It's Time to Stop Doing Appraisal

Let’s face it, traditional forms of lesson observations and evaluation are often done ‘to’ and not ‘with’ educators. This creates a feeling of disconnection from the school, with untimely feedback, dissatisfaction with the process or outcome intensifying this, and often resulting in a complete breakdown in relationships. The educator quietly quits and begins looking for a new job and eventually lets their administration know they will be leaving. It’s at this point that the administration will ask what they can do to help the teacher stay. Unfortunately, in 90% of cases, there is nothing the administrator can do as the relationship is irreversibly broken and the decision to leave was made a long time ago.

The feeling of dread around observation and evaluation isn’t all one-sided. A recent survey reveals that, after firing or terminating a teacher contract, administrators most dislike undertaking appraisal. Ironically, they fear the conflict that appraisal brings and the loss of time and resources to an ineffective process. In fact, 80 percent of administrators report that their appraisal processes are ineffective. They neither provide the much-needed development opportunities promised, nor do they leave the school with a talent pool that is equipped to face future challenges.

Clearly, the appraisal process is broken and needs to change in order to better meet the needs of both the school and educators. The question is how? To better answer this question, we should return to the desires that underlie appraisal and examine how these can be achieved without causing disengagement or conflict.

So why do schools do appraisal? In theory, the simple answer is to create greater talent density, in doing so improving the efficiency of the school by making sure that the best possible efforts of the individual are made to achieve school objectives. This can be broken down into a series of objectives for appraisal:

  1. To assist in decisions around promotion, career development or layoffs;
  2. To ensure individual objectives and performance are aligned with school objectives;
  3. To assist in decision-making around salary increases and incentives;
  4. To inspire the educator to reach for more challenging goals and performance and, in doing so, push the school to greater heights of success;
  5. To improve relationships and communication with administrators and middle leaders;
  6. To raise educator awareness of their current performance level;
  7. To provide feedback to facilitate improved future performance;
  8. To assess training and development needs and plan for development opportunities.

These aims should lead to stronger schools and stronger relationships; however, this often isn’t the case. So, where does it all start to go wrong? The simple fact is that, historically, many schools have undertaken the appraisal process with a mindset that doesn’t meet its laudable objectives. Believing that they have a deep or almost bottomless talent pool, their objective has become to ‘rank’ employees and then ‘yank,’ or fire, the lowest performing employees. This is done with the simple belief that once space is created, it will be filled with better talent through the recruitment process and then school resources can be used to develop the best talent. However, the fact is that talent pools aren’t nearly as deep as many schools imagine and while failing to appoint better employees, they also break psychological safety and trust within the school.

Schools with this mindset often use a confidential or more ‘secretive’ approach to appraisal where information is gathered about the teacher and they are often not informed of outcomes or are informed when it is far too late to do anything about it. In short, appraisal is done ‘to’ and not ‘with’ the educator, often creating a ‘dog eat dog’ or ‘lone wolf’ approach from teachers who wish to progress in the school or in their careers. This both undermines interpersonal relationships and the effectiveness of teams and school success. This often means that school success hits the glass ceiling of good performance and is not able to progress to the great performance levels that can only be realized through agile and adaptive teams working collaboratively to achieve school objectives.

If a desire for teacher development and stronger school performance is the mindset that underlies our approach to appraisal, then we must ensure that a more open approach to appraisal is taken. In a more open approach, the appraisal is done collaboratively with the educator, raising awareness of their strengths and weaknesses as well as their achievement and areas for development. Its aim is to provide a foundation for development planning, goal setting and to ensure that the educator has a more reflective approach to their performance.

This style of appraisal is more likely to be more appropriate for the shallow talent pools we find ourselves faced with; to be more engaging for the educator; and to create a positive psychological environment. It’s important to remember that a positive psychological environment isn’t about a job for life or that I can’t lose my job for bad performance. It’s a simple recognition that to improve talent density in a shallow talent pool, we need to seek to improve performance through high challenge and high support. In other words, if you are performing at an appropriate level, with a good attitude, we will invest in your development and future with the school.

At the heart of this approach is a simple understanding: a mediocre educator will lower team performance by 30 - 40 percent. Therefore, mediocrity isn’t acceptable! At the moment they join the school, a teacher undertakes to do their job well and the school undertakes to invest in their ongoing development. This relationship is at the heart of effective appraisal as high challenge and high support are provided in a collaborative environment that is more engaging for the teacher and leads to improved school performance. Unfortunately, many schools lack the documentation to support this transparent approach:

  1. A clear job description and competency standards for the role. Bring transparency to performance expectations and during appraisal support objective discussion around competency-related development targets.
  2. Clear performance standards/benchmarks. These bring clarity to the expected outcomes of the role and during the appraisal process provide objectivity around performance development targets. 
  3. A Common Values Framework for the school. This framework outlines the core values that bind the school and behaviors, at each level of the school, that will be observed if an educator is living the school’s values and striving to deliver on the mission and vision of the school.

This more open approach is likely to be much more engaging for the educator as its collaborative and transparent approach leads to goals that have been co-created with the teacher and are more likely to align with their inner values. However, it still does little to address the manager’s fear of conflict or the untimely nature of appraisal feedback.

If we want to address these issues, once again we need a change in mindset. The traditional appraisal mindset is of annual meetings with the role of the administrator being to ‘police’ the system and act as a gateway to promotion or exit from the school. This dynamic leads to high tension and conflict as future career progress and relationships with the administrator are based on infrequent, high-stakes meetings. It is therefore critical to the appraisal relationship that interactions between the administrator and educator become more frequent and developmental in nature, giving feedback in a timely manner when it can still lead to increased performance. One way to achieve this mindset shift is to take a coaching approach to educator development as we seek regular interaction that leads to continuous incremental improvement (Thomson, 2014):

  1. Administrators offer a challenging assignment and ask the teacher open questions;
  2. With the support of the administrator, the teacher thinks through the dynamics of the assignment;
  3. The teacher becomes more aware and takes greater responsibility;
  4. The teacher is more motivated, delivers more and feels more engaged;
  5. The teacher learns, develops confidence and greater self-belief;
  6. The administrator is able to set increasingly challenging assignments and the cycle begins again.

This shift in mindset can be somewhat daunting for administrators. However, it can be overcome with training to upskill administrators and their coaching skills. Particularly focusing on the core skills of listening, questioning, feedback and providing challenge and support. Some great supports for administrators are protocols and conversation patterns. These provide a support for the administrator as they develop their skills and also provide transparency to the goal-setting process.

Below are the questions for an initial goal setting conversation in the context of the goals that the team has set to meet its targets or objectives (Percy, 2022):

  • What goals will you set for yourself?
  • What are your strengths or past experiences that can be leveraged?
  • What challenges can you see as potentially blocking success?
  • What resources do you need to overcome these challenges?
  • What development or learning is needed to deliver on this goal?
  • What are the next steps that need to be taken to achieve this goal?
  • How can I support you in carrying out your plan?
  • Can anybody else in the organization support your learning or help you to achieve your objectives? 
  • How will you reflect and monitor progress toward achieving this goal?
  • Is there anything that the team or I can do to help you?
  • More generally, is there anything that you would like to discuss or tell me?
  • How are your relationships with the team?
  • More generally, how are you and is there anything I can do to help you?

The administrator should then meet to regularly review goal progress with the teacher. The following question patterns may help with this conversation (Percy, 2022):

  • How would you describe your progress toward achieving the goal?
  • Given the current context, is this goal still appropriate?
  • What are the next steps that need to be taken to achieve this goal?
  • What challenges can you see as potentially blocking success?
  • What further resources do you need to overcome these challenges?
  • What further development or learning is needed to deliver on this goal?
  • How can I support you in carrying out your plan?
  • Can anybody else in the organization support your learning or help you to achieve your objectives?
  • How will you continue to reflect and monitor progress to achieving this goal?
  • More generally, is there anything that you would like to discuss or tell me?
  • How are your relationships with the team?
  • More generally, how are you and is there anything I can do to help you?

These questions exemplify some of the important shifts in mindset and behavior from the administrator that impact the core of the appraisal process and are likely to lead to better relationships along with improved performance. Firstly, it is now clear that the manager is taking a role of support and seeking to make connections across the organization to support the employee. Secondly, the emphasis is now not just on individual development, but on ensuring that individual development is taking place within the context of the needs of the team and ensuring organizational learning. Finally, there is an expectation of ongoing discussion and support that builds deeper relationships of rapport and trust between administrators and teachers.

So how can TeamOptix help? Well, TeamOptix provides quick and effortless mechanisms for gathering data, at a time that is right for the teacher, and ensures that the effectiveness of support strategies and career development steps are clear and transparent. Having this data at your fingertips means that it is easy to support an employee where they are right now and to provide appropriately challenging development opportunities. Through transparent team and individual goal tracking, we move beyond an individual, isolating approach, to building a team of teams that drives organizational success.

Changing your appraisal mindset is a critical part of moving your school from good to great. A critical element of this shift is to stop ‘doing appraisal’ and shifting to meaningful, ongoing conversations and career development opportunities. We all want to grow and develop meaningful relationships in the workplace and collaborative approaches to appraisal and development is a cornerstone to this. As these relationships and approaches become embedded, we also find that educators and teams are more highly engaged and have a stronger desire for team and schoolwide success. 

What is an Intervetion?