Appraise your appraisal


Like the daytime schedule on BBC2, there are some topics on Twitter that are as predictable in occurrence as an episode of Cash in the Attic. And, just as you don’t need to check the Radio Times to know that at half-ten this morning there will be another set of pensioners failing to fund that holiday in Crete by selling some old tut they’ve just rescued from their loft, you need never refresh your Twitter feed to see if we’re all still bickering about behaviour, progressives, traditionalists, Ofsted, the ethical implications of subtweeting or the statistical significance of a Twitter poll. The answer to all the above is: of course we are.

One topic however, resurfaces on an annual basis: staff appraisals. These threads are less Cash in the Attic and more Celebrity Masterchef.  It only happens once a year and each year you try to make it bigger and more effective with the promise that everyone will be ‘better’ by the end of it.

The question Headteachers, and presumably Gregg Wallace, always want to know however, is how to improve upon last year’s format so that you don’t have to repeatedly taste burnt risottos?

Actually, this is where the Celebrity Masterchef analogy probably ends. Why? Because Headteachers really don’t want to taste the educational equivalent of burnt risotto, and, the aim of appraisal is to try to get everyone through it and not have teachers crashing and burning (pardon the pun, Gregg, unless we’re talking home economics?) throughout the year until the school is left with only one teacher. That would not be a good appraisal system. In fact, appraisal is almost the complete opposite of Celebrity Masterchef. Setting up ridiculous challenges (teachers, you’ve got thirty minutes to plan a three part assembly to present to 900 kids and the four most highly regarded headteachers in the country…Go!) that will result in at least one person failing is not effective performance management. Although it might make good telly. No, forget Celebrity Masterchef. I only thought of it so I could use the phrase ‘don’t over-egg the pudding’ later on.
But, Heads are always interested in revamping their appraisal formats. Each year, the desperate plea goes out on Twitter: ‘please share your performance management arrangements, because I got nothing!’

I go through the same managerial crisis every year. I think back to the previous year, when I was so cocksure that my new system was going to revolutionise teachers’ professional development. Only to find that by Easter, nobody could remember where they saved their bloody targets let alone remember what they were.

Over the years, I’ve dabbled with getting teachers to set all the targets, you know, so they have ownership. I’ve tried setting all the targets myself, you know, so I have ownership, plus, the teachers last year complained that them having ownership was too stressful. I’ve set up multiple mid-year review processes that unanimously fail to happen, resulting in an inevitable July panic. I’ve tried giving four targets, two targets, how ever many you want targets, shared targets…these all seemed like good ideas at the time. I’ve given data targets. I’ve purposefully not given data targets. I’ve spent approximately 50 hours of my life explaining to governors why targets based on data are a necessity, followed by a further 103 hours telling them that they are now ‘not’ a good idea. I’ve linked target achievement to pay. I’ve graduated people’s targets linked to their position on the main pay scale. And, one year, I forgot to set any targets at all and just told everyone that Sean Harford had tweeted that this was a good idea.

In short, there ain’t nothing I don’t know about how to make appraisal not work.

True to form, this year, I’ve got it cracked. But, rather than bore you with the actual format, allow me to share with you my simple 5 rules (plus one) that inform my appraisal process.

Rule Number 0 – performance isn’t static.

There is nothing more depressing than setting appraisal targets for a teacher who does not believe they have anything to learn. There is nothing more dangerous than a school culture where teachers are wary of development as they fear it will be used as evidence against them. The appraisal process must be honest and open and, for that to happen, everyone within the organisation must understand that levels of performance are not static. Teachers don’t become ‘good’ and then ‘bad’ and then ‘good’ and then’ bad’. But teachers can change just as the class in front of them changes each year. Each change brings a challenge and some are harder to overcome than others. Leaders must not create a culture where a teacher is scared to admit they are struggling in case they stop being ‘judged’ as good. It is the purpose of the appraisal process to embrace contextual changes and adapt a teacher’s performance management based on the needs that they face right now. Teachers must be open to development and leaders must be ready to support. Everyone should be excited at the prospect that by the end of the year they will be in a stronger position than they were in September.

Rule Number 1 – link it with achievement.

I know, I know! This isn’t the done thing anymore and please don’t tell Jim Pembroke. But, I, personally, don’t think it’s a bad idea to focus teachers’ minds on getting as many children as possible ‘on track’ by the end of the year. I don’t care about measuring progress measures. (Total waste of time and, let’s face it: fiction.) I care about teachers making children even more on track and ready for their next year ahead. So, we look at where the children are and we look at their potential for the end of the year and set a target. The target will be aspirational. But only because I follow rule number 2…

Rule Number 2– it’s about professional dialogue.

I like talking to teachers. I enjoy watching them work and helping them. I want teachers to talk to me about their struggles and challenges. So, when we’ve set an aspirational target for a pupil and it’s not going well, despite the teacher’s best efforts, I like to know. Obviously, I like to know when it is working too and I learn a great deal from teachers who are having a positive impact on their pupils. For me, the decision regarding whether a teacher has met their achievement target is not about statistical success but about teachers’ professionalism in, and around, their successes and failures. If they tried everything to support a child and we’ve both reviewed the evidence, and, we have some insight for the next teacher so that they might succeed better next year….then I say that teacher has done a fine job. The success is not measured through cold data but through the quality of the professional dialogue that surround it.

Rule Number 3 – keep it real.

I always have a teaching target. And, the teaching target is pretty basic. Something along the lines of: teach brilliantly. The key to the teaching target’s success is in the tactics you ask the teacher to deploy in order to strengthen their practice. This will be informed by lesson observations, work monitoring, professional dialogue, etc. I’ll never ask a teacher to ‘do something’ that isn’t an organic part of their development. The beauty of this is that these tactics can get added to throughout the year. A great teacher may have, by the end of the year, worked on multiple tactics, way more than are captured during the first appraisal meeting. By the end of the year they will have robust evidence to show how the tactics impacted upon pupil achievement. If they don’t, or they can’t, then, well, that will be picked up by rule number 4.

Rule Number 4 – leaders have responsibilities too.
I fundamentally believe that it is the job of school leaders to identify if a teacher is in danger of not fulfilling their appraisal targets. And, if so, they have a duty to swoop in and support. It is not good enough for a teacher to carry on their year not knowing that in July I’ll be telling them they haven’t ‘passed’ their appraisal. They should know in advance and be supported so that that conversation never happens. If a teacher fails their appraisal then it may be that they were failed by their leaders.

Rule Number 5 – make sure leaders know about rule number 4.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it. But make sure it forms part of leaders’ appraisal. They have to know that it is expected of them to not only monitor but also support. Everything they do must be centred around the belief that they are improving teaching. Any monitoring must be about focusing on impact – and not just checking that systems are in place –  so that teaching across the school is truly strengthened.

And that’s it.

Simple. Streamlined. Reflective of the school’s needs and capturing where teachers naturally are in their own professional development. The phrase you want to hear most of all, at the end of the first appraisal meeting, is ‘that actually reflects what I’ll be doing every day’. If you hear that then you know you haven’t over-egged the pudding. (Boom!)