An Objective Perspective (2)

I blogged recently about my school’s decision to move away from teacher appraisal objectives based on pupil exam results, but I did not cover what we are going to use instead. In all honesty, this was largely because I was worried about all the flaws which others might find in our plans. But I think the previous post is incomplete on its own, so this one addresses our approach to appraisal moving forwards. I do not think there is a perfect system out there waiting to be discovered, and the only claims I am bold enough to make for what we are doing are that it is an honest attempt to improve on what came before, that it will give teachers more control over their professional development and that it will encourage evidence-informed practice.

What happens during appraisal will not be radically different from before (there will still be a meeting between the teacher and her line manager which will lead to the setting of three objectives). Our paperwork also looks fairly similar at first glance (self-review against Teacher Standards, review of last year’s objectives etc), although we have made some tweaks to the wording of each section. The main changes come in the section on objective-setting, where there is no longer a prompt to enter a pupil data statistic which will represent ‘success’ for a particular class in public exams. Fig.1 shows what this section of the new paperwork will look like.

Fig.1 – Framework for professional objectives

When deciding what sort of objectives teachers should set, we decided to keep a pretty structured framework with prompts, rather than giving complete freedom. Our thinking was that structure provides support, especially for teachers in the early stage of their careers. It also means that we can guide teachers towards goals which align with school priorities and which we believe will bring the greatest benefits to students. Designing a process like this is a tricky balancing act between organisational solidarity and individual autonomy and it is inevitable that compromises will have to be made on each side of the equation.

We considered what it is that the best teachers do without any prompting, in order to make themselves even better at their jobs. We settled on three things: they improve their knowledge of their subject and their craft, they reflect on and make improvements to their classroom practice, and they contribute positively to the teams in which they work, often giving freely of their own time in order to support others. We could not think of a better way to structure our framework for teacher objectives than to build it around these three things.

Objective 1: Professional Knowledge

This is the aspect of our framework where change is most obvious, partly because it replaces the old pupil data objective and partly because I do not think it is common practice for schools to explicitly prioritise the development of staff knowledge in this way. We have done so as part of a wider focus on teacher learning at my school, encompassing a more evidence-informed approach to CPD in recent years. We have made use of members our teaching and learning team of expert practitioners, led by an assistant head, to develop knowledge in particular areas (this year the foci were working/long-term memory and the improvement of student writing) and to deliver large parts of our whole school INSET over a series of sessions. We have also devoted more time to subject-specific INSET and have broken it up into short chunks over the course of the year, giving heads of department freedom over what to address and encouraging things like collaborative planning for upcoming topics and addressing students’ misconceptions.

Like many schools, we have also taken big steps to give student knowledge much greater weight in our curriculum over the last couple of years, especially at KS3, and it makes sense to prioritise teacher knowledge as part of this development. We want teachers to be seen as experts and to be comfortable with this status.

We will ask staff to choose a knowledge objective in one of the following areas:

  • Subject knowledge – we feel, like others, that the dominance of pedagogy over curriculum for many years throughout the profession has led to this form of teacher expertise being undervalued (Boxer 2019).
  • Pedagogical knowledge, including pedagogical content knowledge specific to the subject.
  • Wider professional knowledge – e.g. as leadership experts have pointed out, somebody stepping up to a new role will need to develop domain-specific expertise in order to do it well (Rees 2019).

In order to to enable our teachers to meet their chosen objectives, we encourage colleagues with expertise in particular areas of the curriculum to teach their colleagues in subject-specific INSET, we fund membership of subject associations, we support teachers to undertake qualifications like CTeach and we encourage the reading of educational research (e.g. through a journal club). To move away from the traditional CPD model of ‘going on a course’ of unknown quality in the hope of a tasty lunch, and incurring significant cost to the school in the process, we are also introducing the option of taking time out of work instead to read selected, relevant material. This does not mean a rejection of course attendance, but we want staff to think intelligently about whether it will be the best way to increase what they know.

Objective 2: Teaching Practice

This objective will look familiar to most people who have gone through a performance management process in a school. We took the view that the system wasn’t fundamentally broken, so there was no point in trying to fix it for the sake of making changes. However, we have tried to ensure tightness by asking teachers to be as specific as possible about the aspect of their practice they wish to improve. We will also encourage staff to think about pedagogy which works for their subject, rather than simply picking something generic (Counsell 2016), and we will give suggestions which draw on recent whole school CPD foci for those less inclined to investigate new routes for themselves.

This objective will be linked to our lesson observation process. Over recent years, under the intelligent leadership of the assistant head who oversees teaching and learning, we have moved very strongly towards a coaching model. Most observations are now carried out by trained members of the teaching and learning team, looking at and giving feedback on an aspect of practice identified in advance by the teacher, rather than attempting to comment on everything about the lesson and determine how effective it was. It makes sense to ask teachers to identify this focus during appraisal and revisit it during the course of the year when they are observed.

Objective 3: Team Contribution

This objective has particular resonance for me, because I see it as a way of acknowledging the colleagues who actually make schools tick by improving the quality of education for students well beyond their own classroom. I think that one of the flaws of the insistence on ‘whole school impact’ in order to justify the progression to and within the UPS bands is that it has led to a lot of activities being undertaken purely for the purpose of ticking this box. It gives a strong incentive to run cross-curricular projects or clubs which involve announcements in briefing, ‘all staff’ emails and other things which give the organiser a high profile within the school and get noticed. These things are not bad per se and almost certainly have some value for students, but I wonder if they are always the most effective use of a teacher’s time and energy. It concerns me that they also put quiet, introverted staff at a disadvantage in terms of career progression. These colleagues may be no less effective, but may find it harder to meet UPS criteria which demand ‘whole school impact’.

As a result of this process, I think that things which have significantly positive impact on colleagues, and indirectly on the education of students, can sometimes be overlooked because they are much less attention-grabbing. For example, nobody makes an announcement in briefing to say they are going to update a section of the Year 9 scheme of work, or sends an ‘all staff’ email to inform people that they have talked an inexperienced colleague through an upcoming topic, but these activities are some of the most valuable things a teacher can do and I think that appraisal should encourage them. They may not have ‘whole school impact’, whatever that means, but I think that meaningful contributions within a department will always outweigh tokenistic activities across the whole school.

That said, we have not specified which team our teachers should refer to when they set this objective. They are all part of pastoral teams as well as departments, and it is perfectly valid for an objective to be set with a focus on the tutors within a particular year group. There are also various informal teams within the school (e.g. those who deliver the EPQ), as well as the whole staff body, which is itself a team. We are open-minded about what teachers choose to prioritise here, under guidance from their line managers.

Bringing Things Together

It remains to be seen how well our new paperwork will work over its first cycle. There will inevitably be unforeseen issues and things which need to be ironed out, but I hope that the overall impact is positive and I don’t see how it can be damaging. One thing I will be interested to find out is whether staff choose to set their three objectives on different aspects of their teaching or connect them together with a unifying thread (like the example in Fig.2). I like the neatness of the connected approach, but we decided that to insist on it would be too prescriptive and would reduce people’s flexibility to work towards more than one goal over the course of the year.

Fig.2 – Example of what the completed objective framework might look like

The debates have been held at senior leadership level, the suggestions of union reps incorporated, the governors kept informed and the paperwork shared with staff; we are now committed to the change.  We are confident that it will mean we are working within the letter and the spirit of the Teacher Workload Advisory Group’s stipulation that, ‘Teachers should have goals that are within their control, that are closely tied to genuinely actionable behaviours, and that are aspirational yet achievable’ (TWAG 2018). We are also hopeful that it will promote a culture in which teachers are encouraged to work in evidence-informed ways and are free to ‘improve not prove’ (Moyse 2019). I am certainly looking forward to working with the new framework and I hope my colleagues are as well. Perhaps in a year’s time I will blog about how well it has gone.

References

Boxer A (2019) https://achemicalorthodoxy.wordpress.com/2019/02/19/teaching-and-learning-is-dead/ (accessed 190619)

Counsell C (2016) https://thedignityofthethingblog.wordpress.com/2016/01/11/genericisms-children/ (accessed 190619)

Moyse C (2019) https://chrismoyse.wordpress.com/2019/01/30/growing-great-teachers-improve-not-prove/ (accessed 190619)

Quigley A (2018) Closing the Vocabulary Gap. Abingdon: Routledge

Rees T (2019) https://schoolsweek.co.uk/substance-over-style-is-the-key-to-great-school-leadership/ (accessed 190619)

Teacher Workload Advisory Group (2018) ‘Making Data Work’. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/754349/Workload_Advisory_Group-report.pdf

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