Appraisal: Gentle Pressure Relentlessly Applied

Much has been written about the issues surrounding accountability in UK schools. Part 1 of the appraisal series was all about the tension between what the appraisers and appraisees are looking for in the appraisal process. In this blog I want to tackle the first big question I arrived at in my musings:

How do we get all leaders, some of whom may have spent their entire careers being told that appraisal is about judgement, on board with the idea that it needs to be first and foremost developmental in nature?

In the latest issue of Impact Chris Larvin (2021) talks about ‘the accountability paradox’. The paradox being that “the mechanisms designed to improve systems actually threaten them and discourage qualities that support reasonable behaviours” (Larvin, 2021). Teachers accountable for their students’ results will focus on teaching to the test instead of developing their practice. In secondary, this may result in less time being spent on planning and marking for the non-exam classes while in primary, less time spent on subjects students are not tested on. Ball (2003 and 2012) has long argued that the UK accountability systems have resulted in ‘terrors of performativity’ where teachers are judged for performing and accounting for a performance of tasks “or displays of ‘quality’, or ‘moments’ of promotion or inspection.” (Ball 2003, p. 216) We have all seen it with brilliant evidence-based strategies turned into tick box nightmares: assessment for learning ending up as ten mini-plenaries a lesson without much thought about how the information gained through the process should be used or Assessing Pupil Progress, the now long forgotten APP, being turned into a bureaucratic filing cabinet horror show. How many leaders in today’s education remember the days before league tables? Not many is my guess. Okay, so we have a problem. How will we solve it?

Evans (2021) in his excellent blog on improvement makes an important point about teacher buy-in and motivation. “Motivation doesn’t always proceed improvement.” (Evans, 2021) When staff see the impact of a strategy, the buy-in follows. Bambrick-Santoyo makes a similar point in Driven by Data 2.0 (2019). We shouldn’t be killing ourselves to persuade staff before getting started. If the strategy is effective and has a direct impact on them, they will buy into it when they see the results. The key here is that what you do needs to be meaningful and have a positive impact rather than be performative in nature. Thinking in terms of what needs to happen and not how the teacher will get there helps me stay off the performative path and grant the teachers their autonomy. 

Both Fletcher-Wood (2019) and Ainsworth (2017) talk about using nudge theory with students to help them shape their habits. Why not do it with staff too? After all, we all stay on the right side of the road when driving thanks to the painted lines, walk across the road a little quicker as the little green man flickers and apparently, some men get better at peeing when given something to aim for. Bravo gents! In addition to this, Bambrick-Santoyo (2016 and 2019) advocates the use of scripts and models of excellence. I wholeheartedly agree with him on the power of these. And let’s not forget the king of leadership, Sinek (2011), who is forever reminding us to start with why. 

Taking all of these into account, how about we try this:

  • Plan an appraisal timeline with built-in mid- and end-review points and a few informal check-ins in between.
  • In the whole staff briefing, remind staff why we do appraisal and who it benefits. There is an increasing body of research (Wiliam, 2016 and Zwart et al., 2014) showing that a strength-based approach results in a statistically significant increase in feelings of autonomy and self-efficacy in coaching others so make this introduction all about focusing on developing strengths not weaknesses. My colleague once told me that an appraisee leaving their appraisal meeting should be like Mumble in Happy Feet, feeling happy and inspired. Even if things aren’t going great, they need to feel you believe in them being able to develop. I think I may use this image as yet another nudge.
  • Provide templates and models of excellent targets and appraisal reports from the start so everyone knows what we are aiming for. Make them developmental in nature so they fit in with formative and surplus models (Chow et al. 2002, Stronge, 2006 and Didau, 2020).
  • Provide appraisers with scripts and prompts for their appraisal conversations. Again make them all about developing the teacher, not judging them.
  • Get them into a room practising with other appraisers. Heck, if you have willing volunteers record a model conversation. If you have the capacity, offer coaching for those who need it. 
  • Buy Didau’s Intelligent Accountability: Creating the conditions for teachers to thrive (2020) and Myatt’s High Challenge, Low Threat: How the Best Leaders Find the Balance (2016) for your CPD library or even better gift it to all your appraisers and spend part of your senior or middle leadership meetings discussing takeaways from these books. This will give them the opportunity to challenge ideas and you a chance to address their concerns in a safe environment. After all, you are talking about books, not your own professional beliefs.
  • Utilise the power of corridor conversations and check in to see how things are going with both appraisers and appraisees. You know that if they are not going great, they will tell you.
  • Throughout the year prompt your appraisers to check in with their appraisees informally whether by chatting to them at break or in the corridor. Provide a script and get the senior leaders to check in with their appraisees first so they can model it. Interestingly enough, a request for such check-ins was echoed over and over again in interviews with appraisees I recently conducted for my MA assignment.
  • Then back to that corridor talk to see if the check-ins are happening.
  • Keep an eye on topics staff are interested in and send PD offers and blogs to specific staff to show them you remember what they are interested in. Include the appraisers in those emails to model focus on development.
  • When you get to mid-year and end-year reviews, reshare the models of reports and scripts for the appraisers. Get them practising again.
  • And always nudge, nudge and nudge in the run-up to any deadline asking if any support is needed and if you can help in any way, always with a smile on your face. Nudging is much easier than chasing those who haven’t met the deadline.

This is my ‘gentle pressure relentlessly applied’ approach. It’s not rocket science but I can only hope that as appraisers practise their ‘developmental’ scripts and see the impact of it on their appraisees, they will begin to see the value of formative and surplus models of appraisal. I’d better start drafting those models.

References:

Ainsworth, P. (2017) Changing Classrooms: One Nudge At A Time. Teacher Toolkit. Available at: https://www.teachertoolkit.co.uk/2017/03/11/changing-classrooms-one-nudge-at-a-time/  

Bambrick-Santoyo, P. (2016). Get better faster: a 90-day plan for coaching new teachers. San Francisco, CA : John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Bambrick-Santoyo, P. (2019). Driven by Data 2.0. San Francisco, California : Jossey-Bass

Chow, A. P. Y., Wong, E. K. P., Yeung, A. S., & Mo, K. W. (2002) Teachers’ perceptions of appraiser-appraisee relationships. Journal of Personnel Evaluation in Education, 16(2), 85–101.

Didau, D. (2020) Intelligent Accountability: Creating the conditions for teachers to thrive. Woodbridge: John Catt Educational Ltd.

Evans, M. (2021) Getting better all the time. Edu Contrarian. Available at: https://educontrarianblog.com/2021/05/09/getting-better-all-the-time/ [Accessed 14 May 2021]

Fletcher-Wood, H. (2019) Timely nudges with behavioural psychology: challenge and key ideas. Improving Teaching. Available at: https://improvingteaching.co.uk/2019/02/10/timing-it-right-with-behavioural-psychology-key-ideas-challenge/ [Accessed 14 May 2021]

Larvin, C. (2021) The Accountability Paradox. Impact Journal of The Chartered College of Teaching. Issue 12 Summer 2021 [online].  Available at: https://impact.chartered.college/article/the-accountability-paradox/ [Accessed 14 May 2021]

Myatt, M. (2016) High challenge, Low Threat. 1st ed. Woodbridge: John Catt Educational Ltd.

Sinek, S. (2011) Start with Why. Harlow, England: Penguin Books.

Stronge, J. H. (2006) Evaluating teaching: a guide to current thinking and best practice, 2nd edition. Thousand Oaks: Corwin Press.

Wiliam, D. (2016). Leadership for teacher learning: creating a culture where all teachers improve so that all students succeed. West Palm Beach, FL : Learning Sciences International.

Zwart, R. & Korthagen, Fred & Attema-Noordewier, Saskia. (2014). A strength-based approach to teacher professional development. Professional Development in Education. 41. 10.1080/19415257.2014.919341. 

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