Does 'performance management' bother you?

When one dares to put oneself out in the world as some type of ‘expert’, in my case as a consultant, adult educator, curator of contemporary pedagogy/technology/leadership/play practices and online professional learning developer in 2016–7, one tends to be asked questions. Many of those asking questions can be answered simply with a link or two, others I cannot offer a great deal of assistance as they fall outside my expertise and yet others unknowingly flick a switch of, ‘Wow, I could say this… and this … and this…!!’
I had a question of that third kind. Yippee!
Susan’s QuestionI’ve just become a leader in my school and I have a small team of teachers I line manage. Do you know of any tools or forms that could be used for performance development meetings? As a school we have one but I’m interested to know what other leaders use and why they use it? Would you be able to help me with any ideas?

I’d been brewing a blog post about ‘performance management’ for a while. You see, basically the idea gets right up my nose! Not the best thing to say to Susan, a conscientious new leader, aware of the mandated responsibility to ‘manage performance’ of course, but let me explain what my problems are with the idea.

Some background first. My favourite piece of advice for new leaders is to have them always remember that they were identified as ‘leadership material’ because of their practices as a teacher and that this should be the base of their leadership behaviour. I point out that they no doubt exhibit contemporary pedagogy, have a mature and well thought through outlook on life and are skilled intra- and inter-personally in the classroom context.

There are traps for new leaders that stem from traditional and stereotypical views of what ‘a leader’ must be. Sadly some new leaders step straight into, ‘I know best’ territory and adopt ‘power over’ leadership dispositions. Reminders about how they operated as a teacher, what worked well WITH students, the attitudes they applied to their relationships seem to be an effective anchor point for the new role being undertaken.

In fact for me, as a principal, as a district leader and in a state-wide leadership role, remembering how I might have approached a challenge with my class, and considering how this could apply to my leadership role has always been helpful.

So back to ‘performance management’ and my ‘what would happen in a classroom’ reference point. 

From my very first class, I clearly understood that I could not ‘manage’ behaviour. If a student chose to act out or misbehave, there were many strategies I could bring into play, but I couldn’t ‘manage’ their behaviour, only the child could do that. I was a determined new teacher, and learned many and varied short term fixes, reward and punishment schemes, developed excellent relationships to build from and tried incredibly hard with a number of very challenging students. 
It wasn’t until I realised that I didn’t have anything more than some positional power to use OVER them, and that their scant regard for that power was making my life difficult, that I started to wonder how their lives had worked for them to be so oppositional, what the behaviour might in fact be covering up, and what their perspectives were on the reward of acting in such challenging ways. This shift in perspective has informed my decision making ever since, and when faced with challenging/resistant behaviour or unhappiness, in almost any context, I’ve learned to appreciate the other person’s perspective and to co-construct the way forward.

In that first classroom, I had a go at being a ‘shouter’ for about 2 minutes when behaviour was rowdy and inappropriate. I then abruptly stopped and quietly called the class to the carpet so that we could have a class meeting. I explained my dilemma. I felt that I was being pushed to ‘do the nasty teacher routine’, and that the last 2 minutes was an example of what that would be like. I told them that while it seemed to have ‘worked’ (I was, of course, aware that this ‘effectiveness’ was largely a shock factor), it wasn’t how I wanted to be with them and that I wanted them to help me to work out how I could help them to be responsible for themselves, their choices, their relationships and their success. It was a remarkable turning point in our relationship and in their willingness to share responsibility for working out how to go forward. My selection as a successful first year teacher to act as a role model to new first years, while in my second year, was icing on the cake. I loved telling my stories and helping others, but I loved working WITH students even more.

As a leader, faced with a mandate to ‘manage performance’, I had a new challenge to address. I didn’t believe in managing anyone else’s performance, he/she had to do it for themselves. I was very aware that every teacher I worked with had different needs, interests, motivations, dispositions and life plans. I am pretty sure there is no ‘one proforma’ and no ‘one set process’, that will meet Susan’s teachers’ needs. 

Given my early learning, it was also easy to explore possible teacher perspectives and to understand how my attempts to impose a system on them might be received! (Not well I think!)

So, I’d suggest Susan use her ‘what do I do in a classroom’ thinking to consider the importance of differentiation, of negotiating the kind of support different students need in different contexts and being open to feedback and renegotiation as required.

Instead of simply adopting the current school policy, I’d recommend co-construction of the way forward, which might look like this:

  • Starting with an initial whole group meeting to talk about the purpose of and everyone’s (including the Susan’s) experiences with ‘performance management’ to date. This meeting would explicitly identify Susan’s desire to co-construct, personalise and work with the team to create a system that works for everyone. The aim of the meeting would be to begin the process of developing some shared understandings about the purpose and processes that could be adopted. This meeting might include:

  • Co-constructing a list of ideas about ‘why we have performance management’ as a starting point. Potentially there may be some cynicism and that’s okay, it means that going thoughtfully will definitely be called for, and that this is a great place to start. When there has been a lot of bad experiences in a group, joint establishment of ‘protocols’ for working together are helpful. Asking the group for their advice about how Susan should manage this area of his/her responsibility will build trust and clearly signal that the relationship will not be a ‘power over’ one.

  • If the first part of the process was fruitful, a second process to identify what practices work and what ones don’t could be next. This might involve using one sticky note for every idea, e.g. green ones for what’s worked and pink ones for what hasn’t, and a request that people identify (in a de-identified/anonymous manner), practices that supported and things that hindered their learning and development as teachers. Once these ideas are recorded, it is useful to work together to group similar ideas and to draw up recommendations from the green successful practices and things to avoid from the pink sticky notes.

  • Potentially this is an opportunity to link to formative assessment practices and to establish ‘performance management’ Learning intentions and Success criteria. We know that learning is effective when there are clear goals and purposes, these processes work for curriculum and extra-curricula learning, so should do just the same for staff.

    • A shared learning intention for ‘performance management’ might be something like: To collaboratively support each other to be the best teachers that we can be.

    • The success criteria might include items such as:

      • We have individual learning goals.

      • We will use one non-instruction time per month to observe in another’s classroom.

      • We will provide feedback about strengths and one suggested growth point after each observation.

      • We will use one staff meeting per month to share our progress with our goals and ask for support with a challenge we are having.

      • We will prepare a report about our successes and next challenge once per term and share this with each other.

      • We understand that we have much to learn from and with each other and commit to our joint development for the sake of our students.

  • An additional process, that might be helpful to reach agreements, is to look at the current school/system performance management policy and its underpinning beliefs and recommended approaches. A comparison against the ideas generated through the earlier processes could lead to shared insights.

The next thing I’d suggest is the Susan have a follow-up 1–1 meeting with each teacher to talk about her/his own learning needs and interests, how he or she would like to be supported and challenged, and which of the list of strategies generated might work for her/him.

I am a firm believer in the idea that everyone should ‘manage up’. This means that I see it as my responsibility to gather evidence of my learning and growth and prepare a report for my line manager. I modelled this with my staff, for example co-constructing my performance plan with my staff and sharing my end of term ‘reports’ with my staff.

This would mean that my answer to Susan’s question about formats for performance plans, would be that the format will be the individual teacher’s choice. The school one could be used, but a blog, a journal, a narrative, an action list or any other format that meets the teacher/learner’s needs is what I’d suggest is used.

In contemporary pedagogy, we ask students to provide evidence of their learning, as teachers and leaders we should do the same.

In my time, I’ve worked with and seen a range of different ‘performance management’ processes. Actually, we usually called it ‘teacher learning’, but Susan can work with the staff to re-name it too if she wants, or she can ignore my ‘nose problem’ and call it performance management. 

These processes included:

  • Heartfelt pleas for feedback. Some teachers have rarely had any feedback about their practice and effectiveness and are desperate for feedback. In South Australia we have an amazing pedagogy statement Teaching for Effective Learning and accompanying Review Tools (line manager, peer teacher and student feedback tools), but wherever you are, there will be some materials to call up. This feedback might be requested from line managers or peers and I was always happy either way. What the teacher chose to change or learn as a result of the observation was my key interest.

  • Teams of 2 to 4 teachers who took responsibility for each other’s ‘performance management’ and feedback and actively shared plans, progress, learning and successes.

  • Teachers who committed to collecting audio or video of themselves in action and initially shared their analysis of their practice and often developed their collaboration and trust in their team, to a point where they could watch/listen to each other teach and provide feedback, and then also involve their line manager in the process. One thing that is challenging about someone going into the classroom to observe is the change in dynamics. This recording process overcame that challenge.

  • Staff meeting time that was dedicated to shared learning and collaboration. Learning from each other being seen as the best way to learn and grow as a professional. I think it is crucial to dedicate existing time allocations to teacher learning, not add it all to their workload.

  • Teachers who needed intensive support to lift their practice, and who worked best and most successfully when a leader took on that role.

  • Management of poor performance using systems guidelines.

  • Teachers who liked and benefited from the traditional once-a-term meeting model. These might be teacher or leader led and the agenda might be the teacher’s or leader’s (or both) responsibility.

Most ‘performance management’ policies describe meetings between a teacher and their line manager and some even outline the agenda. The process of ‘management’ is a flawed idea and the requirements are often leader centric and stipulated, so that it has little chance of it being a learning experience, and, as I’ve described, co-constructed opportunities for learning, collaboration and professional commitment to action are so much more than this.

Hopefully my nose will be safe and Susan will use her excellent classroom pedagogy to co-construct a successful learning experience for everyone!

Note: 2018 - Given that my latest research work calls for Teacher Voice in order to have student voice … I am even more committed to the ownership of teacher learning/professional development sitting WITH the teacher!