Appraisal: Can we talk about good professional dialogue?

Written by: Sean Harris | Published:
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Schools within the Consilium Academies MAT are using professional development discussions to secure school improvement, boost teacher development and ensure that teachers have the opportunity to talk. Sean Harris finds out more


David Clayton’s passion for professional development is infectious.

CEO of Consilium Academies in the North of England, Mr Clayton and his team believe that too much time is spent in schools forensically plotting appraisal targets into online software programmes without any developmental discussion having taken place.

He told me: “We wanted to move away from this. Appraisals should be about every teacher and support staff member getting the opportunity to take ownership of their development and considering why they entered the profession.

“It should be about them considering what steps they need to take to develop in their roles and working with managers and mentors to achieve this. It’s about an investment in people, and this requires a dialogue.”


The PDR cycle

Leadership teams at Consilium Academies have taken a step back to ensure that the professional development and review (PDR) cycle is less of a process and more of a dialogue-informed approach to looking at teacher and staff development.

Whatever terminology is adopted – “appraisal”, “performance management”, “data-review meetings” – these meetings are intended to support teacher performance.

“These meetings should be about a discussion between two professionals,” Mr Clayton continued, “it should never become a box-ticking exercise that is done to teachers or any professional.”

Mr Clayton recalls a scenario early in his career as a school leader when, during their appraisal meeting, a line manager had their back to him the whole time, hastily inputting Mr Clayton’s comments and reflections into an online programme designed to ease the “burden” of the appraisal process for busy school leaders.

“There was no dialogue,” he recalled, “with their back to me the whole time, I remember feeling very let down, and that the process had been a massive missed opportunity.”


Developing trust

Day et al (2009, 2010) provide some commentary on the habits of effective leaders in schools. Effective leaders define their values and the vision to raise expectations; they build trust by providing clear direction and ensure that collaboration is built internally as a way of strengthening teacher development.

Point et al (2008) cite effective leaders as those which emphasise the value of leadership as a supporting mechanism, evaluating and developing teacher quality. For the team at Consilium Academies, this is at the heart of the PDR cycle.

Mr Clayton acknowledges that, like other trusts, Consilium had fallen into the habit of approaching the PDR cycle as an administrative process and that this was impacting school performance.

“We still use a process, but it is now built on opportunities for self-reflection and the role of line management is to help identify the granular steps that individuals can take to enhance their performance and achieve their aspirations.

“We took a step back from the process that we had in place and realised that it wasn’t serving the people that the system was designed for.”

Last year, Consilium dropped performance-related-pay, ensuring that the PDR cycle moved from an administrative process to one built on self-reflection and driven by the aspirations of individuals.

Ahead of each PDR meeting, colleagues complete a self-reflection process and this ensures that the individual teacher or support-staff member takes ownership of their review in a way that is meaningful to them and their role.

Rather than a system-driven review, professionals are tasked with contemplating questions such as the achievements of which they are proudest, what they would like their further professional trajectory to be, and the times in their role over recent months when they have been most energised.

Of course, individuals have opportunity to consider their own developmental areas too. Mr Clayton continued: “By giving colleagues the opportunity to consider where their own developmental areas or ‘blind spots’ are, we end up with teams that feel empowered. It isn’t softer or less challenging, but is driven from the aspirations of the individual and this is critical to their and our whole trust desire to keep getting better.”


Modelling challenging dialogue

Another key aim for Mr Clayton and the leadership team is to avoid a trust made up of individual schools working in silos. Ensuring consistently high standards of CPD and PDR across the whole trust is a high priority: “We like our colleagues to feel part of a team of 810 colleagues serving almost 7,000 pupils across one collaborative trust,” Mr Clayton explained.

All leaders across the trust are challenged to ensure that any performance-related discussion is non-transactional. In addition to self-reflection built into the PDR discussions, leaders are prompted to ensure that all conversations of this nature are clear and that, above all, leaders are effective listeners too. As part of this process, the trust has spent considerable time ensuring that myth-busting takes place to debunk ill-informed ideas of challenging conversations and what it means to hold others to account.

“Some leaders in schools hear phrases like ‘stepping up the challenge’ and think that this means they need to start being really difficult and impersonal with colleagues,” Mr Clayton said, “but this often just leads to staff feeling demotivated and unappreciated.”

Instead, they have organised a host of CPD and leadership meetings that help leaders to practise modelling the right techniques to others and how to facilitate discussions about challenging behaviours, while also maintaining integrity, kindness and being deliberate in their conversation.


Transforming Teaching

Staff have recognised a shift in the response of leaders. One support staff member told me: “Nobody has ever taken this level of interest in my development before.” The new processes are supporting their ability to retain and recruit staff too – Consilium has observed a record number of applications to posts this year and was able to appoint a head of CPD to ensure that these developmental discussions are followed by meaningful CPD opportunities.

Leadership and teaching teams within the Trust have been working alongside coaches at Ambition Institute with a renewed focus on teacher development and curriculum leadership, having identified more forensically the needs of their staff through the PDR cycles.

For example, Heworth Grange School in Tyne and Wear partnered with teams at Ambition Institute to co-design a Transform Teaching programme. Teachers and curriculum leaders in the school are working alongside coaches and expert facilitators at Ambition to embed a whole-school teacher development approach.

Teachers are receiving fortnightly professional development sessions which enable them to consider core symptoms in their classrooms, such as gaps in student knowledge caused by lockdown or pupils struggling to retain key information. Research and the science of effective instruction is then explored to work with teachers to help them consider the best approaches to addressing these symptoms.

Like with the PDR process itself, headteacher Allie Denholm and her senior leaders knew they had to create the right conditions to ensure this training has impact. Another strand of the programme involves leaders at Heworth Grange working alongside experienced coaches and system-leaders to help them implement the changes and access conferences with other peers working in similar schools through the Ambition Institute network.

As with the PDR processes, school leaders across the trust care about research-informed approaches to school improvement too, so were attracted to the road-tested Transforming Teaching model, which has been applied to other schools across the North of England.


Granular steps for leaders

It is well documented that school leaders can function as a source of influence and direction, but that leadership roles are also becoming more complex and wide-ranging (Hopkins, 2008; Leithwood, 2001; Louis & Robinson, 2012). It is therefore essential that PDR serves leaders and colleagues to lead influence in complex times.

Mr Clayton offers the following questions to system leaders as a means of encouraging other senior leadership teams to review, improve and adapt their PDR to achieve better results for pupils and professionals...

What do your staff think? “Find out from staff if your current process is working. This may reveal some unsettling results, but do staff feel empowered and valued by the PDR process? Do they think leaders care about their practice and their own aspirations in the role? If not, then it isn’t working.”

Is the system driving the discussion? “If you’ve got a system driving the discussion then it needs to be stopped. The dialogue is critical to the process. Include a core element of self-reflection and remove any sense of the process that involves heavy administrative tasks such as excessive paperwork or logging information into online software programmes.”

When did we last take a step back from it? “When did you last review the review process? It may be that leaders and colleagues are in a habit of following a procedural way of doing PDR without really thinking about it or allowing it to be reflective. Consider looking at your current process as a team. It is easy to simply ‘do’ tasks, especially in the current climate. This may be a good time though for stepping back and asking – does it work?”

How often do colleagues get chance to talk with leaders? “You cannot overemphasise the value of colleagues talking with leaders about their job and why they do what they do. Give teachers, and support staff, the opportunity to regularly talk about their ambitions, their hopes for the job and their trajectory as professionals. This is more important now than ever.”


  • Sean Harris is a doctoral researcher with Teesside University investigating the ways in which system leaders can help to address poverty and educational inequality in schools. He is also a teacher and middle leader and writes regularly for SecEd. You can follow him @SeanHarris_NE. Read his previous best practice articles for SecEd via http://bit.ly/2KlDQqc


Further information & resources

  • Ambition Institute is a charity dedicated to supporting school leaders and teachers. For more details about the Transforming Teaching programme, visit www.ambition.org.uk/schools-staffordshire-transforming-teaching
  • Day et al: Ten strong claims about successful school leadership, NCSL, 2010.
  • Hopkins: Realising the potential of system leadership. In Improving School Leadership Vol 2: Case studies on System Leadership, Pont, Nusche & Hopkins (eds), OECD, 2008.
  • Leithwood: School leadership in the context of accountability policies, International Journal of Leadership in Education (4,3), 2001.
  • Louis & Robinson: External mandates and instructional leadership: School leaders as mediating agents, Journal of Educational Administration (50,5), 2012.
  • Pont, Nusche & Moorman: Improving School Leadership Vol 1: Policy and Practice, OECD, 2008.


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