I was so pleased with this year’s appraisal process. I kept it simple. I stripped it back. More importantly – I thought – the teachers had ownership over their targets.* You may not believe me but most teachers seemed to leave the meeting with a spring in their step. They were, dare I say, excited that we’d identified something for them to focus on throughout the year. We didn’t worry too much about past lesson observations or previous years’ foci. Instead, we had an honest conversation about their year so far. This may sound odd but I like to expect my teachers to struggle. No matter how good they are, or successful they have been in the past, I find it’s healthier to presume that this could be the year it all goes wrong! I appreciate that on the surface that sounds quite negative but I assure you it’s not. I think it’s quite positive. It certainly takes the pressure of feeling that past successes must be improved upon without fail or else it’s capability time. This way you’re allowed to be human. You can be faced with whatever challenge is in your classroom safe in the knowledge that you can come to me and I won’t say ‘A teacher of your calibre shouldn’t find that a challenge. Oh my, I thought you were good!’ So, in they came with comments like:
- Man, I thought I was good with behaviour but this class, WOW! I’m going to need some help with this, Boss.
- I’ve got three new arrivals, Chief. I can’t understand them. They can’t understand me. Help me out please.
- Crikey these lot are clever! I’ll need some advice about how to stretch them, Big Guy.
- Hey Ice, what’s PDA? Our SENCO says I’ve got four kids with it. Help me out.
It was great. Honest conversations about areas of professional development they needed help with. That’s what appraisals are for. Not regurgitating tired Ofsted criteria or vanilla statements from the school development plan. This year, we were keeping it real. Teachers felt good because they could talk about a difficulty without being judged for it. I felt good because all these targets would improve what we were putting in place for the children.
I was psyched. I was pumped. I was totally ready for my own appraisal.
My Chair of Governors asked me to consider what targets I would want and email them across before the meeting. I dutifully reflected on the SDP and came up with four or five robust targets that would surely improve the school. They were linked to achievement, teaching, learning, behaviour, leadership and my personal development.
I attended my appraisal with a panel of governors and was shown four targets that pretty much had nothing to do with what I had prepared. Only one of them contained the briefest of nods towards what I thought should be my focus. I was a little stunned and a little more than disappointed.
One of the governors asked how I felt. I was respectful, but it was pretty clear to everyone in the room that I wasn’t exactly sold on the four targets I was clearly going to be given.
We discussed them. The cases put forward were:
ME: These don’t have anything to do with the areas of the school that I am actually accountable for.
THEM: We totally trust you to lead successfully on teaching and behaviour so why not push you out of your comfort zone.
ME: School improvement isn’t comfortable!
THEM: School improvement is what you will always do. These targets reflect the unique challenging circumstances the school, nay all schools, are facing.
ME: Oh very bloody clever!
I won’t go into detail about what the targets were but, to be fair to the governors, they had a point. Their target suggestions may have less to do with my job description than previous years but they do represent the reality of running a school in 2016-17. It is not going to be easy and, on reflection, it is only right that my targets be focussed on the nitty-gritty of the school I am leading. Without us knowing it, the governors and I had approached the appraisal process in almost identical ways. We had both asked our appraisees to consider the year ahead, focusing on the potential failures before making that the subject of the future. And the fact that the teachers seemed more excited about their targets than I did about mine maybe says more about the state of education rather than the appraisal focus.
Reflecting back, I now consider the teachers, walking out of their appraisals with a spring in their step, to be like children walking out of the cinema after watching ‘Star Wars: A New Hope’. Whereas I felt more like a depressed child crying all the way home after watching Luke get his hand chopped off in ‘The Empire Strikes Back’. It may be stark. It may appear bleak. But it is exactly what it needs to be. I am slowly concluding that my appraisal targets for this year may be the best I’ve ever had.
Now all I need to do is make sure that, in a year’s time, my appraisal review completes the trilogy and the governors will celebrate ‘The Return of the Jedi’.
*Well, not the achievement targets; I still set those. ‘SLT scum!’ I hear some of you scream. Yeah, I know, I know. It’s old-fashioned, but it’s my school and I’m setting achievement targets.