The performance management silly season is in full swing.
Teachers up and down the country are currently psyching themselves up for the one thing they really don’t need at the moment – their annual appraisal meeting. Armed only with graphs, charts and folders stuffed with just about anything they can lay their hands on, the teaching workforce is about to go into battle.
They are about to be measured.
You could be forgiven for thinking that there isn’t still an international pandemic going on, because nothing will stand in the way of the annual appraisal meeting. That includes Ofsted, who as we know, are coming to visit a school near you. They may even be signing in as you read this, mindful of course that they only want you to do what you normally do, even though everything that you are currently doing is about as far removed as normal as ever. Maybe they missed the memo on the pandemic.
Right now, though, you’ve got far more important things to be worrying about. Like staying alive, looking after your own family's welfare, and that of the pupils you teach and the colleagues you work with.
Appraisals never motivated me. By the time the clocks had changed mid-autumn, I’d have pretty much forgotten all my objectives. I’ve yet to meet the teacher who wakes up excited at the prospect of meeting one of their targets. It’s not why we went into teaching.
The appraisal process in its current form is underwhelming at the best of times, and even more so now, in the wake of the pandemic when data is utterly meaningless. Post-COVID, we’re quite rightly seeing lots of talk around not wanting to go back to ‘the old ways of doing things’. The pressures on teacher wellbeing have never been so great, and in the absence of any worthwhile comparative assessment data, we need to do something different. If we do, we could ensure that deep-rooted professional learning and development is as meaningful and worthwhile as it is robust. We must not squander this opportunity.
We are not afraid of accountability. Bring it on. But only if it is purposeful and developmental so that we can get better at what we do and how.
The days of appraisal simply being a review of your job description are long gone. Yes, the governors can hold you to account, but they don't need to hijack the appraisal process in order to do that.
Appraisal is about professional growth, and should focus only on the things that are important to you and the school right now. Appraisal is about asking the question: "How can you develop as an individual and in so doing develop those around you?" And then the follow-up is, "How can we support you with this?"
We should be immersing our appraisal conversations in language and metaphor associated with the school culture, such as values, purpose, mission and vision. Empowerment, autonomy, agency and grit. Not flightpaths, datasets and quartiles.
Here, then, are five things that I believe will improve the current appraisal format:
1. Go long
Abandon the annual high stakes model of backward-looking rating and ranking, and instead opt for a more developmental approach. By focusing on longer-term coaching for growth with built-in milestones, teachers will be more likely to engage with the process and find it meaningful. This will also help schools build a culture of continual improvement, with wellbeing, openness and trust at the core.
2. Ditch the data
Avoid only going for things that are easily measurable, like assessment and attendance data. These are important, but not when used to measure the impact a teacher has. Yes, it’s sensible to have targets that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely, but try to also aim for ones that are PURE – Positively stated, Understood, Relevant and Ethical. The latter is particularly important for intrinsic motivation and trust.
3. Stay in the loop
Insist on building in meaningful time to check-in with a trusted colleague to reflect on how things are progressing. Checking-in isn’t checking-up, and it doesn’t have to be with your appraiser. If you have a coach or mentor, even better. The focus should be on keeping the feedback loop alive so that you feel supported and know how to improve.
4. Experiences are key
Meaningful growth occurs best when you have safe opportunities to take risks, try new things, and get things wrong. Psychological safety is essential here, where vulnerabilities are celebrated. Avoid the trap of ‘going on a course’ to fix the problem, which will seldom change what you do. Instead, aim for school-based CPD experiences that are underpinned by what works, such as the latest research or evidence-informed practice.
5. Be social
When two or more teachers work together on shared goals, the potential to scale up the resulting impact is profound. Co-invention is essential when improving performance, so try and assemble a group with similar objectives so that you can all work on your goals in a supportive and collaborative manner. (This also makes things a lot more fun and purposeful. We also work harder as well if we see value in what we do as a team.)
Schools cannot transform their appraisal culture overnight, but what they can do in the short term is respond to the emotional and wellbeing needs of their staff. Remove all unnecessary reliance on meaningless data and instead choose to be more holistic.
If that doesn’t happen, then any long-term attempts at fixing the problem may well prove futile, especially if there aren’t any teachers left in the profession in the first place.
Andrew's new book, 'The Authentic Leader' is out next year, published by Bloomsbury. 'The Art of Standing Out' is available on Amazon. We work with a number of schools and trusts on appraisal (including for the CEO) so please get in touch via our website if you'd like to know more.
A version of this post first appeared in Teachwire in 2020.