Using Compassion to Rethink the Way We Evaluate Teacher Performance

Schools are the most stressful workplaces. In the UK, nearly 50 percent of teachers considered quitting last year. Pressure regarding performance was cited as one of the major causes of teachers' stress.

I had been involved in headteachers' performance management (HTPM) for a number of years as a governor and/or a trustee. Typically in the UK, teacher's performance appraisal is conceived as a form of judgment linked to salary award. This overall approach has attracted much criticism, for example, about the detrimental effect of performance appraisal within organizations. The overall intention to improve practice and enhance professional capabilities could easily get lost in the process.

A few years ago, I started working with a primary school headteacher, Marian (not her real name). She seemed concerned about utilizing a standard approach to HTPM which tends to involve forming objectives (often externally imposed) and judging how these are met by reviewing evidence. Marian went along with it, however, and remained passive and apparently defensive against any judgment. Two terms into the process, she continued to be withdrawn. So we arranged for an additional review meeting at the end of the second term. This time, we started by asking Marian to tell us about her life as a person and as a leader. She looked at us in surprise, but saw our genuine interest and sincerity in listening, and without further hesitation, she began to tell her stories. What transpired in Marian's narrative was her deep commitment to aligning personal values with those underpinning the school's overall ethos. These are human-centered, favor co-creation and co-learning and at the same time ensure rigor within an overall supportive structure.

This alignment was very important for Marian, and she found that the standard HTPM processes tended to conflict with both her personal and professional values. For her, value-based leadership is key to the flourishing of the school as a learning community. Her view of leadership as not limited to the headteacher and the senior management team, but is inclusive of self-leading for all teachers and pupils. When all are living these values, what is apparent within a school can be a nurturing culture characterized by love, care, respect, trust, relationship and reciprocity.

So working with Marian, we re-focused our HTPM approach and structured the review as a journey of inquiry aimed at supporting the headteacher's growth-paths and the growth of the school community. Instead of performance management, we called this inquiry an appreciation of practices. Correspondingly, Marian became more open and reflective about her work, had courage to be more self-critical, was more daring in taking a risk when setting up her own objectives. Knowing it being an appreciation of her work, she was not afraid of being vulnerable or making mistakes in exploring new things. The HTPM was now empowering and Marian has indeed led the school from strength to strength.

Also, as the review team, we learned that the HTPM itself can be considered as a process in leadership. Five principles have since guided my work with other headteachers:

The first is adopting appropriate lenses through which to inquire into practices. If the inquiring lenses are based on appreciation rather than judgment, then there are more opportunities for creative and generative potential to develop. The second is listening. Compassionate and appreciative listening is crucial in creating a safe space where we feel it OK to be ourselves and even to be vulnerable in order to support each other. The third is integrity. Integrating our inner sense of who we are and what we value with our outer actions in the world is an important aspect of value-based leadership. The fourth is care/caring. Care is to act upon love and compassion with a genuine feeling for oneself and for others, and for the goodness in our actions. The last is dialogue, which is linked to listening. Dialogue defines the way we are as a learning community and is relationship strengthening. In Marian's work, this shift to appreciating practices and value-based leadership has created a rippling effect -- she now takes the same approach to appreciating teachers' practice, and the teachers adopt a similar framework when reviewing the pupils' work.

It has only become clear to me that many organizations and institutions worldwide are practicing similar value-based leadership. Last week in Reykjavik, I joined over 230 leaders from around 40 countries in the Spirit of Humanity (SOH) Forum. This gathering aimed to explore explicitly the potential of core human values in bringing about effective change in leadership in different fields. In particular, the Forum was interested in the positive energy of love and compassion as one of the deepest and most enduring aspects of human nature and taking this potential to be a key for a sustainable economy, a caring society and a healthy environment. At the Forum, many leaders shared most inspiring stories about how core human values such love and compassion could be integrated in decision-making at all levels.

I also told this story of our work with Marian in a small group conversation during the Forum. To my greatest delight, Diana Whitney who has helped develop appreciate leadership was there listening. The stories Diana and her colleagues who practice appreciative inquiry made me realize that value-based leadership has already spread worldwide. This discovery is particularly reassuring in that I am more confident about the path we have taken in leading schools. At the same time, it is heartening and exciting to know that the Forum has created a community of practice so that we may seek mutual support and co-learning.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the Spirit of Humanity Forum, in conjunction with the conference of the same name that took place in Reykjavik, Iceland, last week. For more information on the Spirit of Humanity Forum, read here.

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