by Chris Richards

Performance Management is a phrase that tends to evoke many reactions, perhaps even a feeling of dread. Before reading any further, I’d encourage you to take a pen and paper to note down what words and phrases come to mind when you think of ‘Performance Management’ and ‘Teacher Wellbeing’. Then try to decide on a definition for what these terms mean, considering as much what they mean for you in practice as what they should mean in theory. Now, keep those responses in mind as you consider the following anecdotes:

  • A teacher being told they wouldn’t be observed in the first round of observations at a new school. Then, being observed in that first round with 24 hours’ notice.
  • A teacher agreed an observation focus with the observer before the class. In the feedback, the observer said that since the teacher did that aspect well, he chose to focus on something they hadn’t done well and gave feedback on that instead.
  • A teacher who had to hunt down an observer to find out when they could receive feedback.
  • A teacher was assigned a mentor who didn’t know why the mentoring was necessary.
  • A teacher being left in tears after being told that their students had made insufficient progress during a 20-minute observation.

These situations are examples of poor practice in performance management. More distressingly, they are all real and are examples of how to undermine teacher wellbeing.

What is wellbeing? When I gave a presentation on this topic for IATEFL TDSIG last year, I looked up images of wellbeing on Google. The majority of the results showed yoga or meditation, quite a few had granola with yoghurt, but the one that caught my eye was an image of a man spraying himself with deodorant. Wellbeing is about self-care, and I suppose it is difficult to visualise this without falling back on the stereotypical images I have just listed. Wellbeing is about being motivated to look after yourself. Diener, Osishi and Lucas (2023) define it as ‘the presence of positive emotions, a lack of negative emotions, and a sense of overall life satisfaction’ (quoted in Mercer and Gregersen, 2020).

With wellbeing thus defined, let’s turn to performance management (PM), which I define as the ongoing collaboration between an employee and their line manager in which they use support, reflective dialogue, and explicit direction in order to improve work product over time.

I ought to unpack this rather dense sentence before we proceed! I’ll start with ‘line manager’ - a term that might be unfamiliar to some in ELT. This could refer to a Director of Studies, Academic Manager, Senior Teacher, or anyone else in a position of superiority at the institution and who is in a position to manage the performance of employees.

Next, I say ‘ongoing’ because this is not a process that starts and stops. PM isn’t a meeting; PM isn’t an observation.

‘Collaboration’ is there because PM is about working together, not alone. It isn’t done to an employee, but rather done with them.

Performance management is not peer coaching. There is a power dynamic and I suggest that this is necessary. This isn’t about wielding power; this is simply acknowledging that it’s there. If we are line managing someone, they should expect our ‘support’ as a given, and it should be given from the very beginning of the working relationship.

‘Reflective dialogue’ means that the employee is guided and helped towards understanding their own strengths as well as weaknesses through reflective conversation. By contrast, there will sometimes be ‘explicit direction’ because the employee in a given institution might need explicit instruction in what needs to be different or improved in order to function well in that organisation. For example, if a teacher offers their students a five-minute break in the middle of the lesson, but this runs counter to school policy, explicit direction will need to be offered by the line manager.

Crucially, PM happens ‘over time’ and this takes us back to the beginning of my definition, back to ‘ongoing’.

So how can we apply this definition to our typical PM tasks while not losing sight of employee wellbeing?

Let’s consider observations, Continuous Professional Development (CPD), and meetings.

Firstly, let’s consider observations and the inconvenient truth that observations can disempower our teachers.

If our observation practices strip teachers of their agency, we are likely to demotivate them and this is conducive to neither teacher wellbeing nor good performance. So observation needs to make room for the teacher’s voice and their agency.

I suggest allowing teachers to choose the lesson they want observed and ask them what they want the focus to be. Making such allowances can reduce the stress that surrounds observations, but at the same time, the line manager might find it impossible - because of timetabling issues, say - to accommodate the choice. In the first observation of a teacher, you might need to be a little more in control of the process anyway, either because a teacher who is new to your institution is unfamiliar with their classes, or because you might decide they need feedback on a class that has already provided the institution with feedback about the teacher’s performance. There is a lot that can go into the choice of which class to observe, especially at the start of the year.

With established teachers or after initial observations, I would argue that it’s desirable to empower the teacher to take more control of being observed. I want to do observation with them, and not to them. So, ahead of time, I ask teachers to complete a short pre-observation reflection which I use during the lesson. This reflection tells me the context of the lesson/group, it tells me why the teacher chose that group/lesson for the observation and what they want me to look for, it asks them what their previous development target was, and how I’ll see evidence of their progress in the observed lesson this time.

This form is designed to help the teacher feel in control of the process and oblige them to think about the criteria their lesson is being evaluated against. After the lesson, and before we look at our feedback, the teacher completes a second reflection which is designed to guide them towards thinking about their lesson positively and what they would do differently if they could teach the lesson again. This means that they come to the feedback session ready to discuss their lesson in a constructive, critical way. They are effectively given control of that conversation and I often ask teachers to talk me through their reflection and use that as the cue for dialogue. One little tweak you can make to giving feedback is to do this in the classroom in which the lesson was taught. This changes the atmosphere - if feedback occurs in the manager’s office, it is hard to avoid the power dynamic that the room implies - and it also helps the teacher visualise the lesson. If the feedback concerns how they moved around the room, being in that room with them can make the feedback more tangible.

When I provide their written feedback, I always also provide a stepping stone for the target, which might be an article to read, a webinar to watch, or a colleague to observe, for example.

I mentioned criteria: what a “good lesson” looks like at your institution should be transparent. Ideally, these criteria will not just be shared with teachers, but be written with their collaboration or buy-in. Teachers should know why observers are looking for these things. We should also ensure that they have access to the blank template of the document we are using; they need to know what we are looking at and how we are recording our thoughts when we are sitting at the back of their classroom. If they do, then they are in a position to be reflecting about the lesson in the same terms and thus have the tools to feel more positively about it.

Secondly, let’s look at CPD, which can consist of so many activities. Studying for a DELTA or dipTESOL or MA TESOL is CPD. So is reading an article in the IH Journal or Modern English Teacher (and so is writing one!). Training to be a speaking examiner, writing some materials to use with students, listening to a podcast, and attending a webinar or conference are all further examples. If a teacher ever says that they can’t think of a way to engage with CPD, it’s likely that they have misunderstood the scope of the term.

One idea that you could implement is to expect teachers to keep a record of their CPD activities and what they got from them. While this sounds like an annoying bureaucratic exercise, what I am really suggesting is that teachers see for themselves how much CPD they are actually doing. I also want them to note down their takeaways so that the time they invested wasn’t wasted.

We often think of CPD as something external to our institution: courses and conferences. These are things teachers can opt into, but perhaps they need to be paid for, and perhaps they take place in a teacher’s free time and for which they don’t get time in lieu.

This type of CPD is very valuable, but it might not be accessible due to cost and/or timing. If you have childcare responsibilities, a weekend event might be impossible to attend. We can seek to make CPD internal and for it to take place during paid working time.

One approach is to programme short CPD sessions where the DoS talks about a topic that had come up from an observation or that the teachers themselves have chosen; the teachers could opt in or out of attending, meaning that they are not obliged to attend a session about their acknowledged strength. I know that at International House Bielsko-Biała, to take one example, second semester CPD sessions alternate between mandatory attendance and optional attendance - if the teachers so wish, CPD can be enjoyed on a weekly basis, but for those with other time pressures to consider, the volume is suitably reduced.

Alternatively, teachers themselves might give feedback on an external event they’ve been to or present on something which has been identified as one of their strengths. Teachers might all read an article from a teaching magazine or journal and then sit together to discuss it over a cup of tea.

Finally, we come to the dreaded performance management review meeting!
If done well, these meetings can contribute to positive teacher wellbeing. I designed a form, to be completed by the line manager during the end-of-term review meeting, with a specific set of questions to elicit positive reflections from teachers. I ask questions about a recent lesson or an activity that had gone well. I ask what progress is being made on the observation target and what (if any) additional support is needed. We also always talk about longer term ideas in terms of training and career development.

As a result of these meetings, one of my teachers recently had their first article published and is currently preparing their first conference presentation.

In conclusion, I’ve seen how attending an in-person conference can put a spring in a teacher’s step as a result of a new-found enthusiasm for a specific aspect of teaching. I’ve seen a teacher build their skills over the course of two academic years, responding to observation feedback each term. I’ve seen a teacher’s joy when a publication accepted their article and a conference accepted their abstract.
Performance management, done well, is powerful and transformative, and benefits teacher wellbeing. It can also avoid scenarios like those listed at the beginning of this article. As one final act of reflection, return to those situations now, and consider how each one could have been avoided based on what you have read and thought about here. And those definitions that you were asked to consider? I’m sure that whatever you came up with is suitable - I now suggest you sit down with your teachers, over a cup of tea perhaps, and see if they have come to the same conclusions!

Author Biography

Chris has a PGCE in secondary English and a Master’s degree in Education and has been working in education since 2010. Between 2015 and 2023 he worked in ELT, most recently as the Director of Studies at BRAYS English in Getafe, where he worked on teacher development and curriculum design. Since September 2023, he’s been working at the British Council School in Madrid.