean break with the old system, and for all HoDs to experience observation feedback in this format so that they are better placed to give feedback to their own teams in a similar way, and not simply default back to the lengthy, detailed feedback expected under the old model. Second, for HoDs to be asked to observe every teacher in their department every term is a significant demand on their time, and we need to explore ways to free that time up so that it isn’t simply another thing being added (although the removal of the observation documentation does represent a significant reduction in workload too).  

Regular and ongoing review

Gifford et al (2016) highlight that performance management works best when feedback occurs on a regular basis; annual goal-setting and feedback is not effective. Most schools I’ve worked in have an annual review system albeit with some interim review process in some cases. We’ve adopted a termly review system in order to balance the need for ongoing feedback against the logistical constraints of line managers needing to meet more regularly. 

Meetings are intended to last no more than 15-20 minutes and so even in a fair-sized department this seems a reasonable demand on people’s time, especially since other areas of the process have been streamlined (see above). A key feature of this system is that there is no ‘endpoint’ such as an annual review. The cycle just keeps moving forward, allowing teachers to focus on development at a meaningful pace. The previously commonplace occurrence of panicked, last-minute frenzies of lesson observations being arranged and evidence being gathered should become a thing of the past. 

Appraisal meetings & Target Setting

Helal & Coeli (2016), in a review of leadership factors associated with improvements, noted that improved performance is more likely where there is goal-congruence – shared commitment to school goals that align with teachers’ personal goals. Gifford et al (2016) find similar, that performance management is most effective when goals are set with staff, rather than for them. Our teachers get to choose their own target to work on. It’s crucial that teachers engage with the process and see it as something that they are actively doing, rather than having imposed on them. 

Targets have to relate specifically to their teaching practice rather than another feature of a wider role (eg pastoral responsibilities) – those areas are covered in a more holistic, three-year review cycle. Teachers only choose one target to work on at a time, and targets should be supplemented with specific action points that can be completed so that it is clear to everyone what the teacher is actually going to do, rather than just a vague and hopeful intention to work on something. Targets might be something that could be reasonably well achieved in just a term, or might be longer-term foci.

Meetings are conducted following a ‘coaching-style’ conversation where the appraiser asks questions to draw out suggestions from the teacher, but try to avoid directing them towards something specific. Of course, some teachers may need a little more ‘steer’, particularly if there is a specific area that needs work that the teacher may be unaware of, or, at least, unwilling to acknowledge. But even in these cases it’s better that the teacher chooses a target that they are happy with and is a priority for them. In this way, they will engage with the process better, and there is time to address other priorities further down the line. Simply imposing a target on someone is the surest way to a compliance culture with little chance of genuine, meaningful improvement.

Low stakes accountability

There does need to be some accountability in any performance management system, but teacher development is far more likely when there is trust (Kraft & Papay, 2014). Cortez-Ochoa et al (2018) found that performance management systems are more successful when they are focused on formative assessment, development and support rather than high stakes judgements. Rauch & Coe (2019) draw similar conclusions: “When evaluations of teaching are treated as formative processes, rather than summative, there is greater potential for teacher learning.”  

To this end, once initial targets have been set, subsequent termly reviews are just a conversation between teacher and appraiser framed around the question “How is it going?”. While teachers can provide some form of documented evidence if they wish, there is absolutely no demand for this and teachers are to be trusted that they are doing what they say they are doing. There is a space on the shared document to note whether a target is being met/working towards/not yet met, but this is really only a prompt to direct the conversation towards considering the progress made so far, the barriers that might be preventing progress, or whether it’s time to consider a further target. 

Reflections: how’s it going?

As with all new systems there have been some teething problems. While we’d tried to make it as simple as possible – just one shared document (we use Google Docs) which is ‘owned’ by the teacher and shared with their appraiser, I was still surprised at the variety of ways in which people managed to muck it up. But, as the system becomes part of the normal rhythms of the school, I’m sure it will run more smoothly.

The nature and quality of individual targets (as T&L lead I see everyone’s docs) is pretty varied. Although this was repeatedly explained, modelled, and presented with examples and non-examples, there is clearly still some work to do with a number of staff on what makes a good target, and how to identify specific action points. That said, it can be hard to judge the quality of targets on paper alone, and the conversation that happens between teacher and appraiser is key. In one of my own meetings a colleague wanted to work on giving more merits to students for homework. While on the face of it this didn’t seem to be the most meaningful area to work on (I’m yet to be convinced that the motivational benefits are really that strong), a little probing and questioning turned the conversation into a much more meaningful discussion about clarity of success criteria and modelling what excellence looks like.

So far feedback has been mostly positive. The appraisal meetings I’ve had with various HoDs have been really purposeful with colleagues genuinely engaging with the process and reporting that they have found similar in their own appraisal meetings within their teams. Many people have linked their targets to the whole-school teaching & learning CPD program, the shared principles of excellent teaching, or feedback received from lesson drop-ins; we are definitely moving more towards a coherent system in which teachers set goals that are important to them but still aligned with whole-school vision.

It’s early days yet, but I think we’ve started off in the right direction on this particular journey. As the system becomes embedded and part of the culture of the school, people are starting to see that performance management and appraisal don’t have to be dirty words.

*A note on choice of language here. I think both the terms performance management and appraisal have become pretty loaded, and unhelpfully so. That said, I don’t think there is a particularly better term available, and what’s more important is that there is a share understanding, within an organisation, of what the term means for us. When designing our new system I went for appraisal as it seemed slightly the lesser of two evils, and was shorter.

References

Coe, R., Aloisi, C., Higgins, S. and Major L.E. (2014). What makes great teaching? Review of the underpinning research. London: Sutton Trust

Cortez-Ochoa, A.A., Thomas, S., Tikly, L. and Doyle, H. (2018) International approaches to teacher assessment. Bristol Working Papers in Education, University of Bristol.

Gifford, J. et al (2016). Could do better? Assessing what works in performance management. CIPD Report. Available at: https://www.cipd.co.uk/knowledge/fundamentals/people/performance/what-works-in-performance-management-report

Helal, M. and Coeli, M. (2016). How Principals Affect Schools. Melbourne Institute Working Paper Series, Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research. Available at: https://melbourneinstitute.unimelb.edu.au/downloads/working-paper-series/wp2016n18.pdf

Kraft, M.A. and Papay, J.P. (2014). Can professional environments in schools promote teacher development? Explaining heterogeneity in returns to teaching experience. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 36 (4): 476-500

Rauch, C.J. and Coe, R. (2019) Evaluating and measuring teacher quality. Teacher CPD: International trends, opportunities and challenges, Chartered College of Teaching (10-14)

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