From learning walks to online drop-ins: technology and performance management of teachers during the pandemic

22 November 2021

“…at least on the walk in the classroom you can see (them)”.

As teaching moved online during Covid, performance management moved with it.  After an initial hiatus during the first months of lockdown in 2020, the performance management processes that have been increasing in the teaching profession for a number of years have rapidly re-emerged, often in adapted forms that utilise the new online environment.

While most teachers accept and recognise the value of some performance management processes, many also feel that they are being continuously observed and monitored, and that processes have been co-opted by management for other purposes.

We spoke to more than 50 teachers, school leaders and union representatives during the pandemic to understand the impact these performance management practices had on teachers’ wellbeing.

The impact of performance management on teachers’ motivation

Most teachers face regular appraisals, graded lesson observations, impromptu ‘learning walks’ and lesson drop-ins, as well as performance-related pay review meetings, and externally driven accountability targets to meet.

While the need for some performance management is understood, research suggests that these processes can also have a range of negative effects, such as increasing stresseroding autonomy and impacting negatively on their well-being.  This is particularly the case when teachers perceive that such systems are driven by managerialism, and are detached from what they see as the most important elements of teaching – learning, building relationships with pupils and ensuring ongoing assessment of their progress. This is something that we have identified in our own research.

During the pandemic however, it appears that teachers may have had some initial respite from performance management processes. Being at the frontline of responses throughout COVID-19 – whether physically working in the school buildings, working remotely, or both – teachers and their managers have had to contend with unclear and rapidly changing guidance from government around safety, PPE, COVID testing, school closures and re-openings, social distancing measures, ventilation, and GCSE and A-level assessment. In attending to this, it appears that performance management processes were (at least initially) deprioritised by schools. However, there is also some suggestion that it has continued, albeit in modified forms.

Lockdown and the pause in performance management processes

In the first period of lockdown, in our research with teachers, unions, HR managers and school leaders, we found that most performance management processes did indeed pause in schools. OFSTED suspended school inspections, many regular lesson observations were stopped, and individual performance appraisal meetings were postponed. Inevitably, the key priorities for teachers and schools focused on keeping children safe, looking after pupils’ wellbeing and maintaining learning.

For many teachers, this provided welcome freedom from the feeling that they were constantly being monitored. This came at a time when their workloads were intensifying, where stress levels were increasing, where many were also grappling with home schooling their own children, and where they had to get to grips with providing remote teaching, using new technologies:

‘So from March ‘til June we worked together, online, and it did take a lot of pressure off…. There were other added pressures, however, because we had to make videos and, and things like that…So that was all new learning for us, but…what’s going to happen next?’ (Primary teacher).

The rapid return of performance management in schools

‘(Initially it was)…’Yes, powerpoints are fine… Oh, now we want you to add sound to it now we want you to appear on the PowerPoint as well’…then senior leaders started chipping in looking at our lessons and reporting back.  It was like a learning walk online…but at least on the walk in the classroom you can see (them)’ (Secondary teacher)

This break from performance management was, however, short-lived for many teachers. Many of those that we interviewed in late 2020 and 2021 reported that performance management processes had been quickly reinstated, with technology being used to help school leaders monitor staff during the pandemic, and with the new world of online learning being used to justify new forms of performance management:

‘…we had performance management last half term as, sort of as normal really…which I was a bit surprised about at the moment really but there you go…I can’t even remember what my objectives are now.” (Secondary teacher).

Practice did vary from school to school, with leaders in some cases devoting considerable resources and personal energy to insulate their staff from the return of some performance management processes in 2021. With considerable uncertainty remaining over pupil assessment, teaching delivery, COVID testing and pupil infection rates in schools, these leaders took the view that there remained higher priorities in schools than performance management metrics. However, these leaders also recognised that their abilities to continue to halt performance management processes were also limited, particularly when these were driven and dictated by external accountability regimes.

Teachers also pointed to a counter-dynamic in some schools, with some leaders actively pushing for a rapid return to ‘performance management as usual’ as quickly as possible. Within one academy, for example, teachers had been required to add all their senior management staff to every online teaching team so that they could drop in anytime to observe lessons. When challenged by unions, it was argued that this was to monitor pupil behaviour, respond to parental complaints about online learning, or to measure attendance.

‘There were managers who felt that they simply were not doing the jobs unless they were monitoring people… ‘I can’t walk around lessons because there aren’t any. And I must find a way of kind of carrying out my role’. Then they finally found a way of doing it, which was to monitor lessons online’ (Regional Union officer).

What next, for post-pandemic teaching?

With face-to-face teaching having now displaced much remote learning in English/British Schools, the opportunity for schools to directly observe some aspects of teaching has receded. Whether other forms of digital observation and performance management will continue to be used remains to be seen.

Unions have called for a suspension of key elements of teachers’ performance management systems, as the effects of the pandemic in the sector continue to be felt. Yet our research highlights how performance management processes are deeply embedded within school structures. Whilst some performance management processes are necessary, and indeed welcomed by teachers, they can be problematic. The pandemic initially provided a very short-term reprieve from some of its elements, but its rapid return to classrooms signals its pervasive nature in the teaching profession.

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