Managing without managers

Firstly, let me apologise for my lengthy absence from this blog.  I have had half a post completed for a month now and haven’t had the chance to get it completed.  I will do it and soon.

In the meantime, today I located online one of my favourite management articles of all time, which I thought I really ought to share with everyone who is interested

It is Ricardo Semler’s “Managing without Managers” and can be found here

OK, it’s not about teaching or ELT or even education in general, but I think it can tell us a lot all the same.  Semler also has a great writing style along with great ideas (and obviously great business success). Read it. And then, if you can, get hold of his book “Maverick” (published long before Sarah Palin turned the word maverick into one with a hugely negative connotation)

A couple of great soundbites (among many)

Close your door. Oh, I know you have an open door policy, but don’t be so literal

In a word, we hire adults, and then we treat them like adults

Finally, for anyone who happens upon this post in the next few days, I am facilitating an online discussion on performance management in ELT from Monday 15th February, to which everyone is invited to participate (or even just to lurk). Sign up for the ELT Managers Yahoo Group here.

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The Role of Teacher Observations

One of the big issues in the annual work cycle of many a DoS or other manager of teachers is the teacher observation. This is usually part of the annual performance review/appraisal system, and probably also involves a meeting where the DoS/Academic Manager gets together with the teacher to discuss their performance and possibly set goals for the year ahead. Most people have probably been through this process from at least one end – as teacher or other employee and/or as manager.

The teacher observation as a part of this process, usually involves teacher and manager agreeing a class to be observed, the teacher providing a lesson plan, and, after the class, a discussion (which may involve some form of documentary process, whereby the manager writes down her comments and the teachers signs off on his agreement/understanding of those comments).

But how useful is this? How effective is it as a way of managing performance? Obviously teacher observations which are specifically developmental can be an extremely useful tool for professional development – anyone who has ever been a teacher will have gained a great deal by being observed by a teacher trainer or a peer or even a manager – and I definitely believe in the teacher observation in this regard. But as part of “performance management”? I’m much much less convinced (well to be honest, I think it’s a bad idea altogether).

Some reasons why I think it’s a bad idea:

  1. However much you make it clear that the object of the observation is developmental and not judgmental, by making it part of the annual (or semi-annual, or whatever regular interval) performance review cycle, it will inevitably take on at least some judgmental aspects (both from the teacher’s and the manager’s perspective)
  2. How useful is it to review a teacher’s performance based on one (almost inevitably unrepresentative) hour out of their annual workload of possibly 1000 hours?
  3. It’s time consuming.  For the teacher – who has to produce more formalised lesson plans, and has to go through the pre and post lesson meeting; and for the manager – who will be looking at least 2 hours time (for a one hour lesson) for each teacher under her management – even before the actual performance review process which will  require another couple of hours per teacher (the latter is time well spent, the former less so).  Even with as few as ten teachers under a DoS’s supervision, the time commitment is pretty high.
  4. In some cases the manager has not come to her role through teaching – in this case it clearly makes very little sense to observe teachers and be able to make any meaningful suggestions or analysis.
  5. Very often the teacher observation as part of the performance management process just exists because it always has been done this way, and nobody has thought to question it.  And it’s always worth challenging those mental models!

So, if I’m proposing that we drop the teacher observation from the performance review, I guess I should propose a replacement.  As the manager of a very large project to help a major Brazilian language school “reculture” itself, this was something we looked at, and what came out of the process was, I think, an excellent alternative solution to the standard review.  A working committee of teachers from all of the school’s branches was formed, and they worked together to propose something which they felt would be a better performance management system – and one that would be acceptable to both teachers and managers.  What they eventually settled on (and which became the new system) was something akin to the portfolio system of student assessment.  Teachers, over the year, were required to keep a portfolio.  This was designed to reflect their successes, problems, development, reflections – crucially whatever they wanted to take from the year.  Lessons that had been a great success, workshops attended, activities that had worked, activities that had not worked (and reflections as to why not), student work that had touched them in some way, whatever they wanted to remember and take from the year.  As part of the performance review meeting with their line manager, teachers presented these portfolios, sharing things that they wanted to share with their boss that came out of the year.  As it was an ongoing process and not just an annual thing, the portfolio further encouraged teachers to think and reflecting on their work constantly.  And the manager got to hear stories and anecdotes from the classroom that she would otherwise not have heard.  Both teachers and managers felt that the new system made a lot more sense and was of much greater value.

That’s not to say that this is all the meeting should involve – the idea of setting professional development goals for the year and reflecting on last year’s goals in a formalised way, is I think also very important, as are many other areas of performance management systems.  But as a replacement for the teacher observation section of that process, I think it is worth considering.

Just to be absolutely clear, I think well structured teacher observations as part of teacher development are fantastically useful  (both for observer and teacher), and there’s another blog post in the question of how to set up a successful peer observation system (for another time).

So, what do you think?  Teacher observations as a management tool – useful or not?  If you think they are important, why, and how should they best be set up?  Any and all comments gratefully received!