Appraisal: down but maybe not quite out!

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So, it’s that time of the school year when teachers dust off their performance management paperwork, remind themselves of the targets set 12 months previously, and then cobble together some ‘evidence’ to meet them. In some schools this is a routine, perfunctory process, a bit time consuming and inconvenient, but nevertheless relatively benign; in others, however, it is still a bit time consuming and inconvenient, but with a lot more additional stress, with exam performance targets under close scrutiny and pay awards in the balance. In either case, the whole process is a monumental waste of time.

In recent weeks two very different responses to the future of annual appraisal have emerged. For some, the whole process is so flawed, broken and inefficient that the only logical cause of action is to get rid of it completely. Jack Marwood’s post on the subject is also instructive here. At the other end of the spectrum are those who also see the process as flawed, broken and inefficient but not necessarily terminally so. For these, a more humane, purposeful and impactful appraisal procedure is possible – one that balances the needs of the individual teacher with the needs of the students in the school. Whilst I can certainly see the appeal of jettisoning the behemoth that is performance management, I think there is still hope: that appraisal can be done better.

Appraisal and professional growth

This week we took our first significant step towards building a better appraisal model. We believe the changes that we have introduced will over time help to develop teachers and improve the quality of teaching and learning in the school. By taking out the deeply flawed and reductive measure of exam performance, and shifting the emphasis towards disciplined self-enquiry, we have begun to see teachers setting more meaningful, focused and impactful objectives for themselves. The fact that these identified goals are then married to provision from the school professional development programme is, we think, much more rigorous and much more likely to bring about change in the classroom.

Every teacher and classroom based staff member identifies two professional learning goals – one that relates to their subject pedagogy and framed as a target; the other more enquiry based and formed as a question. Both objectives are informed by reflection into current practice coupled with anticipation of future challenge. A number of tools have been created to guide this enquiry process, which include looking at the broad range of student outcome data (assessment, book learning, survey results) as well as more evaluative teacher reflection information. The introduction of a learning journal knits the whole process together, and is where all ongoing professional development activity will be recorded, whether it is wider reading, CPD session summaries, planning ideas or reflection notes. At the review stage we want the conversation to be about lessons learned around understanding teaching and learning, not crude interrogations of decontextualised numerical data.

Perhaps the other important change to the way we are developing appraisal is giving it the time and respect that it deserves. I have written before about our new Wednesday afternoon Professional Growth programme, where we have two hours enshrined CPD every week. This structure allows us the scope to invest in getting professional learning right. Last week we set aside some of our two hour training slot to afford staff time and space to think carefully about their development and what they need to focus on to improve and make a difference to the students that they teach or support. We also used took yesterday as INSET day so that the vast majority of staff could have a sustained period of time to discuss their professional learning – to look closely at what has gone before to better plan for what lies ahead.

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Subject pedagogy goal

This objective is very much focused on developing an aspect of the teaching craft. It is highly specific, both in terms of the actual aspect of pedagogy identified, but also in relation to the stated student outcomes that will follow as a result of any change in teacher behaviour. Last year we introduced lesson study into the school through the fantastic Teacher Development Trust. The process of setting an enquiry question at the heart of the lesson study model greatly informed the way we are framing subject pedagogy targets. We want to get much better at concentrating our efforts where they are most required and these kinds of focused goals do just that, as well help us to measure the impact of our professional development programme on student outcomes by evaluating the impact of individual training plans and looking at the cumulative effect of those plans across the whole school.

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Research and Enquiry Question

Unlike the subject pedagogy goal, which focuses more on improvements to the art of teaching, the enquiry question is geared towards reaching a better understanding of student learning. The school has three main focuses in relation to better understanding how students learn: metacognition, short and long-term memory and feedback. Enquiry questions are set in light of one of these three overarching themes and reflect the convergence of individual teacher need and whole school priority. The theme inherent in the question determines the learning community that the teacher is part for the rest of the year – an iterative process that begins with a research overview, wider reading and group discussion before moving towards collaborative planning and individual on-going enquiry supported by a lead learner. Accountability is not so much about providing a definitive answer to the question, but rather demonstrating a definitive sense that the question has prompted deeper understanding of the underlying issues and how they might be addressed.

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This is by no means a perfect model – far from it. It will obviously take a few years to refine the process, and we must make sure that we continue to provide the time necessary throughout the year for meaningful conversations about the impact of the professional learning on what happens in the classroom. Gone must go the days of meeting once a year to set crude performance targets that everyone forgets about until 12 months down the line. We are already thinking about affording the interim review the same status as the annual review by giving over another INSET day to evaluate progress and adjust development plans accordingly.

Appraisal directly linked to unreliable performance outcomes does not work – it breeds a culture of fear and inertia, when what we want is continual professional learning that leads to one or two informed intentional changes aimed where the need is the greatest. We hope our model is moving closer in this direction.

Thanks for reading.