Experienced teachers know from the moment the classroom door opens in September and those unfamiliar faces troop in, until the clock ticks down the final few seconds of that last A level, everything they prepare and organise is entirely provisional.
As a young teacher I once planned an entire term’s lessons in advance. Every single lesson, in detail. It took me about a week of my summer vacation.
Things went to plan for about a fortnight or so and then the varying needs of the children, their differences in ability, motivation and peer dynamics intervened. I had to abandon it and go back to the practice I’d been happily working to previously: planning one week’s worth of teaching in advance. At least I learned an invaluable lesson about performance management.
A week at a time was the lesson-planning timescale I adopted for the rest of my classroom career because it seemed to me to be about right. I could expand on things as necessary but repeat stuff, too.
No doubt other teachers have different timescales that work for them. I’m equally confident they know, once teaching gets underway, they will get no time at all to sit and genuinely reflect on what they might personally do to improve their own performance.
Performance management constraints
I think professionals who don’t work in schools, especially busy ones, those who rely on their PA and for whom email is just a nuisance, genuinely struggle with understanding the type of time constraints teachers work to every day.
I think one of these was sitting next to me on the train last week. He had 36,546 unread emails on his iPhone. Even a brain surgeon’s timetable is flexible: a teacher’s is implacable.
Consequently, I’ve never seen a performance management strategy in any school that is even remotely like those I’ve worked with in business.
Successful businesses are wisely also in the business of motivating their employees. They have enviable freedom of action when it comes to deciding what will drive higher sales figures, or better productivity. Some are quite imaginative about this. Most dangle more money in front of people, which is the most conventional strategy because it seems to work.
Far more interestingly for schools, it’s naive to think businesses really know how to improve any individual’s performance. The best businesses invest in training, sure, but like the retired British Ambassador I met recently who told me when he joined the civil service from Oxford where he’d studied English, they sent him off to learn Japanese for two years…because they needed someone in Japan, training’s usually more of a punt than a serious shot at goal.
What they do at their best is far more pragmatic. They identify and agree on achievable expectations, for groups and individuals, on the basis that each employee will receive a clear reward for meeting personal or group targets.
Manage it yourself
However imaginative they might try to be, school leaders don’t have the skills or the budgets to do anything even remotely similar. So pretending to act like businesses in terms of performance management, especially by people who have no credible commercial experience, is the worst of both worlds.
So on the cusp of a new academic year, when most classroom teachers are pleasantly tanned, relaxed and have just about got accustomed to the idea that they are at last on holiday, my advice to all of you who care about your performance next year is…manage it yourself. Easy to say, but what does it involve?
· Assume everyone you teach is capable of much more than you’ve been told they are.
· Teach them, first and foremost, because what happens in your classroom is what matters. Absolutely everything else is mere scaffolding.
· Make sure they understand that success in examinations is their responsibility: not yours. It is their future you are helping them to realise.
· Appreciate that your personal health and wellbeing play a crucial part in your ability to perform well and something about it. Many schools have excellent sports facilities and why they aren’t more intelligently used to support teachers’ health and wellbeing has always baffled me. I once worked at a comprehensive school where, when I asked if I could use the gym after lessons I was told, categorically, "no". It wasn’t for teaching staff.
· Find and nurture relationships with colleagues whose skills you admire and who you can learn from, inside, but also crucially outside the school in which you work.
· Never rely on your employer to offer professional development opportunities for you. Find them and pursue them yourself.
· Make sure your managers know about every initiative you take, every notable success you have and every significant achievement by any of the children you teach. Tell them what you are doing and why.
· Where managers have whole-school responsibilities that have a direct impact on your ability to perform well – for example, determining the way children behave around the building and in lessons – insist that they fulfill them.
There’s no shortage of intrinsic motivation in the teaching profession or education. I’ve seen far too many people, from ministerial level down, so hopelessly at sea in it they don’t even bother to throw the baby out, they grab it by the throat and shove its head under the water, forgetting completely all they were supposed to be doing was emptying the bath in the first place.
All kinds of external organisations exploit this characteristic of the profession, not necessarily to anyone’s benefit but their own.
Managing your own performance means tweaking that intrinsic motivation just a little in your own, personal direction, because doing so will inevitably benefit those you teach.
Joe Nutt is an educational consultant and author
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